childhood, science

Low-Hanging Fruit

I was talking with the Little Man last night, and he was being gloomy. He told me what he wants to do when he grows up: he wants to get a degree in Electrical Engineering and help design a plane that hovers. But then as we were chatting about that and the Arduino kit he wants me to get for him, he told me he doesn’t think there’s anything new left for him to discover. It’s all be done, he said sadly. I can’t do anything new or exciting.

Not at all, I told him. There are tons of things still to discover, it’s just that the easy ones are done already. I started talking to him about science fiction, and how reading hard science fiction can help him learn to think about what if? and what happens if this goes on? and how to dream. What about fantasy? he asked. Can fantasy reading help too? Sure, I told him, and gave him Clarke’s Law to chew on. That led to a conversation about were-cats from one of my books, and shifting, and could that really be a not-magical thing? Which probably no, but it was still a great conversation in which I also learned my son is a fan of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman. The little things in life that make a mother’s heart happy.

But as I was thinking about it after I’d given him the pep-talk, I realized I’m guilty of the same kind of thinking. Insufficient imagination. From a science fiction writer, no less! Bad Cedar. I’d been thinking that in my chosen field, the discoveries have all been made. I’m just here to read the cookbook and follow along the well-trodden paths. Sure, the low-hanging fruit has been harvested first, but that makes sense if you think about it. If you reached for the high fruit first, you’d just knock down the low fruit and waste them. It’s not a perfect parallel to scientific discovery, but… you have to first make the easy proofs, in order to support the harder ones. Or, as has been pointed out, in order to spark the questions about the easy proofs that disprove them later on. If we look back in the history of science, there are plenty of assumptions that were overturned later by researchers who refused to accept the cookbook’s recipes, and instead asked “what if?”

There’s a lot of pressure to not question science. Don’t upset the applecart, with all that low-hanging fruit in it that was picked early. “The science is settled” is a chain around the necks of the young scientists who feel that there’s nothing new for them to discover. Breaking that chain and letting them free to truly explore what their world holds for them is perhaps the greatest legacy I can leave my son.

So really what I need to teach him is to question endlessly. It’s a trait that can be a total PITA, but it can also lead to answers I might never have thought to seek out myself. And I need to remember to do that, too. Don’t settle for what’s handed to me. Look for ways to fit the pieces together to create new and beautiful logic-images. Just because the low fruit is gone doesn’t mean the past hasn’t left a ladder of knowledge for us to climb up and reach the high fruit.

8 thoughts on “Low-Hanging Fruit

  1. One of the great things about Arduinos is that they’re cheap and they’re exceedingly versatile, and the ‘accessory’ inputs you can get are also inexpensive.

    Back in the early ’80s I was involved in a minor way with a mobile surveying system that used high-precision gyroscopes and accelerometers. It was on the bleeding edge of what could realistically be done with a 3-axis stabilized platform and the computing equipment of the time and it was in the million-dollar category.

    I got a bit interested in Arduinos, thought it’d be fun to build a leveling system for a trailer that could send a signal to my phone so I’d know when it was level. I was thinking curved tube with a metal ball running through it, activating magnetic switches… but then I spotted a $6 chip that had a 3-axis gyro and accelerometers.

    $6. As opposed to however much that system I used cost before they abandoned it. (There’s a few references on-line, nothing dating past the mid-80s, near as I can tell. It may be lost tech history at this point.)

    Cobbled it together, along with a bluetooth adapter – and it worked! I can clearly see the signals from it on my cell phone, has a range of about 45 feet. The Arduino programming language is a bit like old BASIC, so I could bash something together that’d work to read the gyros and the accelerometers and shove it out through the Bluetooth adapter.

    Only problem is that beyond that I can’t code worth beans, so what I wanted as a user interface on the phone never got done. So much to do, so little time…

    If there’s somewhere near you that sells parts and kits, I’d recommend the various Inland brand Arduino starter kits. And for a good book on them, the No Starch Press “Arduino Workshop” was good.

    Tell him there’s a lot to learn, and whenever someone says ‘The science is settled’ – that means they’re really just going “We don’t want any more questions and don’t want to defend what we’ve told you!” What he sees as a solid wall right now is easily broken through with imagination and knowledge.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Thank you! I was trying to figure out which would be the best Arduino kit to get him, there are a ton on Amazon and Ebay. He’s playing with breadboards in computer class and had asked me to get him an Arduino but I want to pick up a kit so he has doodads to play with.

      1. The Elegoo sets look pretty good on Amazon, in terms of a price/doodad ratio. You could go to the site and shop there – but I think you’ll get a better price on Amazon. And virtually all the Arduinos work the same way, so there’s no problems getting a clone.

        I think he’s in for some fun this Christmas. Sure wish I’d had something like this to play with when I was his age! 😉

  2. I don’t remember what time period but I think late 1800 they were talking about closing patent office because every thing must have already been discovered .

    1. I think I remember hearing that before. There are always pieces missing out of the puzzle, it’s just that we sometimes don’t see that the picture isn’t complete, I suppose.

  3. In terms of speculative fiction, the fruit only seems to be low-hanging after someone else has already picked it. The tropes that today are considered standard in SF/F were all revolutionary when they first appeared. I am currently relistening to the first three of William Gibson’s Sprawl series (“Neuromancer”, “Count Zero”, “Mona Lisa Overdrive”) and while many of the concepts in that trio of novels have been reused by other authors, the overall aesthetic of Gibson’s world is as strikingly original now as when I first read it thirty years ago.

    I don’t think we’re anywhere close to inventing everything that can be invented, either in fiction or in real life science.

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