Thinking Independently is Risky

By challenging the Church’s doctrine of a geocentric universe, Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest. From our vantage point 400 years after the fact, it is hard to reconcile the immutability of the Church’s dogma in the face of “the ultimate arbiter of truth,” observation and experimentation. Unfortunately, even to this day, scientific findings that challenge “a priori beliefs” are still criticized and ridiculed, even among other learned scientists. I offer up a few contemporary examples here.

Dr. Kilmer McCully, the founder of the homocysteine theory of arteriosclerosis, was ostracized from his own Harvard medical community because of his findings that cholesterol and clogged arteries were not the causes of heart disease, but rather the symptoms of it. Dr. McCully gave me permission to quote from his essay “Pioneer of the Homocysteine Theory”:

When the Atlantic Monthly article ‘Beyond Cholesterol’ was published in 1977, there was a flurry of attention paid to the striking conclusions of the article in the conventional media, especially the Boston Globe and Time Magazine, but also in the tabloid press, including The National Enquirer. When Robert Lees was questioned by a reporter from the Boston Globe about the article, he labeled the approach as ‘errant nonsense,’ and ‘a hoax perpetrated on the public ’.”

Dr. Barry Marshall, unable to convince the medical community of his research findings that ulcers were caused by the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori, and not stress, downed a petri dish full of the bacteria to prove it. In his Nobel Prize address, he recalls, “On the morning of the experiment, I omitted my breakfast but took 400 mg of cimetidine, believing that the infection might be easier if my stomach acid level was lowered,” he notes. “Two hours later, Neil Noakes scraped a heavily inoculated 4 day culture plate of Helicobacter and dispersed the bacteria in alkaline peptone water (a kind of meat broth used to keep bacteria alive). I fasted until 10 am when Neil handed me a 200 ml beaker about one quarter full of the cloudy brown liquid. I drank it down in one gulp.”

Thinking independently is risky behavior, and is rarely espoused in compulsory education. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Students who follow the rules, do what they’re told and perform well on tests are rewarded with good grades, glowing recommendations and prestigious college acceptances. These are my favorite students to teach. It may very well be, however, that the students who challenge the status quo, break the rules, and make regular visits to the principal’s office are the ones who will move the world. Does this mean that the good student will not or cannot move the world? No, not at all. It’s just that the latter are more risk-adverse. In fact, Adam Grant espouses in his book Originals that achievement motivation, the drive to succeed, interferes with original, independent thinking. While the drive to succeed is responsible for many of the world’s achievements, it often simultaneously crowds out original thinking. According to Grant and the research he cites, “The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure.” And failure is the necessary prerequisite to innovation.

Interestingly, the research suggests that birth order has much to predict about one’s willingness or unwillingness to take risks. First-borns are more likely to to follow the status quo, to be motivated by parental approval and school and professional achievement. Later-borns, on the other hand, tend to take greater risks, be more independent, fun-seeking and socially engaged. Later-borns are more likely to challenge a priori beliefs, while first-borns wait patiently for indisputable and time-tested evidence to sway them. Frank J. Sulloway, psychologist and preeminent UC Berkeley Researcher on birth order, describes how accepting the theory of evolution fell along birth order lines. Prior to Darwin’s findings, 56 out of 117 later-borns believed in evolution, compared to only 9 of 103 first-borns. Sixteen years after Darwin’s findings, the acceptance of the theory of evolution increased to 56 out of 103 later-borns, and actually dropped among first-borns. Apparently, the more accepted and established evolutionary theory became, the less favor it received among the more rebellious later-borns.

It would seem then, with all this talk of birth order, that Nobel prize-winning scientists are predominantly later-born. This however, is where their similarities to other original thinkers meet the proverbial fork in the road, and where we get a real sense of what makes for great scientists. Out of 118 Nobel Prize-winning scientists surveyed, 14 were only-borns while 47 were first-borns, the two categories comprising 57% of the recipients. Scientists, unlike thoroughly original thinkers, are bound by the evidence, to follow it wherever it leads. Their original ideas, their independent thoughts, come not from brief flashes of inspiration, but from flashes of insight born of painstaking and often tedious experimentation over many years, a preponderance of failures, and an undying passion to follow their curiosity. Yet when the evidence guides them unmistakably toward a conclusion, they’ll drink the Heliobacter “Kool-Aid” to prove it so.

