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See Inside August 2011

Out of the Brains of Babes

Small children can have big ideas



Illustration by Max Collins

Parents often wonder what their little ones are absorbing from them. For example, my mother had a wonderful vocabulary. So it may be more than a family fable that when I was asked as a two-year-old whether I was wet, I allegedly responded, “No, I’m saturated.” Then again, my father has always tended to interpret things quite literally, which may explain why, a year or two later, my supposed response to the question of how my favorite record went was “’round and around and around.” (This all happened shortly after the invention of movable type, when music was literally pressed onto large vinyl disks that “turned” on what was fittingly called a turntable. For more on turntables, see this space in the June issue.)

I was reminded of preposterously precocious utterances by tiny tykes during a brief talk that string theorist Brian Greene gave at the opening of the 2011 World Science Festival in New York City on June 1. Greene said he sometimes wondered about how much information small children pick up from standard dinner-table conversation in a given home. He revealed that he got some data to mull over when he hugged his three-year-old daughter and told her he loved her more than anything in the universe, to which she replied, “The universe or the multiverse?”

Closer to home (well, my home at least), my seven-year-old grandnephew has often exhibited an interest in various science and math topics. He, like many preschoolers at the time, was deeply disappointed by the 2006 demotion of Pluto from the family of planets. So great was his grief then that when I asked him about Pluto’s fall, he only said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” More recently, he was a passenger when his grandfather exited a highway onto a cloverleaf that took them off their northern route toward the east, then south and then west onto the next road. With that maneuver complete, the kid said, “That was a 270-degree turn.” Which he either learned from his smart parents or from watching the X Games.

Of course, not all children are destined for a life in the sciences. Many, if not most, seem well suited, if you will, for the law. Take the case of another seven-year-old of my acquaintance who was given “five more minutes” by her parents to enjoy the beach. When they sounded the alarm to leave, she announced that it was simply unfeasible for that much time to have passed: “that wath like 10 thecondth,” she explained. Of course, it is possible that she had been moving at relativistic speeds, in which case both she and her parents could have been correct.

After I turned this column in to Scientific American editor in chief Mariette DiChristina, she told a story about her then five-year-old daughter Mallory’s ability to calculate rapidly. Mallory wondered aloud how old Mariette would be when Mallory reached her mom’s age, 42 at the time. “Let’s see...,” Mariette began. Then Mallory answered her own question, laughing at her mother’s silliness for even bothering to try to do the math: “Oh, Mom, you’ll be dead!”

The young people discussed so far are obviously charming and insightful. And yet for truly scary little-kid brain activity, it’s hard to beat the very young Carl Friedrich Gauss. As legend has it, the budding mathematician was in grade school when his instructor assigned him the mundane task of adding up all the numbers from 1 to 100. The teacher might have been hoping to catch some zzz’s in the corner while Gauss would be busy adding 1 to 2 to get 3, then 3 to that sum to get 6, then 4 to that sum to get 10, ad literally nauseam. But just a moment passed—perhaps merely 10 thecondth—before Gauss announced that the answer was 5,050. Which it sure is.

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