Many roads to glory

10th December 2004 at 00:00
WHEN WE WERE KIDS: How a child becomes a scientist. Edited by John Brockman. Jonathan Cape pound;16.99

Candid accounts of top scientists' early lives provide little guidance for those who want to grow their own genius, writes Victoria Neumark

Parents spend a lot of time and money trying to give their children every advantage, whether it's playing soothing music to the little darling in the womb or spending huge sums on private education, music lessons, teeth straightening and psychotherapy. Judging by this collection of reminiscences from 27 famous scientists, they might as well not bother.

Although most of the scientists who share their candid memories in these pages claim to have had a happy childhood, there is little common ground in their stories and little guidance for parents or educators looking for the golden road to intellectual ability.

Some, such as Nicholas Humphrey, a British psychologist famous for his work on intelligence, or astronomer Janna Levin, come from a long line of eminent scientists or striving intellectuals and have memories of family get-togethers characterised by experiments, animated discussion and constant adventures in the life of the mind.

Others, such as epidemiologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or robotics whizz Rodney Brooks, grew up in the most apparently unpropitious of circumstances - war-torn Rome and its chaotic reconstruction; a bookless bush in Australia - and yet emerged to become a revolutionary statistician and a hotshot science entrepreneur, respectively.

Some, like Sherry Turkle, who works on psychology and artificial intelligence, came from a home which was both "broken" and extremely loving; others, such as J Doyne Farmer, had a dysfunctional background from which they escaped early. Still others, cosmologist Paul Davies and evolutionist Lynn Margulis, for instance, had an upbringing stifling in its social conformity.

One theme does emerge: most of the subjects were, from an early age, fascinated by attempts to make sense of the world around them. Whether you read physicist J Freeman Dyson, who, when bored as a toddler, started working out the mathematical patterns in the sides of his wooden crib, or Nobel Prize-winning quantum theorist Murray Gell-Mann, who, with his brother, explored the natural history around New York City, coming to the conclusion that Manhattan was once a heavily overlogged hemlock forest, or virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, who spent his childhood building electronic musical instruments, these are people who reacted to their situation in unusual, positive ways. Lanier, who moved around a lot as a child and was bullied constantly, never lost faith in his musical creations; Paul Davies decided he wanted to be a theoretical cosmologist at the age of eight and never changed his mind.

This powerful interest seems to have protected them to an extent from developmental problems, or circumstances that "normal" expectations frown upon. Lanier and Farmer, for instance, had horrifically negative childhoods in some ways, yet they were able to hang on to a sense of beauty and order.

Mary Catherine Bateson survived a jaw-droppingly precocious childhood as the only child of competing and ferociously famous parents (anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist Gregory Bateson), developing her own sense of the pattern of communications across cultures.

Evolutionary psychologist David Buss was a standard low-achieving sulky teenager, drug busts and all. Gravity theorist Lee Smolin led a chilled, unregulated early life, in charge of his own education and dipping in and out of architecture, arts and computers at whim.

Ah-ha! some will say. But surely there was a mentor figure? Not necessarily. Nicholas Humphrey was strongly influenced by his grandfather, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist A V Hill; J Doyne Farmer had the great good luck to meet at his Scout group a graduate research student who more or less adopted him at the age of 13 into a household where everything, from the motorbike to the alarm clock, was up for analysis and rebuilding.

But developmental theorist Alison Gopnik, for instance, basked in her parents' high-minded and omnivorous reading and the constant interest of having small children in the house. She went to university at 15 and forged ahead on her own.

Psychological theorist Stephen Pinker, in fact, suggests that everyone's development is so porous to outside influences that he may as well attribute his own penchant for informed debate to his Jewish Sunday school as to any other defining person or moment. And this, too, is just a narrative, he cautions.

Pinker's suggestion is tongue in cheek, but it does suggest one theme: the centrality of self-confidence. If you take an interest in the world around you, what brain scientist VS Ramachandran called being "companioned by nature" or, like early hominid discoverer Tim White, roam the countryside untrammelled; if you are able to explore many avenues, such as Lynn Margulis's adventures in the theatre or Lee Smolin's radical politics; and if you develop, early or late, a deep appetite for sheer hard work, like Richard Dawkins in the library at Oxford "writing his socks off", you will succeed, because you will have the wherewithal to make a life that has meaning for yourself and others. Encourage, is the watchword.

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