Rocket Girls are Independent Thinkers

Rocket Girls are Independent Thinkers

Lawrence Krauss describes what could be termed the Scientific Credo in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing:

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles:
1. Follow the evidence wherever it leads
2. If one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right.
3. The ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.”

These three key principles could just as well describe any independent thinker, a person who bases her conclusions not on someone else’s dictates, but on her own findings, and more than that, is willing to be wrong if her findings prove otherwise. And so it is with Rocket Girls.

One of the most well-known and underestimated Rocket Girl of the twentieth century was Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind Franklin was said to have meticulous golden hands and a genius “that did not suffer fools gladly.” Her x-ray crystallographs of the DNA molecule were the most sought after because of the carefully detailed effort she expended establishing the ideal conditions under which to record the images. Franklin, being a scientist of the highest possible order, refused to reach conclusions without conclusive evidence. James Watson and Frances Crick, on the other hand, were in a rush to find DNA’s structure and make a name for themselves. In so doing, they tried failed model after failed model, trial-and-error, to reach their coveted prize. Franklin, the scientist, tried to prove her findings “wrong as much as one tries to prove it right,” using the “ultimate arbiter of truth experiment.”

Though there are many who faulted Franklin for being difficult to work with, too methodical and slow to publish, it was her passion in collecting data to reach conclusive evidence of DNA’s shape that enabled Watson and Crick to publish their findings.

Scientist: ‘What did Watson and Crick discover?’
Me from the back of the room: ‘Rosalind Franklin’s notes.’” - Tweet by Robby Kraft

In Science, Learning is Doing

In his childhood memoir Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks writes about the experiments he conducted in his own home laboratory. His parents eventually installed a fume hood, after the toxic fumes he generated rendered his home temporarily uninhabitable. Sacks explored horticulture with his aunt, learning about the Fibonacci sequence, and other examples of mathematics in nature. And, he learned about the Periodic Table from South Kensington Museum’s giant periodic table display. He would revisit the museum often, exploring the contents of the ninety-plus drawers containing samples of the elements.

Many young scientists-to-be tinker, whether it be with electric train sets or old (and sometimes new, to their parents’ chagrin) electrical appliances. Others get their hands dirty digging up worms, exploring the life teeming within tide pools, or catching bugs.

I can't remember how old I was, but my father had to collect a bunch of insects. We drove down a road with me holding a butterfly net out the window into the ditch. We drove probably several hundred meters. In the end we picked out what was in the net and man there was stuff you wouldn't believe in that net.”

Brian Schmidt, recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

And they all love to solve problems, to figure things out. In fact, the noted physicist Richard Feynman’s obsession with solving problems was cited by his second wife in her divorce complaint. “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”

Brian Schmidt continues.

The most remarkable science class I had, at least the one that affected me the most in high school, was biology. It was going through and doing fruit fly genetics. The fruit flies we had, had genetic defects and you could cross one fruit fly with another, but the problem of course is that some of the genes are on the same chromosome. He said if anyone can figure out how to get a fruit fly that has two defects from the same chromosome, that's never been done before in the class, you get an automatic ‘A.’

“I, of course, took that as a challenge. I went in and learned all about probability and crossovers, and went to the university library to find out all this stuff, and sort of said well, if I do this, it's guaranteed. I just did the probability and said it's guaranteed to work. Came and proudly announced to my teacher that I had solved it mathematically and he looked kind of dubious at me because he had never done the probability. I went and did it and sure enough, first time, boom, it worked. For me, it was kind of interesting in two ways. It just showed me the power of using math and the physics that I use now in a setting like biology and I think it was eye opening to my teacher because he just hadn't seen a student go in and do this.”

Teaching high school physics, I am fully aware of how black and white school science can be. Give students the equation, F=ma (force equals mass times acceleration), and have them solve for force, mass or acceleration given the other two variables. Students love this. It’s easy for them. But I don’t do that – give them the equation, that is. Rather, I set them up with a cart on a ramp, and encourage them to play around.

