by Robert Krulwich
From Morning Edition
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Me? I fall for stories. Tell me a tale about some guy climbing Mount Everest, and in my head, I'm with him — grabbing at the ice, slipping, breathing the thin air. I'm there. I've always hitchhiked by reading or listening to other people's yarns. But that's only one way to fall in love with the world. Another way, says Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT (whew!) is to play with things.
Turkle thinks that when you get your first microscope, or your first set of Legos, or take apart your first broken radio, you become an explorer. She says that for some kids, the thrill of touching, fastening, examining, rebuilding and unbuilding is life changing, mind changing and never goes away.
She recently published a book, Falling For Science, that collects essays written by senior scientists (artificial intelligence pioneer Seymour Papert, MIT president and neuroanatomist Susan Hockfield, and architect Moshe Safdie, for example) and by students who passed through her classes at MIT over the past 25 years. They were all asked the same question: "Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?"
And after a tidal wave of Legos (7 different essays), computer games and broken radios, I found a few wonderful surprises. One MIT student reported how she couldn't stop braiding her My Little Pony's tail, weaving the hairs into endlessly repeating patterns (a clue, perhaps, to her fascination with mathematics). But this one … this one is a gem.
It tells the story of a little boy (now a software designer) and a stop sign.
Excerpt: 'Falling For Science': 'Stop Signs'
by Joseph Calzaretta (1992)
NPR.org, December 3, 2008 · By the age of two, I could recognize certain shapes as letters and identify them by name. Not long after I read the letters on the red sign at the end of my block: STOP. When I asked my parents about the sign, they told me it was a stop sign and that people had to stop for it. They pointed to a moving car and told me to watch the car's actions. The car came to the sign, slowed to a halt, and then turned the corner. My parents had told the truth.
I fell in love with the stop sign. Every time we passed one on foot I would stop for a few seconds. I would point them out in the car and was delighted when we stopped, respecting the sign's wishes. I owned a picture book and I would always turn to the page with the stop sign and cry, "Stop!" Noticing my fascination with the sign, my parents bought me a stop sign piggy bank. My aunt knitted me a stop sign rug and my father eventually gave me a real stop sign that had fallen off its pole after a car accident.
After the stop sign taught me to read, I discovered letters and words everywhere. But signs had words that commanded people.
I couldn't understand why anyone would ever purposely disobey signs, although I saw that my fellow children sometimes pretended to fool signs by pretending not to see them. As for me, for a while I was obsessed with following the rules. Once when my family went to a local restaurant I noticed a sign in an ominous red font: OCCUPANCY OF THIS ESTABLISHMENT BY MORE THAN 232 PERSONS IS DANGEROUS AND UNLAWFUL.
"Mommy," I asked, "what's 'occupancy'?" She told me, and I immediately began to count all the people in the restaurant. I was plagued by the thought that my family's arrival would doom us all to an awful punishment.
Now I hardly think of stop signs, but something about my childhood fascination has stayed with me. In signs I saw the natural laws of my environment. A world of fixed and simple principles appealed to me. When the rules of the stop sign and its cousins lost their infallible status, others took their place. My favorite subjects are physics and mathematics. I still feel satisfaction when I behold the universe obeying its own "signs," such as: Speed Limit—671 Million MPH, Entropy—One Way, and Quantum Leaps—Exact Change Only. These universal signs give commands that cannot be broken by careless children or reckless drivers; they are unwavering principles. I tend to see our existence governed by some simple rules written on signs posted in the very fabric of space.
When I encounter a confusing situation or a seemingly impossible task I break it down and make a mental sign with instructions for its completion. I know my method has its drawbacks. It lets me enjoy physics because of rules, but I quickly became intolerant of biology, which starts with the final products of unknown rules. I view the world in narrow pieces—a way of thinking that I know can be arbitrary and inaccurate. In the real world, everything is firmly attached to everything else. My method of rules would tell me now that I need to go beyond it to have the fullest appreciation of the world. I should probably throw away the big red sign hanging in my dorm room. Life isn't that simple.
Joseph Calzaretta received an SB and SM from MIT in Mechanical Engineering and now works in Information Services and Technology at MIT as a software developer.