Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Childhood "Gears"

Seymour Papert's "Gears of My Childhood", the foreword to his book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, serves as our first LCL activity to share.  Briefly, Papert reflects back on his love of mechanical gears, viewing them as an adaptive model onto which he was able to overlay new and potentially difficult concepts in a familiar way. In his words, "[a]nything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models."

Chaisson and McMillan
An astronomy textbook was my childhood gears.  No older than 6, I still remember being in the bookstore in the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas and finding the book.  I can no longer recall the title or authors, nor am I sure I even know where the book is anymore, but I was compelled at that moment in the mall to have it.

Thoroughly engrossed by the pictures, I studied every page of the book.  But I also read through it over and over again and was particularly fascinated by the planets.  I made "information" sheets for each of them and asked my mom to make copies, along with images taken from the book, which I then distributed to my friends, so that they could also become experts in one or two of the planets.  So, for Christmas one year, my parents bought me a telescope.  And in the middle of a cold winter night in 1986, my dad took me out to the mountains to look at Halley's Comet, which is still one of my favorite childhood memories.

This book fueled my love of science and astronomy in particular because, in retrospect, I was fascinated at how we could come to know about objects that were so far away from us.  I was fascinated by knowledge and the process by which we acquired it.  I was captivated by the challenge that we had to overcome to send probes into space that would send information back to us.  And most of all, I was infatuated by connected systems that influence each other and work together, not unlike Papert's gears.  On account of that, my love of astronomy transformed to a love of chemistry, physics, and then engineering; but everything came together when I found historical linguistics, studying languages as connected systems that evolve through time.  It's hard to believe, but there are quite a number of similarities between astrophysics and historical linguistics.  And thanks to my obsession with that book, I've been able to use these similarities to make more sense of the both of them.