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Building Blocks

Students remember the allure of things.

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.

Falling for Science: Objects in Mind
By Sherry Turkle
MIT Press, 2008, $24.95

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.”

Recent Books
From the MIT community

Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration
By Keith Sawyer ‘82
Basic Books, 2007, $26.95, $16.95 paper

Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin
By Lawrence Weinstein, PhD ‘88, and John A. Adam
Princeton University Press, 2008, $19.95

Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry
By Leo Beranek, ­former MIT faculty member
MIT Press, 2008, $24.95

Climate Change: What’s Your Business Strategy?
By Andrew J. Hoffman, SM ‘91, PhD ‘95, and John G. Woody
Harvard Business Press, 2008, $18.00

The Neuroscience of Fair Play
By Donald W. Pfaff, PhD ‘65
Dana Press, 2007, $20.95

Searching for Steely Dan (a novel)
By Rick Goeld ‘67
Lulu.com, 2006, $14.95

Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games
By Eric Klopfer, associate ­professor of science ­education and director of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program
MIT Press, 2008, $35.00

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Space Flight
By David A. Mindell, ­professor and director of the Program in ­Science, Technology, and Society
MIT Press, 2008, $29.95

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2007 and 2008 to be considered for this column.

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