We’re all Scientists

Anyone who has had a young child knows that they like to pick up items and let them ago. This can of course be particularly frustrating when trying to feed them in a high chair and they decide they want to keep dropping their spoon.

But, honestly, it’s also sort of interesting. They’re being scientists and they don’t realize it, nor do most parents. They’re learning about gravity and consistency.  Things fall, and they do so consistently.

In the last century, Jean Piaget spent a lot of time researching child development and how kids learn and when they learned. Basically, among other things, they’re constantly doing little experiments and updating their worldview based on the results. Parents often observe this as a child develops language and grammar. A toddler might say something like “Where are Grandma?” and the parent corrects them to say “Where is Grandma?” and the child starts to develop the concept of verb agreement when it comes to singular versus plural. When you stop to think about it, much of the grammar you learned and use often happens long before you actually enter school and learn it in a more formal way. For example, did you realize there’s an order we use for adjectives that I suspect none of us formally learned in school?

While we may call this curiosity, it’s really being a scientist.

Unlearning Curiosity

At some point however, often we have to put a limit on a child’s curiosity. We start to tell them, “don’t touch the stove” because we’d rather they listen to us than to experiment and find out the hard way. This is probably properly cautious, but I think we can often go to far and we end up stifling a child’s curiosity. Sometimes this is overt as we tell kids, “don’t touch that, you’ll break it” or similar admonishments. And for the most part, that’s probably a good thing. But often we stifle in ways that are unintended, the classic “Math class is tough” which only served to reinforce a stereotype that girls didn’t do as well at math as men. As we know now (and honestly, some knew then), that’s not true.

Decades ago when I was teaching an adult continuing education class “Intro to Computers” (which at one point transitioned from Windows 3.11 to Windows 95, to give you an idea of how long ago that was), the biggest lesson I had to teach the students was “try stuff, don’t worry about breaking something. You probably won’t and if you do, I can fix it.” They literally had internalized a lifetime of “don’t touch, you’ll break things.” Once they overcame that fear, the rest of the class was easy. Once they realized they could be curious and try things and experiment all I had to do was provide guidance and encouragement. They generally learned most of what I wanted to teach on their own at that point.

Keep Being Curious

Personally, I love being curious. I love learning. I read 3-4 magazines a month including Scientific American and Discovery. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I read on SQL, PowerShell or random subjects, and on my cell phone, right now I have 47 tabs open to Wikipedia. These include tabs on Operation Barbarossa, Louis Brandeis, the Napoleonic Code (this last one after reading the entire page and multiple others on Common Law), and Neutron Cross Section among others.

But it’s more than that. I’ve also like to see how the real world acts. Last night I bought a bag of potato chips and before I opened them I realized they were very puffed up. I thought that that was curious and perhaps the result of something that happened at the factory until I thought to look at the barometer.

Which is a better barometer?

Ayup, it’s definitely raining

It’s nice when my hypothesis (the atmospheric pressure must be lower than usual) is confirmed. I of course dragged my daughter along to test my hypothesis.

I rewarded myself for my correct hypothesis with some chips. It only seemed fair.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this impact of atmospheric pressure on a sealed package. Back in college my buddy and I drove to the Grand Canyon, hiked it, and then up over the Rockies via the Eisenhower Tunnel. We had with us a vacuum sealed package of Canadian bacon that we had put off opening. We could definitely notice the change in atmospheric pressure as we drove from near sea-level where it was packaged to the top of the Canyon (over 7000′) hiked down to the bottom (closer to 2000′), back out and then drove over the Rockies (over 11,000′). At the Rockies the “vacuum” packaging looked like a balloon! It was actually fascinating to observe.


Keep being curious. Keep being a mini-scientist. Explore the world. Keep learning. And most of all, have fun! Within reason, don’t be afraid of breaking things! Drop that spoon. Make a copy of your database and try to use new tools to manipulate it. Experiment. Be curious and learn.

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