What happens to the motion of the cart when you apply smaller and larger forces?

What happens when you increase the mass of the cart? When you decrease the mass of the cart?

Model this for me in a graph and find the relationship between force on a cart and its acceleration.

What is the relationship between mass of a cart and acceleration?

Some students really struggle with this because I don’t show up with the “answers,” just questions.

“But there HAS to be a right answer,” they insist.

“Then find out the answer, and YOU tell ME.”

After all, real learning is messier than we think, and problems are often more complex than any one of us can solve.

Science educator Mary Budd Rowe has said that doing science is less about finding the “right” answers, but about figuring out what the data has to tell us. She writes in her essay “Teach a Child to Wonder” that on a flight to Europe, she sat next to a sixth-grade boy who watched her use her calculator to analyze some data and asked if she planned to look up the answers when she finished. Rowe explained that book had the answers and that it was up to her to show the results to other people and together figure out what the answers were. ''And then will your teacher tell you if you are right?' he persisted. Rowe said she was afraid not. He sighed sympathetically, 'Some teachers are like that, you know.' Mary Budd Rowe, “Teach Your Child to Wonder”

Read, Read, Read

Rocket Girls are Voracious Readers

"In the book section, there were always these coupons you could clip to join various book clubs and you would send it in and you would get, immediately, your choice of five free books or three unbelievable sets of books, and in return all you had to do was buy three books from the club in the first year or some such. I remember I just sent the coupons off without asking my parents about it, ordered up these sets and then left them holding the bag for the other books. I remember, at a ridiculously young age, reading the entirety of Winston Churchill's six-volume set on the Second World War and Carl Sandberg's four-volume set biography of Lincoln.”

Robert Lefkowitz, 2012 Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Speaking to me about why he became a scientist, Pete Theisinger, Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Project Manager, MER Spacecraft Mission Director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory attributed most of it to reading:

"If you talk to most people in my position who've had my kind of success, [you’ll discover that] they were early readers and voracious readers. Sometimes science fiction, sometimes other things, but the ability to self-educate yourself, your ability to read whatever's available to you and to be interested in doing that, is student skills numbers one, two, and three, and almost nothing else matters. Particularly, nowadays, when you have such tremendous access to material on the web and when you can take the entire MIT catalog and see the classwork on the web for free. That's just an incredible opportunity for kids and for anybody to take advantage of that.

“You've got to be able to read and you've got to find that as a useful tool, and you've got to be committed to that as a tool. I think that to instill that in a student at an early age is really job one. My dad was very big on helping me read. He used to read with me every night. By the time I was in junior high I was going through two, three, four science fiction books a week. That I think is the biggest advice I can give anybody."

Technology, according to Moore’s Law, doubles in capability approximately every 18 months to two years. This means that the graduating scientist cannot possibly leave university knowing all she will need to know over the course of her career. Her strength resides then, not in what she knows today, but rather, in what she can learn tomorrow. Entrepreneur and president of the wireless charging technological company Powermat Dan Schreiber posed the following question to me: “What skills can we instill in our students that are immune to changes in technology?” Surely the first, last and every skill in-between is to be a self-learner.

Robert Lefkowitz who, along with Brian Koblika, earned the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in identifying the G-coupled receptors embedded in cell membranes that are now the means by which many life-saving medications enter cells, would play hooky from school so that he could “stay home and read all day”:

"I was a very precocious reader. I loved reading books about physicians, fiction, novels, Arrowsmith. That's not even fiction because I remember I loved a book called Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. I loved reading books about doctors, especially ones where there was a doctor who was like the hero figure. I read a lot of that. Then I just read very generally. My parents had a lot of books. I remember well feigning illness when I was in public school and to a lesser extent, junior high, so that I could stay home and read all day.”

My teacher and 1981 Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry Roald Hoffmann relates how, as a World War II German-Jewish refugee, two books in particular peaked his interest in science.

"In 1948 or so, when I was around 10, 11, there were some books in German. They were actually put out by the American Occupation Forces, and they were two translations of books about science. And the first was a book that is very well known, and that is, a translation of Eve Curie's biography of her mother, Marie Curie. And many people have pointed to that book. It was a hagiography. It ignored many things in Marie Curie's life that were complicated in some way but it was a wonderful book and it influenced me.”

