A new book has come to our house, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, edited by Sherry Turkle. It’s a book about scientific curiosity, and about the role objects play in the creative process. In it, Turkle collects essays written by scientists and by students at MIT over the course of 25 years. All were asked the same question: “Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?”
We first learned about Falling for Science while listening to NPR’s Robert Krulwich. He interviewed two of the writers from this collection, and as soon as I heard his first report about Easter eggs in a basket, I ran to my computer to see if the library had a copy of this book. If I’ve piqued your interest, start with that story, then go to the one about a young boy’s fascination with a stop sign and what it revealed about the order of the universe. As with all of Krulwich’s science stories, you have to listen to these, not just read the transcript. The way he puts the audio together is an essential part of the storytelling.
But back to this idea of objects that Turkle explores. We all had toys we loved, but not every toy was an object that led us to inquiry or fashioned us in some way. I got to thinking about the objects that fascinated me as a child. Objects that were important to who I have become, though I am not a scientist. I came up with three.
The first object was a glass prism. It was about 6 inches long, and I remember enjoying the heft of it and its good solid smoothness. I would press the prism to my eyes and walk drunkenly about the house through a distorted rainbow world. It was drug-free psychedelia, and it was so much fun. I don’t think I ever used the prism to cast rainbows on the wall the way many people do. I wanted it to transform the world.
The second object was a kaleidoscope: abstract, changing, beautiful, and interesting. It was something to enjoy and to think about—patterns and colors that moved in time and space. I still love them, though it is difficult to find kaleidoscopes with good optics and a sufficient variety of patterns. There’s a real art to choosing the pieces to put inside them. I find that most kaleidoscope software doesn’t appeal to me either. The images those programs make too often look like just the same algorithm expressed in different colors. It’s not the same as closing one eye and looking into the magic tunnel.
The third object I remember was a View-Master. I could spend hours with that bakelite viewer held to my head, clicking the lever with my right hand, sometimes going slowly so I could see the dark spaces between the rectangles of film. The stories the pictures came from were not the object. The experience was not about the narrative. I just wanted to peer into those miniature worlds presented in color and three dimensions. The View-Master was a hole in the fence or a door into a doll house. It was a window into a world.
I have wandered through many disciplines and occupations in my life, and with the exception of books themselves, there is no single object that sparked a passion and changed my life forever. But I still like Things-that-make-you-Think and Things-that-take-you-Somewhere-Else. And almost always, I love the light that comes through a colored pane. What about you?