I later learned he was disappointed, but he didn't show it at the time. When I was about 12 my father took me to Los Angeles. He was getting two weeks of training and I was tagging along. Friends and relatives were excited that I would see Hollywood, the beaches and - most important of all - Disneyland. As it happened he went along with my agenda: the Griffith Park Planetarium, JPL, Caltech, and Rocketdyne.
There seems to be a period - somewhere around the third to sixth grade - where a lot of kids seem to lose their natural interest in science, but a few manage to get hooked. Almost every scientist I know can trace their first real spark to this period. A flame was ignited and somehow didn't manage to get blown out... The same is probably true of other fields. My sister is a successful artist and her passion in art began around this period too ... But I will focus on what I know.
We're talking finding a passion and you have to wonder why and how those of us who are lucky manage given home life and many school systems.
Earlier today I was asked to write a paragraph or two about what got me interested in the first place as part of a survey for a magazine article on science education. It struck me that a more interesting question might be "why did I not deviate once the interest started?" I'll take a crack at that one here.
First a caveat. I am not a good role model. My education background is extremely narrow - a math and physics double major while managing to avoid much general education followed by a rather serious specialization in graduate school.1 Only as an adult did I become multi-disciplinary. That should happen much earlier, but we all make mistakes as we find our own paths.
My parents were the opposite of helicopter parents. They were both struggling to bring in enough to support the four of us and there weren't many resources for lessons in this or that, let along supervised time slots that seem common today. I was pretty free-range, but in a special way. Let me explain...
I had sought out two mentors to help me learn things that weren't available in school. I can't say I was a particularly exceptional student in grade school or junior high, but I was spending a lot of time observing the natural world and learning a bit of math, general science and physics from my mentors. I knew some other geekish kids and we would conduct our own investigations. For what it is worth rocket motors were very interesting at the time. There were some books that the library lady loaded onto the bookmobile that provided enough information to get into trouble as well as more than a bit of challenge. We made things from small transmitters and sensors for payloads to a little wind tunnel to test shapes with to real rocket motors. I wanted to build a liquid fueled rocket, but that was way beyond my skill level, so I settled for a ZnS fueled motor.2
The results were not pretty, but I learned a lot in the process and the house survived mostly intact.
My parents must have known that things were going on in my room and the basement. Bad smells, potential explosions, real explosions, minor electrocutions, a lot of rf noise that often made radio and tv reception impossible and power overloads as I would be drawing more power than the circuit breaker could handle at times. And then there was the rocket motor on the bicycle ...
I was allowed to be curious and skeptical at the same time. A strong religous tradition existed in the family, but it was not pushed on me - what I believed was my decision and I ignored the formal early morning religous instruction classes. With my clumsy attempts at learning science I could experiment and learn on my own. I needed to learn how to learn - most importantly how to ask questions. I slowly began to realize that science had nothing to do with memorization of "facts" or even their discovery. In addition to the time lost on a "normal" childhood there was a bit of danger associated with this and I'm sure they realized it - after all - there were a few little fires and I managed some nasty electrical burns.3
They never told me "no"....
I didn't have much money, but jobs always seemed to materialize when I was deeply into a project. Christmas and birthday requests must have seemed perplexing. Some of the materials I needed weren't available to minors, but dad would always sign for them as the responsible adult. After the 7th grade I was allowed to manage my own time. In theory there was a formal bedtime, but the night sky managed to seize my imagination. They looked the other way when I'd show up at breakfast after having been up for much of the night with my little telescope or binoculars - or just wandering around in the dark playing with my night vision or night walking - and on school days.
Such an incredible gift from them - I was free and, even more important, I was trusted ... perhaps against their better judgement.
Without this leap of faith in me on their part I probably would have not been able to sustain my interest. Through my own play I was developing a passion. I was learning how to cultivate my own ignorance, which is the most wonderful and powerful toolkit I have at my disposal. It is still intact and I can happily report the expansion of my ignornace is still occurring at a fierce rate. I even have ten functioning fingers and the burns and scars do fade after a few decades.
