Falling for Science: Objects in Mind
reviewed by Per-Olof Wickman - September 03, 2008
This is a book for those that are interested in how science connects with young peoples experiences. It contains more than 50 essays, each about two to four pages long on the significance of objects in mediating science interest and learning. One may ask why the focus is objects and not, for example, people or incidents. It is obvious that this is a personal interest of Turkles and that she has a passion for her students. The focus on objects in no way leaves people or incidents out however. It is an intriguing approach that demonstrates the central place played by objects in peoples lives.
The first part What makes a scientist? contains the bulk of the essays, and they are all written by Turkles students. Over a 25 year period Turkle asked her students at MIT to write essays on the theme, Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science? Each story is given together with a brief presentation of its author. As is clear from these presentations, many of the students eventually did not become what we generally would call scientists. Perhaps to balance this situation, in the second part called What made a scientist? there are another eight stories written by graduated professionals, some of them in academia. Among them are architects, computer engineers and scientists. As the editor, Turkle has added an introduction and an epilogue entitled What inspires? In these rather short framing sections Turkle gives a background to the stories and how they have been compiled. She also gives a theoretical account to the patterns she sees in the stories.
The main reason for reading this book is absolutely the stories themselves. The framework given by Turkle is short and sketchy. I also recommend that the stories not be read in haste. Since they are essays, they are very much written using similar outlines. The form makes me think of fairy tales, where each one starts with once upon a time and ends with they lived happily ever after. In this book this form is replaced by introducing an object at the beginning and by concluding with an ending that explains that the object mediated interest or learning of science. Read rapidly in a sequence, Falling for Science easily becomes repetitive. Just like the fairy tales, one or a few stories each night gives them justice and time for contemplation.
These stories all deserve attention. They are all personal, and some will bring a smile of recognition to your lips. Todd Strausss essay about the wallpaper in his bedroom makes me remember my own childhood when being fascinated by their patterns. Similar recognition is brought by Walter Novashs essay about playing with curtain cords in the bedroom as a child. Naturally, I have found some stories more appealing than others; another reader might enjoy different stories more. It all depends on your background. But there are stories that are written with great skill and engagement. I particularly like those that introduce an element of conflict, where the road to science is not so smooth. I found the story by Rachel Elkin Lebwohl congenial, where she tells us about her competition with her older brother Carl. When he used the BASIC programming 10 PRINT Rachel is stupid. 20 GOTO 10, Rachel was forced to BASIC programming herself and wrote 10 PRINT Rachel is awesome! 20 GOTO 10. I also liked those essays where the objects interact with the personality in a surprising way. Timothy Bickmore tells us the amazing story of how a shy son of circus artists became interested in lasers and how that finally made him study science.
Some of the stories in this collection relate to things that happened when people were very young. Joseph Calzaretta, for instance, gives us a beautiful and fascinating story about how he fell in love with the traffic sign STOP when he was only two years old. Not surprisingly, Turkle tells us, students often had to ask their parents to help them remember. This means that these stories depend on each authors writing talent and memory and should not be seen as documents of what exactly happened when people first met science in objects. I remember in school being asked to write essays on for example our summer holidays. Exact detail is not always compatible with a good story. You have to fill in some blanks. The truth of these stories is more like the truth in a good novel. It is felt emotionally and intuitively when it makes your own memories of objects alive and connect with the text.
These stories illustrate that the causal relationship between object and life trajectories is complex and not one that can be predicted easily. As formulated by Turkle, the objects find the young scientist just as much as the scientist finds them. Some have unique ways to science. At first, Selby Cull did not find science in school interesting at all. She loved baking. It was later when baking made a connection to science that she saw science as an option. Britt Nesheim had a strange toy mailbox which fascinated her. But the same objects do not evoke the same passions in everyone. Some like it when LEGOs come ready made with instructions, others find LEGOs most inspiring when improvising freely with them. Turkle also shows us how each generation has its own types of objects. Taking apart radios, for example, was an important avenue before the transistors; today it is computers. Britt Nesheims toy mailbox is completely unknown to me, born in Sweden in the 50s.
There is a certain imbalance between the stories and the framework given by Turkle. The framing of the book is falling for science and what makes/made scientists. Yet, many of the stories are not about falling for science, but rather how the writers first came to understand some basic principle of science. Besides, many authors never made a career in science, but often in computer programming, public relations or in design. As compared to physics, computers and mathematics, there is little chemistry or biology. For instance, there is no chemistry kit. Perhaps this is due to the setting at MIT and its emphasis on computer science, or maybe they were out of fashion long before Turkle first asked her students to write essays. As for biology, love for a dog or a horse would hardly count, since they are not objects.
Another imbalance is that the academic scope of the theories given by Turkle to explain patterns in the stories makes her framing sections too short to fully understand the conclusions she makes. There are, for example, arguments based on psychoanalysis regarding the formation of interest and passion. I find it hard to follow and understand her line of argument. However, based on the stories of her book it is easy to concur with her conclusion that there can hardly be a science teaching that comes in one size that at the same time fits all students. The curriculum has to accommodate all the personal idiosyncrasies of what encourages scientific interest and understanding.
On the whole this is a wonderful book, where numerous people share their experience with objects and relate them to their developing scientific bent. It testifies to the need for further research to better understand how science can have a place in peoples lives. And it awakens sleeping memories and makes you wonder about your own path to science.