The other one was much less predictable and interesting in a way, and that was a biography of George Washington Carver, the American black agricultural chemist. I have the author written down somewhere. But that was fascinating. It was a story of this guy who was making things from soybeans and yams and part of the things that was fascinating to me, I had never seen either a sweet potato or a soybean in my life, or a peanut. That's what he was talking about. Peanuts and sweet potatoes. So that was fascinating and it caught my attention."

Learning takes many forms besides reading – classes, lectures, television, film, YouTube®, online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). We are at a remarkable time when anyone can learn anything.

What do you want to know? It’s out there. Go and learn.

Becoming a Self-Learner

Rocket Girls are Lifelong Learners

In science class I learned that there were right answers and wrong answers. After all, my letter grade rose and fell as a direct result of my ability (or inability) to provide the right ones. And, as the level of science I was studying advanced, this became increasingly more difficult. That’s about as far as I ever got in my science education. That’s pretty much as far as any of us get. Which is unfortunate. Because, if you stick with science long enough, you reach the point where answers are no longer right or wrong, but rather, unknown. That’s where true science begins.

“It's an interesting game one plays with Mother Nature trying to peel away all the different contrivances that have been put together in a Rube Goldberg fashion by evolution over the last billion years,” Dr. Robert Weinberg, the discoverer of the first-known cancer-causing gene, explained to me.

You see, science is not an amalgam of facts to be memorized, but a process of acquiring that knowledge, of finding out how things work. Knowledge acquisition takes time, patience, trial-and-error and hard work, four traits that our modern students exhibit very little of. Instead, today’s students want answers they can regurgitate on high-stakes tests; and these days, every test is deemed high-stake, around which college admission pivots.

Time and again I have heard students tell me they aren’t “good test takers.” Convinced that their Harvard acceptance hinges on their answer to any one question, is it any wonder that today’s students are riddled with learning, attention and anxiety disorders and overdosed with medication and individualized education plans (IEPs)?

Armed with the need to succeed rather than the need to learn, it’s not that they’re not “good test takers.” They’re not good learners. Whereas in the not-so-distant past test scores and grades were a measure of a student’s acquisition of knowledge, they have have become an end in themselves. Tests have replaced learning as the primary goal of compulsory education.

For scientists, however, learning — not grades — is always first and foremost.

“I was always a B+ student. I was never a straight A student. Maybe it's just I'm too distractible, so I'd be off reading something when I should have been studying more.” - Dr. Bruce Ames, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and inventor of the Ames test, a system for testing the mutagenicity of compounds.

A recurring theme I hear among scientists is that they felt, from a very young age, an almost drive-like compulsion to learn about the world around them.

“I was one of these kids that you could go out for a walk and I could tell you every plant, the name for every plant you saw, or every sort of insect ... I was fascinated by it, I pored over books and I then tried to connect what I read in books to what I found outside. Scientific curiosity feeds this drive, from a very early age, to explore answers.” - Andrew Maynard, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center.

And, from an early age, books provide many of these answers.

Encouraging Children’s Curiosity

Conservationist and marine biologist Rachel Carson gave us the prescription to raising curious children in her 1950s essay published posthumously, “A Sense of Wonder.” "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Here are some ways to rediscover, together:

1. Share experiences in nature with your child, based on having fun together, rather than teaching and learning.

It takes the pressure off the adult to know all the answers, and it takes the pressure off the child to come up with the “right” answers. Ms. Carson explains it best: "It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate."

2. Share feelings, not names or explanations.

Share how you feel about the experiences, the pleasure you feel in seeing and hearing, rather than feeling compelled to identify the names of trees or being able to identify the flicking wings of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. If your child wants to know more, she’ll ask. And then the two of you can research together.

3. Get messy.

Allow your child to get wet, muddy, stay up late (some of the best outdoor experiences are at night), and make a mess. After all, true exploration is messy.

