After a rebellious streak in his youth that may have involved a keyboard, the science loving dad has now settled down to a life of star gazing and experiment conducting. Quietly spoken yet always firmly authoritative, he also has exceptionally good hair, rather like Professor Brian Cox.
Leonard Mlodinow received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley and has written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. In this extract, from new book The Upright Thinkers, Mlodinow explains why it is that young children just want to know “Why?”.
From an early age, we humans seek answers; we seek a theoretical understanding of our environment; we ask the question “Why?”
Anyone who has experience with young children knows their love of the why question. In the 1920s, psychologist Frank Lorimer made it official: he observed a four-year-old boy over a period of four days and scribbled down all the whys the child asked during that time. There were forty of them, questions such as Why does the watering pot have two handles? Why do we have eyebrows? And my favorite, Why don’t you have a beard, Mother? Human children all around the world ask their first questions at an early age, while they are still babbling and don’t yet speak grammatical language. The act of questioning is so important to our species that we have a universal indicator for it: all languages, whether tonal or nontonal, employ a similar rising intonation for questions. Certain religious traditions see questioning as the highest form of apprehension, and in both science and industry, the ability to ask the right questions is probably the greatest talent one can have. Chimpanzees and bonobos, on the other hand, can learn to use rudimentary signing to communicate with their trainers, and even to answer questions, but they never ask them. They are physically powerful, but they are not thinkers.
If we humans are born with a drive to understand our environment, we also seem to be born with—or at least acquire at a very early age – a gut feeling regarding how the laws of physics operate. We seem to innately understand that all events are caused by other events, and to have a rudimentary intuition for the laws that, after millennia of effort, were eventually uncovered by Isaac Newton.
In the Infant Cognition Laboratory at the University of Illinois, scientists have spent the past thirty years studying the physical intuition of babies by sitting mothers and their children at a small stage or table and observing how the infants react to staged events. The scientific question at hand: With regard to the physical world, what do these infants know, and when did they know it? What they have discovered is that possessing a certain feeling for the workings of physics seems to be an essential aspect of what it means to be human, even in infancy.
In one series of studies, six-month-olds sat in front of a horizontal track that was attached to an inclined ramp. At the bottom of the ramp researchers had placed a toy bug mounted on wheels. At the top of the ramp was a cylinder. Once the cylinder was let loose, the infants watched excitedly as it rolled downward, crashed into the bug, and sent it rolling halfway along the horizontal track for a distance of a couple of feet. Next came the part that excited the researchers: if they reproduced the setup with a different size cylinder atop the ramp, would the infants predict that, upon collision, the bug would be sent a distance that was proportional to the cylinder’s size?
The first question that came to mind when I heard of this experiment was: How does one know what an infant is predicting? Personally, I have trouble understanding what my kids are thinking, and, being in their teens and twenties, they are all capable of speech. Did I have any insight at all, back when they were limited to smiles, grimaces, and drooling? The truth is, if you hang around babies enough, you do start attributing thoughts to them based on their facial expressions, but it is difficult to confirm scientifically whether your intuition is correct. If you see a baby’s face crinkle up like a prune, is that due to severe gas pains or dismay because the radio just said the stock market tumbled five hundred points? I know my own expression would look the same either way, and with babies, the look is all we have to go by. When it comes to deter- mining what a baby is predicting, though, psychologists have an app for that. They show the baby some chain of events and then measure how long the infant gazes at the scene. If events don’t unfold in the way the baby expected, the baby will stare, and the more surprising the occurrence, the longer the stare.
In the ramp experiment, psychologists arranged for half the infants to watch a second collision in which the rolling cylinder was larger than before, while the others watched a second collision in which the cylinder was smaller. In both cases, however, the tricky researchers had arranged artificially that the bug would be sent rolling farther than in the first collision—all the way, in fact, to the end of the track. The infants who watched the larger cylinder send the bug farther had no exceptional reaction to the events. But sure enough, the infants who saw the bug go farther when struck by a smaller cylinder stared at the bug for a prolonged period, giving the impression that they’d be scratching their heads if only they knew how.
To know that big impacts will send bugs rolling farther than small impacts does not quite make you a peer of Isaac Newton, but, as this experiment illustrates, humans do seem to have a certain built-in understanding of the physical world, a sophisticated intuitive feeling for the environment that complements our built-in curiosity and is far more developed in humans than in other species.
Over millions of years, our species evolved and progressed, gaining a more powerful brain, striving as individuals to learn what we could about the world. The development of the modern human mind was a necessary development if we were to understand nature, but it was not sufficient. And so the next chapter in our story is the tale of how we began to ask questions about our surroundings and to band together intellectually to answer them. It is the tale of the development of human culture.
This Father’s Day make your number one dad feel like he’s top of your chart by taking our pop quiz and discover which literary papa is most like your old man – and most importantly, what book will really be a hit with him! Just visit the Penguin UK Books Facebook page to take the quiz.
The Upright Thinkers, The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos, Leonard Mlodinow (Allen Lane) is available now. For more bookish suggestions for your dad this Father’s Day, check out our selection of top titles on the Penguin website.