Impressing the Science out of Children

This is Chapter 13 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

The Science and Engineering Television Network (SETN) would like to help science teachers. In a draft Internet announcement,/1/ SETN's president, Gary Welz, talks about the moving pictures that scientists and engineers create, ranging from “dazzling supercomputer animations produced by mathematicians and physicists to the video images of living cells shot by biologists through powerful microscopes.” Teachers lack access to this “exciting visual material” -- which he thinks a shame, for “it is precisely the stuff that could stimulate a greater interest in mathematics and science.” His proposed solution? Employ the Internet's video capabilities.

The assumption here is dead wrong. Video images, of course, will have their worthwhile uses. But high-tech dazzle is not what stimulates interest in math and science. Such a notion nevertheless seems implicit in much of the push for online science lessons today. Unless nature comes packaged with cinematic drama and slick technology -- unless we find some way to capture the most remote and astounding phenomena (so our fears seem to run) -- we'll lose the kids.

Yes, supercomputer animations of subatomic transactions and video images of strange, unseen interiors possess a certain wow factor. But they do not foster in the child either an understanding of the world or a more eager pursuit of scientific discipline. One doubts, in fact, whether these productions are received in any different spirit than Saturday morning cartoons and Hollywood's special effects. What they are likely to do is create a demand for the next advance in our ability to deliver a high-impact image. Most of us probably need only refer back to our own experience in order to satisfy ourselves that television nature programs -- presumably much more impressive than the city park or the woods out back -- offer no particular encouragement for children to become naturalists.

The fact is that efforts to impress children into science are more likely to do the opposite. The crucial requirement is not that the child receive maximal impact from some display, but rather that he actively discover within himself a connection to the phenomena he is observing. In this connection --arising from a properly engaged imagination and not from a surfeit of stimulation -- are to be found both the need to understand and the terms of understanding. But the supercomputer animations and strange videos visited upon him by technology preempt the imagination and operate at an abstract remove from the child. Just as he may have few grounds for distinguishing the evening news from the ensuing movie -- and therefore little cause for personally engaging the issues over which the reporters seem so distantly exercised -- so, too, he may find himself quite unrelated (other than incidentally and passively, via the jolt level) to images presented in the name of science.

Two-minute science lessons

Science museums have come a long way in technological sophistication during the past several decades. We pour great sums of money into exhibits designed to impress. Have these high-tech exhibits brought greater teaching effectiveness? Donald Norman is skeptical:

If the people stick with an exhibit for as long as two or three minutes, the curators are delighted. Two or three minutes? How on earth can anyone ever learn anything in two or three minutes? It takes hours. Recall the estimate of five thousand hours to turn a novice into an expert (and even this isn't really enough). Granted, we don't expect the science museum to produce experts, but two or three minutes?/2/

The director of a major science museum explained to Norman that “visitors don't want to read lengthy descriptions or to hear the details of science. We have done our job if we can get them excited by the phenomena of science.” So the excitement need no longer be the excitement of a penetrating sympathy and an aroused understanding! Just entertain the visitor, and hope the impact will lead to active interest sometime later.

Oh, yes, these museum experiences may create a thirst for more. But this particular thirst will most likely be quenched in a theme park, virtual reality game, or high-tech movie. If these latter are any guides -- and, in our society, they are already perhaps the dominant custodians of childhood imagination -- one can receive an impression without its provoking an increased desire to understand. Furthermore, it seems to me that anyone who directly observes the impressions made upon children through technical artifice and the media of artificial vision can only conclude that these are more likely to kill off the world than to bring it alive. Certainly there seems to be a growing consensus that the sustained assault of televised images tends to induce apathy, hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, and various antisocial effects in young children.

Where does wonder come from?

How, in this context, can we naively extrapolate from a child's fixation upon captivating images to his pursuit of science? The child who has just watched Jurassic Park may be obsessed with dinosaurs; he may want you to buy every plastic, stuffed, and inflatable dinosaur within sight; he may, if he is young enough, delight in a visit to a fossil site where he can scratch around for real bones. We can only hope, however, that the scratching does not prove, over the long run, a sadly unvisceral experience compared to watching the movie.

Of course, it need not -- not if we have given the youthful explorer the ability to bring a fragment of bone alive, discovering in it a lost world of mystery; not if, peering through the eye sockets of a skull, he becomes a lithe, four-legged hunter prowling a wondrous, alien landscape, skirting the shadows of imagination in an endless, hungry quest; not if he senses within himself something of this same instinctive prowess, both honoring it and finding appropriate expression for it; not, finally, if he is encouraged during each passing year to fill in this world of his explorations with an ever deeper and truer imagination.

