The Intersection

Back to The Beginning

Politics aside, one aspect of Hillary’s speech last Friday really resonated with me. She describes the feeling of looking up at the night sky for Sputnik as a young girl:

And my memory of that, of peering into the sky in our backyard in a suburb of Chicago, I don’t think we ever saw it although my friends claim that they had seen it, was so exciting that somehow we were connected to what that meant. And it was not only a thrill for a young girl, but it really did start me thinking.

i-5d9f51d208e6b57b72e82f3fc4d43808-little me.JPGI expect many of us have experienced that very same rush as children because we humans are born naturally curious animals. I’ve yet to encounter a first grader who’s not fascinated by science – just not necessarily aware of it. Bring up dinosaurs around most six year olds and they’ll be captivated in moments. ‘You mean ginormous ancestors of birds lived here? REALLY?!‘ Heck, two decades later, even I’m still mesmerized!

Science provides us the opportunity to ask why, to understand the world, and to figure out how things came to be the way they are. It beckons our imagination to run wild and encourages new ideas. It’s real and so alluring because many aspects of the field lie somewhere between wonder and exploration. Science remains the closest thing we have to actual magic beyond Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Now when I was a young girl, I’m positive I wasn’t labeling my curiosity as science – I had to maintain my reebok pump wearing, New Kids on the Block listening (gosh, I hope readers click on that), radical exterior of the late 80s – but I sure knew I liked planets and Mr. Wizard and whales and insects and everything under the sun and beyond… And I had a blast puzzling the big people with questions like, ‘If the universe is infinite but always expanding, what is it expanding into?’ and ‘What’s beyond space?‘ (I still want to find out so readers, please share your ideas in comments). Since adults couldn’t tell me, there was clearly something to all this science stuff and like Hillary experienced, it really did start me thinking.

Today, I’ve come a long way and proudly embrace my inner geek. I openly acknowledge science is the greatest frontier and always want to be involved figuring it out. One small piece of the great big puzzle that we’re all part of no matter what the scale. Last week’s speech reminds us to foster our innate drive for discovery so it’s not cast aside somewhere along the journey to adulthood. For I fear if we lose that, life will become terribly monotonous. Instead, celebrate being alive and having the freedom to explore, to ask questions, and to reawaken our natural curiosity. May we never lose the sense of wonder that Hillary has reminded us we had from the very beginning.


  1. #1 katie c
    October 9, 2007

    I love this post! I just showed my five yr old this picture today and now she wants to be a scientist ‘just like Sheril.’ She loves the images pictured too.

  2. #2 Fred Bortz
    October 9, 2007

    Right, on, Sheril and Katie.

    For readers, male or female, who want to meet an inspirational woman scientist, click my name to discover Heidi Hammel.

    I had the privilege of writing her biography for the “Women’s Adventures in Science” middle grade series for the Joseph Henry Press (a trade imprint of the National Academies Press).

    She’s an ordinary person by most measures but extraordinary in her ability to make the most of her interests and intelligence.

    The message of the book is that any kid who has the drive can grow up to be like her or like Sheril, who is on her way to great things.

  3. #3 razib
    October 9, 2007

    oh come on! let’s go all out, a page embed of NKOTB!

  4. #4 agnostic
    October 9, 2007

    Reebok Pumps, Mr. Wizard, New Kids on the Block — all that’s missing is Super Mario Brothers 3!

    At the same time, think of how many others watched Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye, and who are now accountants or PR reps, etc., with minimal curiosity about how the world works.

    Nerds have a tendency to think everyone else is like them, so that exposing others to the things that sparked their own interest in science — why, surely that will spark scientific curiosity in others too! Ah, if only…

    So, I don’t think these kinds of early fascinations with dinosaurs or a neat class demo are all that important to produce a scientist in adulthood. If your intelligence and personality traits bias you in that direction, it’ll be pretty hard not to end up doing something scientific as an adult. And even as a kid, you’ll take apart or study or explore whatever you can get your hands on, if you’re that type.

    However, the more specific choice that you make — marine biologist or algebraist — could show more of a role for chance. You met a really charismatic teacher of X, and so got interested in X, say.

  5. LOL. Just a little too young for New Kids on the Block, but I did get caught up in Backstreet!

  6. #6 George J
    October 9, 2007

    And it doesn’t matter how old you are; I watched Mr. Wizard in the sixties and couldn’t get enough. Looking back over the years, I recall the awe and excitement of the facinating unknow that could be explained. And while my path did not lead me to become a scientist, I still ponder the mysterious wonders of the world and unknowns of the universe. And I still have those same feelings of awe that I had as a child. So I will agree with Sheril and continue to “celebrate being alive and having the freedom to explore, to ask questions, and to reawaken our natural curiosity. May we never lose the sense of wonder”.

  7. #7 Samantha
    October 9, 2007

    This is all so true. And you were a cute little kid 🙂

  8. #8 Linda
    October 9, 2007

    A natural curiosity, a keen intellect, a sense of continous wonder… that makes you a very special person. I would venture to say it also makes your writings always interesting.

  9. #9 Linda
    October 9, 2007

    I forgot to also say that I echo Samantha’s sentiment; you are adorable.

  10. #10 David Miller
    October 9, 2007

    I’m assuming you mean Mr. Wizard on Nickelodeon. My sister and I watched that all the time. She was also the NKotB fan. Who was your favorite? Donnie? Jordan? 🙂

    One of my favorite questions to ask was – If you could travel faster than light, then could you look back at Earth with a powerful telescope and see yourself leaving?

    Hopefully, there will always be questions like the one my six-year old daughter asked the other day – “Did the first person have a belly button?”

  11. #11 Emily
    October 9, 2007

    When I was a kid, my parents had the darndest time putting up with my insatiable curiosity – vacations became fossil-hunting trips to Petosky and Ontario, weekends were spent at the zoo or museums, and most Christmases I asked not for dolls or games but for a barometer or microscope (yes, I claimed my geekdom even then). During college, I had the excellent fortune to work at the U of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History, where I got to relive my days as a kid who was fascinated by dinosaurs and all other science. I’m not sure where it is that the fun of science gets squeezed out – I suspect it is when field trips get canceled because there isn’t enough in the school budget, or parents don’t have the time to serve as chaperones – or perhaps when hands on becomes hands off in favor in lectures. In any case, I agree with Sheril – we must figure out how to harness the wonder we all felt as kids and sustain its enthusiasm if we are to regain standing as a nation of science-literate citizens.

  12. #12 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    October 10, 2007

    One of my favorite questions to ask was – If you could travel faster than light, then could you look back at Earth with a powerful telescope and see yourself leaving?

    Excellent question David. And sounds like your little girl’s following in dad’s footsteps…

    And Jordan was my favorite New Kid. Then Donnie. Good guess 😉

  13. #13 anonymous
    October 10, 2007

    ‘If the universe is infinite but always expanding, what is it expanding into?’ and ‘What’s beyond space?’

    I have a PhD in Astrophysics. I had more than one class in cosmology in grad school, but I still don’t have a satisfactory answer to either of these questions. Maybe I should ask for my money back!

  14. #14 Julie
    October 10, 2007

    I have had the chance to work with children 8-11 years old. I will never cease to be amazed by their curiosity and inspired by their questions. I think my third graders came up with more challenging questions than were on my comps. Any scientist who is feeling disillusioned should spend a day exploring science at an elementary school.

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