From Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality:
[T]o appreciate the physical universe properly, one must be “born again.”
As I was fleshing out the text of this book, my grandson Luke was born. During the drafting, I got to observe the first few months of his life. I saw how he studied his own hands, wide-eyed, and began to realize that he controlled them. I saw the joy with which he learned to reach out and grasp objects in the external world. I watched him experiment with objects, dropping them and searching for them, and repeating himself (and repeating himself…), as if not quite certain of the result, but laughing in joy when he found them.
In these and many other ways, I could see Luke was constructing a model of the world. He approached it with insatiable curiosity and few preconceptions. By interacting with the world, he learned the things that nearly all human adults take for granted, such as that the world divides itself into self and not-self, that thoughts can control movements of self but not of not-self, and that we can look at bodies and not change their properties.
Babies are like little scientists, making experiments and drawing conclusions….
Wilczek is one of those super-brains-on-two-legs guys who, in their day jobs, are probing into the very existence of…, well, existence while they moonlight as authors penning books for the less cerebral among us to try to pretend to understand what they’re writing about. He knows what quantum mechanics is all about. Or, let me put that more accurately: among humans on Earth, he’s one of the very few who can at least know what he doesn’t yet know about the subject. For, as Richard Feynman once famously observed, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
Feynman, of course was one of those super-human intellectuals who wrote a lot for the lay person. Carl Sagan, too. Among the living, there are Dava Sobel and Neil deGrasse Tyson. In fact, here’s a list of great science writers, living and dead, who can (in most cases almost) be grasped by the likes of you and me:
- Brian Greene
- Michio Kaku
- Roger Penrose
- Bloomington’s own Douglas Hofstadter
- Edward O. Wilson
- David Quammen
- Steven Jay Gould
- Matt Ridley
- Lewis Thomas
- David Attenborough
- Frans de Waal
- Konrad Lorenz
- Jane Goodall
- Dian Fossey
- Rachel Carson
- Peter Medawar
- Oliver Sacks
- James Gleick
- Timothy Ferris (no, not Tim Ferris; his dreck’ll make you lose intelligence)
- Primo Levi
- Elizabeth Kolbert
- Gina Kolata
- Natalie Angier
Pick any three of the above and delve into one or more of their books and you’ll find your life enriched beyond any monetary figure. A caveat: it won’t be terribly easy getting through any of their books. No matter — the Big Mike philosophy goes: Nothing worth doing is easy.
Anyway, let’s go back to that Wilczek quote. The idea being perhaps the truest and most pure scientists are human babies trying to figure out what those spindly little things on the ends of their hands are for; why things drop; how, if my diaper is full and I howl about it, some big person’ll come along and put a new one on me; and, eventually, what’ll happen when I stick a safety pin point into one of those little holes in the wall.
How beautiful is that idea?
Babies observe. They wonder about what they’re observing. They experiment. Sometimes the result of that experiment hurts. Sometimes the result is they learn something. They file either conclusion away in their memories for future use.
The smartest among us are those who understand they don’t know all that much and are hungry to learn.