Recently, while visiting a friend and her 13 year old, the same age I help teach science to, he said to me, “it must be so cool to be a scientist”. His comment caught me off guard. And the reason it knocked me off stride was that is was so astute. He could not have been more correct.
Last night I watched a NOVA special on ants. The renowned myrmecologist E.O.Wilson was the featured scientist. It would not be a stretch to call Dr. Wilson one of, if not THE, most important ecologists of our time. While his primary focus is on ants, his list of publications, books and investigations, on a wide variety of social and ecological subjects, is astounding. It would be a serious understatement to describe him as a genius. I tell you that, to tell you this: E.O. Wilson is a child at heart.
OK, to be honest I have never met the man. Yet, while watching him talk about ants; their incredible social structure, absolute dominance of most terrestrial environments, and the lessons we could learn, I was enthralled by his juvenile curiosity about the world around him. And herein lies the link to the comment about how cool it is being a scientist.
The foundation of the whole experience of being a scientist rests in the joy of being a child, of discovering the world around us and examining its components. It is a celebration of not knowing and the willingness to plunge head long into trying to find out. It is about synthesizing, deconstructing, learning, screwing things up, starting over, and moving forward, at whatever speed.
There are a number of times I have wanted to say to the children I teach, “enjoy this time and let it influence you”. What holds me back is the understanding that the message is more for me and my generation. My students are doing this naturally, even if it does not include paying attention in science class.
Adults, I sense, have forgotten the pleasure and fun in simple investigation. Of finding out what the obstacles to digging to China might be, of poking a stick into an ant colony, of microwaving Peeps. We can all be scientists, and science need not even be part of the equation. All it takes is a curiosity about something. Pick up a book by a new author, try a new roast of coffee, sign up to teach middle schoolers how to play the guitar. There is plenty to learn, and plenty to teach. We all have the coolness of being in us.