So thank you Mom and Dad!!
such an amazing gift
I eventually did go to Disneyland and Disneyworld as an adult and in a professional role working with their social scientists, Imagineers and a few others who are adroit dot-connectors - including this most amazing engineer from CMU.4 There is some interesting depth, but it was beyond my imagination at the time. I do have my mouse ears now - dad would be proud.
Again I'm a really bad example, but I think there is a powerful message deep in here. Giving kids some degree of freedom and trusting them is an incredibly powerful gift. You may have no idea where it may lead, but that's exactly the point.
1 When I finally retire, I want to be around a really good liberal arts school where perhaps I can learn a bit and become a more rounded person.
2 The beginning of the space race saw quite a bit of activity in this area among teenagers and the Army even had an office charged with education outreach. Captain Bertrand Brinley wrote Rocket Manuel for Amateurs - I remember it well. Several designs had been created by the Army specifically for teenagers at Fort Sill.
I tried hunting for it and found a pdf version. It is interesting looking at the fabrication skills assumed in teens - of course many kids built stuff back then.
There were more serious books that the military had placed in high school and public libraries around the country free of charge. I remember that was one of the places I first encountered calculus and differential equations.
This was very sexy stuff for a geekish kid. But a word of warning - don't do this at home! You can burn down a house or worse.
3 I can tell the different between 120 and 240 VAC by touch Not recommended, but if it happens enough, you manage to learn.
4 If you have never watched Randy's "Last Lecture", find an hour and a comfortable spot and just watch. It is amazing and perhaps it will inspire you.
I was going to get back into healthy recipes, but someone asked if I had a great pound cake recipe as they have a need this weekend. Poundcakes are really simple with only a few ingredients, but there is some technique if you want a really good one. The ingredients need to be *very* fresh. Safe food next time, but for now ...
° The ingredients need to be at room temperature as cold ingredients do not blend evenly.
° Butter is one of the primary flavors in the cake, so use good sweet butter with high butterfat content. I prefer cultured butter for an even better flavor, but you may have to do some hunting. I can find it at Whole Foods, but warn it is spendy.
° Beat the butter well in a mixer- at least five minutes - and add the sugar slowly. Then beat some more. Constantly scrape the bowl so everything is consistant.
° Add the eggs one at a time. These are your major leavening agent, so you want to incorporate as much air as possible. I like to beat each egg for a full two minutes before adding the next one.
° Use cake flour - this isn't the place for mere AP. Only use a fresh bag.
° When adding the flour, remove the bowl from the mixer and do it by hand. Gently folding in the flour. Stop as soon as the flour is incorporated into the butter and egg mixture!
° 225g very fresh sweet butter or, better yet, cultured butter
° 225g white sugar
° 4 large eggs
° 250g cake flour (King Arthur is good)
° 1 tsp high quality vanilla extract
° 1 tsp baking powder
° a pinch of salt
° Preheat oven to 350° with a rack roughly in the middle of the oven. Butter a 9" x 5" pan.
° Beat the butter at high speed as per instructions above until it is fluffy - about five minutes. Slowly add sugar a bit at a time. Add the first egg and beat 2 minutes, then repeat until all are incorporated scraping the bowl down along the way. Add the vanilla.
° In a separate bowl whisk the dry ingredients.
° Remove the bowl from the mixer and gentle fold in the dry ingredients.
° Pour the mixture into the buttered pan and smooth the top. Pop into the oven and take about 10 minutes until a crust just starts. Now for an artistic touch remove the cake from the oven and use a buttered knife to draw a line down the middle of the top of the cake.
° Return the cake to the oven and bake until a toothpick comes clean - about 60 or 70 minutes for me.
° Cool the cake on a rack for about 10 minutes and then separate it allowing it to cool completely - or until you can't take it anymore.