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For more than 25 years, MIT professor Sherry Turkle has given her students the same assignment at the start of every semester: to write an essay about a childhood object that, above all others, sparked their interest in science. The exercise often raises doubts and anxie­ties among the students. Swept up in a sea of freshman labs and problem sets, many are initially baffled by an assignment that requires more than textbooks and calculators to complete.

So students call home to reminisce with their parents and siblings. On visits home, they ­rummage in attics in search of objects or memories; inevitably, they return to MIT with stories. Turkle, who is the Abby Rocke­feller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, has compiled the best of these stories in her latest volume, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind. “Over the years, it has become clear that this assignment stirs something deep,” she writes.

The essays range widely. Odes to the ever-popular Lego bricks describe the pure joy of building without a blueprint. Other compositions extol the pleasures of taking things apart. And some capture memories that seemed at the time to have nothing to do with science: braiding a stuffed animal’s hair from ever thinner sections taught one student about recursion; baking a chocolate meringue pie helped another to understand geology and the formation of planets. Some students describe finding refuge in objects: a made-up game with a die filled countless hours for a shy child; a Basic manual inspired another to write programs on paper until he finally got a computer of his own.

Turkle’s volume also contains essays from such luminaries as artificial-­intelligence ­pioneer Seymour Papert and MIT president and neuroscience professor Susan ­Hockfield. A light microscope that absorbed much of Hockfield’s attention from the time she was 10 taught her to consider situations at different scales, a habit of mind that has stayed with her through the years. ­Papert reminisces about the gears he fooled around with and which, after hours of concentrated play, helped him make sense of mathe­matics. “I saw multiplication tables as gears, and my first brush with equations in two variables … immediately evoked the differential,” he writes. “By the time I had made a mental gear model of the relation between x and y, figuring how many teeth each gear needed, the equation had become a comfortable friend.”

In her introduction and epilogue, Turkle highlights significant moments within each essay and teases out trends and themes across generations. For example, she notes that despite a subtle shift from analog to digital interests over time, the desire to look under the hood, to seek transparency, and to understand how things work remains constant.

“Objects inspire theories–not all of them can be right,” says Turkle. “But wrong theories give the young scientist a sense of intellectual ownership that is heady, powerful, and leads to more theory-building. This collection suggests that for the developing scientific mind, the power of being right can be highly overrated. It seems more important to feel that you ‘own’ an idea.”

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