When my kids were young and still filled with wonder, their school held an annual “Science Fair” for the upper elementary grades. Science was not a strong suit at that school. The organizers of the fair had no sense of the difference between science and technology, and the thing soon devolved into show in which the pupils brought “inventions”, sometimes only imagined though there were some working prototypes from the more ambitious kids. The projects were displayed on folding tables in the gym. The young inventors stood by their projects while a jury of stern teachers with clipboards passed among them, rating their work. The winning students earned the pride of achievement, I guess, but no shred of the joy of discovery of new knowledge, which is what drives scientific discovery, was present in that room.
The event occurred each May in the evening. The children stood by their project tables, more or less at attention, to answer the occasional question from barely engaged parents who wandered by, as logy as cluster flies in October. Once the jury came and his project was evaluated, each pupil was dismissed. At that point most of them, uninterested in the other “science” projects, usually retired into the twilight of the playground just outside. From there the music of the children’s laughter barely penetrated to the solemn ceremony inside. They skipped after frogs the the swale that girdled the field like a moat. They chased butterflies among the milkweed until the sky reddened in the west, and then chased fireflies through the thickening dusk.
The great irony was, of course, that the science did not begin for these children until they were dismissed from the Science Fair. What was happening outside, what made the laughter, was pure, self-motivated discovery. A child’s mind, left to its own devices, boils with the curiosity that drives science, relentlessly explores the physical world around it, and swells with joy at each new self-directed discovery. Children lack only the clarity of insight and precision of thought that marks a Galileo or a Maxwell. The ones who keep that childish wonder ablaze within them as their minds mature are the Einsteins yet to come. “There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics,” wrote J. Robert Oppenheimer, “because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”
Artists respond to the same muse that scientists do. All children are Leonardos. Give a small child a box of crayons or a set of tempera paints and you will get a stream of creativity and confident self-expression that will knock your socks off if you really look at it. As children get older, doubts begin to grow within them, mostly planted there by well-meaning adults. The child is told “This is how you draw a house” and hears instead: You don’t know how to draw a house. Over time this feeling generalizes: I can’t draw. Sure enough, now he can’t. “The chief enemy of creativity,” said Pablo Picasso, “is ‘good’ sense.”
Art and science are not the same thing, of course. In many ways they are polar opposites. Science is analytic: it breaks things down and puts the the pieces back together, like a child with a broken mechanical toy, to gain insight into what makes the universe work. Art is synthetic, putting disparate pieces together, like a child with Legos, to create something new that helps us understand how the universe works. What art and science share, what powers both, is wonder. “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” wrote Einstein, “the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Wonder is what children do best, and what adults often find hardest to do. “It took me four years to paint like Raphael,” said Picasso. “It has taken me a lifetime to paint like a child.” We need to cherish our children’s ways of thinking, not bend them to our own.