4. Be receptive to the world around you.

Use each of your senses to experience nature. Sight is the most obvious sense to invoke. Change something you’ve seen over and over again into a new experience by asking yourself, “What if I had never seen this before?” or “What if I never see this again?” Look at things with new eyes.
Use a magnifying glass to experience little things.
Use a telescope to experience big things.
The sense of smell has the most “power to recall memories.” Notice the smells around you.
Hearing requires more effort, but can also be cultivated. Notice all the sounds around you. And then try to isolate one sound at a time and try to locate its source. Then try another.

5. Allow your child to take things apart to see how they work – preferably used items from a second-hand store rather than your new phone.

6. Unclutter your child’s schedule.

Too much to do and too many places to be make children as myopic as adults. Even if you’re fostering the next Anna Pavlova or Vladimir Horowitz, allow your children time to just be… children.
Explore together with your child.
Go out into nature. To the park. To a museum. Or a music performance. Watch the night sky.
Pay attention.

Encourage questions. Listen to the questions they ask. When children’s questions are heard, their questioning muscles are strengthened. And despite what you think, you don’t need to know the answers to their questions; you can explore together. And if your child starts exploring without you, all the better.

In Search of Curiosity

“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.” - Isador Rabi, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist

Curiosity is the first and most important quality of a Rocket Girl. Curious people want to find out “Why.” Rocket Girls, like all good scientists, never stop asking questions. In fact, they build their entire professional lives around it.

Andrew Maynard, Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University and Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, described his childhood curiosity to me: “There already was that propensity to be interested in how things work. But what I found was fairly early on, I was just fascinated by how things operated, how things worked, whether it was electrical stuff, whether it was stuff out in nature, I was just interested in it. I spent a lot of time before I did any serious science at school, just learning about the natural world, and I was one of these kids that you could go out for a walk and I could tell you the name for every plant you saw, or every sort of insect ... I was fascinated by it, I pored over books and I then tried to connect what I read in books to what I found outside. So I think there was probably that inherent curiosity there. Just wanted to know stuff.”

What do you want to know? Questions are as important as answers; and at times, even more so. After all, the best questions command the best answers. In this era of high-stakes testing in the public schools, we have become so focused on students supplying the “right” answers, at the expense of teaching them to ask better questions.

David Stork, Research Scientist and Research Director at Rambus Labs, has talked about the crucial role asking questions played in the success of Bell Labs in New Jersey – the birthplace of the laser, microchips and the transistor, and one of the shining stars of science long before anyone had ever heard of Silicon Valley. When Bell Labs’ leaders tried to analyze the company’s success, they explored what their best people had in common, according to Stork. “Did they all go to the best schools, did they all study one field versus another? There was no commonality among these.” What they did find out was that their highest producing scientists and engineers regularly had lunch with electronics engineer Harry Nyquist. “So what did Harry Nyquist do for these top producing scientists?” asks Stork. “He didn't give them answers. Or great ideas. Rather, he asked good questions. And his good questions got them thinking." Stork’s advice: "If you want to think the unthinkable, ask a good question. Questions are the best way of going from what we know to what we don't know."

In his book Originals, Adam Grant questions the trusted leadership adage, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” He argues that a culture requiring every problem to be prematurely outfitted with a solution, dampens the inquiry process. Not every question has an answer… yet. And sometimes, the cost of rushing in with answers is too dear.

It was too dear for the seven crew members of the Columbia Shuttle, which disintegrated upon re-entry to earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003. According to organizational psychologist David Hofmann, tasked with assessing NASA’s safety culture, believes that if the ground crew asked more questions about the mysterious piece of foam that fell from the shuttle during take-off, the shuttle and its crew may have been saved and were able to diagnose the hole in its left wing in time to repair it. Rather, NASA, by brushing it off as something minor they had seen before, squelched the inquiry process before it even began.

As a teacher, I don’t show up with answers. Just more questions. If we need to find answers, we will figure them out together. Problem identification comes first; problem solving second.

Leonard Susskind, Stanford physicist known as the “Father of String Theory” tells us that

“The object of a scientist is to follow his curiosity and figure out how and why things work, how and why the world works whether it's physics or biology.”

Children are born curious. Scientists are those who retain their curiosity even as they grow older.

What do you want to know? Go out and find the answers. If you’re lucky, the answers will bring with it many more questions.