If, on the other hand, his imagination has been co-opted by the incessant bombardment of artificial images, forced upon him in excruciating and dazzling detail, with little of his own creative participation, then the outcome is indeed doubtful. With each fresh assault we deprive him of one more opportunity, before his psyche is wholly distracted and scattered, to develop a sense of wonder and reverence before the mysteries of the real world -- the world he can directly perceive and bring to life from within. In no other way can the world live.

There is a difference between “special effects wonder” and the true wonder that leads toward a devout scientific curiosity. The latter, as I have already indicated, grows from an awareness of one's immediate connection to the phenomena -- from a sense that the inner essence of what one is looking at is somehow connected to the inner essence of oneself. But this connection -- despite all the academic talk of how we ourselves “construct” the world -- is something scarcely experienced any longer. The world has become alien and our science a basket of abstractions -- equations and particles, fields and statistical distributions.

It would be ironic if the scientist, having given up the phenomenal world for these technologically effective abstractions, should then try to reengender public interest in science by embodying the abstractions in a kind of docudrama -- a “dramatic reenactment” of nature (with technical enhancements, of course). In this would be an admission that it is only to phenomena -- not to equations and metaphysically conceived particles -- that we can find a connection. And yet, those dazzling supercomputer animations of subatomic realms are -- as phenomenal displays -- not merely “virtual”; they are almost totally false, as any respectable physicist will insist. To extract their modicum of abstruse, mathematical truth is hopelessly beyond the primary-age student (and perhaps the rest of us as well).

Furthermore, these false phenomena of our technological creation are even more remote from the child than the equations by which we conjure them, for they now stand at two removes from nature: first there is the reduction to mathematics, and then the reembodiment of the mathematics in an unreal and deceiving model. All this, however, is extraordinarily difficult to convey to a person raised on artificial images and alienated from the surrounding world.

The loss of nature

Imagine the delight of a very small child, upon whose finger a honeybee or butterfly has just alighted. Butterfly and child are not then two unrelated creatures. The child is not looking at a butterfly. He and the butterfly have, for the moment, found themselves sharing destinies in a suddenly transformed world. This world speaks to the child, but only because he has plunged into it, and does not know it as disconnected from himself. Moreover, an unbroken thread links his delight to the mature awe of the most detached, far-seeing scientist.

In the video image, it is not the world that speaks, except indirectly, by means of abstractions wholly beyond the child's ability to understand. The child, who can be wonderfully at home in nature, is most definitely not at home amid the complex techniques of the film and computer laboratories -- nor amid the unapproachable images mediated by those techniques. The images are unanchored, floating free of the world.

An anecdote may help here. A correspondent, upset by my views on the use of computers in education, wrote that “with computers, you can watch a caterpillar become a butterfly. You can just as easily watch it become a cow, a stegosaurus, or a basilisk.” On this basis he claimed that “the message of electronic media is true -- to the imagination.”

This is horrifying. Has the imagination nothing to do with nature's truth? By what law does my computer change a caterpillar into a cow, rather than a butterfly? To be sure, both metamorphoses look equally “lawful” on my display screen. But that is the horror, for the child will have no reason to differentiate the one from the other. In nature, however, one would be beautiful, and the other a grotesque nightmare. Pity the children in whom we plant such nightmares as if from the hand of nature herself!

But even the video image of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly may be a nightmare, for it pretends to be “the world,” and yet the little boy's living excitement is no longer there. He has been robbed of it in favor of a different, more passive fascination -- one implicated, moreover, in the destruction of imagination. Nor can he preserve a sense for the inner truthfulness of the caterpillar's transformation when he finds it arbitrarily juxtaposed with feverish hallucinations. Abstractly, there is no difference; in the computer animation everything is lawful, which is to say that natural law -- nature -- has disappeared. And even where the images are “real” ones, these realities are now abstract -- no longer rendered by the true fire of imagination flickering between child and butterfly -- and they do not cause the finger to tremble. By subjecting the child to these distant reflections of truth prematurely, we risk destroying his living connection to the world.

A child raised in deep communion with nature will later gain an adult ability to deal properly with abstraction. But even for the adult, abstraction wholly divorced from its matrix of origin leads only to effective power shorn of understanding or meaning. That is why the equations governing subatomic “particles” have landed any who bother to consider their meaning in a metaphysical quagmire. The equations have become so utterly detached from the phenomena of the world that we cannot find our way back.

The physicist may choose the lostness of her abstractions. But for the healthy child this lostness is truly a nightmare, and we are criminal to inflict it upon him, unasked.


1. Net announcement, “Science and Engineering Television on the Internet: Scientific Publishing in a New Medium,” posted by SETN (, September 15, 1993.

2. Norman, 1993: 39.

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