“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein. [To Margot Einstein, after his sister Maja’s death, 1951; quote by Hanna Loewy in A&E Television Einstein Biography, VPI International, 1991].
Authors like Arthur J. Miller (Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc), suggest that Einstein approached science like an artist. He looked at the world with curiosity, asked novel questions, and took creative, original approaches to answering them. Einstein suggested that his Special Theory of Relativity began as a “child-like” experiment based on “curiosity” when he was 16 years old. He wondered what would happen if he caught up with a beam of light. He imagined himself chasing a beam of light — science lore suggests that he thought of this while watching the beam from his headlamp while riding a bicycle. He thought about that question for about 10 years and then articulated his answer in 1905 with his theory of relativity. His curiosity and intuition lead the way, followed by years of study, until he had the tools and logic to explain his theory. See Norton, John D., “Chasing the Light: Einstein’s Most Famous Thought Experiment,” prepared for Thought Experiments in Philosophy, Science and the Arts, eds., James Robert Brown, Mélanie Frappier and Letitia Meynell, New York: Routledge, 2013.[http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/papers/Chasing_final.pdf]
Nature is the classroom, and the child, lead by curiosity, is the student. If Einstein was right and nature is the key to understanding everything, a child must be encouraged and permitted to turn the key. We can learn by reading about everything that has come before us, but then we limit our understanding to what is already known and to the ideas, theories, and interpretations of others. This “book learning” is an important foundation, of course, but it will not satisfy the Einsteins among us. The vault of human knowledge has room for new ideas, new imaginings, and for the satisfaction of new curiosities.
Einstein encourages us to look deep: to experience nature — look, touch, taste, feel, listen. Ask questions, think, and then go back and experience nature more. Innovate tools that help us look closer, farther, more intensely. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to explore the world. Give an infant an object and watch what happens — she touches it, looks at it, tastes it, and responds to any noise it makes. Through repeated instances of interaction with her environment, the baby learns about the world relative to her place in it. Then language comes and with it the endless stream of questions: What is that? Why? and later, What if…?
If we want children to grow up to expand the world of knowledge for all humanity, we must expose them to nature and give them space and time to engage their natural curiosity. Let them dream up questions. Instill in the child the drive to discover (after all, it takes perseverance to pursue an idea for 10 years!). Give them freedom to dream up their own, original answers. Let children explore, ponder, think, look deeply, and understand everything better.