the pleasure of finding things out

photo by murilo morais via flickr

How different they are my three children. Perhaps because they are the blending of two who are from other sides of the world and whose minds were focused—during all those years before they even met, let alone conceived each of their treasures—in opposite directions. One thought of literature and art and philosophy, the other of chemistry and physics and mathematics. Seemingly opposite, yet not so at all.

You see I never knew until I fell in love with a scientist how incredibly creative science is, how a scientist must believe not only in logic but in the mystery of things. In their search to know they must, in a way, love, or at least discover the intricacies, the motivations, the personality and inner meaning of what they study or seek as if they were creating a character in a novel, or breaking down a scene in a film.

I mention the differences between my children (who are also very alike in many ways) because there is only one who is drawn to science. Today she told me, matter-of-factly, why she prefers watching documentaries (and she does, truly, and always has, totally of her own accord) as opposed to “scary” shows and movies. She said that the others make her not scared, but sad, and that documentaries “distract” her. Hardly distracted she seems to me as like a sponge she absorbs the often very technical and complex information she gleans from these shows.

No fears, she’s a lovely, happy child (Second in line to science documentaries is her love of the show “Cake Boss” and “It’s Me of the Dog”), but most definitely has a wisdom and intensity, an intellectual curiosity that is, at least to me, quite striking. It is as if she were anchored at our feet yet looks in two directions at once, towards the literal, the rational yet also towards the fantastic, the imagined.

Here are two passages I came across recently from Richard P. Feynman’s interview with the BBC as they appear in the book “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” They seem to illustrate this perfectly and are lovely portraits of my daughter and her father and how they see, of science and art and how the two are not so very different…

I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says—“you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting—it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it subtracts.

…all the kids were playing in the field and one kid said to me, “See that bird, what kind of bird is that?” And I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown throated thrush,” or something, “Your father doesn’t tell you anything.” But it was the opposite: my father had taught me. Looking at a bird he says, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s a … in Italian a …,” he says “in Chinese it’s a …, in Japanese a …,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

I love that… let’s look at the bird. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “the pleasure of finding things out

  1. This is amazing…what a brilliant web of human life components you weave together! I have never thought of scientists in the way you described them, but it is wonderful new imagery that you offer. A child who prefers documentaries because they distract? She must be a very bright and interesting girl.

    I have three kids as well. They are all so very different but there are certain characteristics that tie them to the same family. At times, being a mother feels like a juggling act. One is an artist who sometimes needs to hear permission and assurance that she can create…another is a student who needs me to recall those years of study so I can relate to her stress and workload (just wait until you get out of college I would like to say!) and the firstborn is soon to marry. I must remember how I felt when I was about to go down the aisle, moving far away from home as she will, to start a new life and family. Each one of them needs something for their phase of life. You cannot group them together as if you are a jukebox which only needs a few coins to spit out motherly advise.

    Lastly, I love “Now, let’s look at the bird.” How great is that? I will remember that for a good piece of time. Thanks for this terrific post!

    1. I can only guess from what I know of you via your blog that you are an incredibly wonderful mother… Three girls and one getting married, which I can imagine must be strange and wonderful at the same time for you! How wisely you put it: “each one of them needs something for their phase of life,” which of course is ever changing. Never a formula, winging it as we go along. That’s precisely what makes life so endlessly interesting, don’t you think? (albeit challenging at times).

  2. I’m so glad I found your blog through Atoll Annie! I can definitely relate to this post! We are a very mixed family, that is: a combination of writing and science, and I agree that science is extremely creative! All of us blended to some extent or another. My daughter sounds much like yours: in high school she would just as often read The Economist as CosmoGirl or Origin of Species. Now in college, she will be just as likely to watch The Bachelorette as she would study Organic Chem or watch History Channel biographies! It’s wonderful! My son is very similar, also a blend. And I love to write about science-y issues on my blog although I’m a writer; my husband is a software engineer. Great blog post!

    1. Thank you Julia. As they say, “any friend of Atoll Annie is a friend of mine.” (I do love her blog…)
      Maybe with in this techie world there are more and more “mixed” and “blended” people, which is a great thing!

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