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.