Small Things Amuse Great Minds: Foreword

When I was growing up, “Small things amuse small minds” was a common putdown, especially in my own homeland where ignorance ran and still runs high and indeed was and still is celebrated: this sorry plight of my homeland lingers till this day.  The charitable putdown was especially thrown at anyone who dared explore their World and take heed of and indeed delight in subtleties found in everyday things that the rest of their rigid and mean minded fellows took for granted and peremptorily  brushed aside as being thoroughly understood and unworthy of further thought or investigation. You’d have to be really, thoroughly stupid down to your sheer bones to ask that one, was one of the common undertexts of such a scolding.

Related to the “Small things amuse small minds” putdown was and is the scolding of someone for their lack of “common sense”: an exalted attribute which the scolder is almost unfailingly utterly sure they themselves have in overflowing supply to lord it over the butt of their grandstanding. If one questioned such drivvel, often one was met with turns of phrase such as “it stands to reason”. Whose reason would  that be, I often wondered?

One of Albert Einstein’s famous statements is the definition of common sense as that forgathering of bigotries and prejudices one amasses by the age of eighteen. Whilst always leaning towards agreeing with his statement, in my younger days I felt it might have been a little harsh and maybe bespoke somewhat Einstein’s own social ineptitude. At the same period in my life, I always felt that scientists could do a great deal better at getting their ideas across to a public whom they lorded their knowledge over and whom I felt they could better respect: after all, one comes to science through opportunity that doesn’t befall everyone and we scientists should be mindful of our privilege in dealing with non scientists, shouldn’t we?

Then I had children, and, as their primary carer for much of their early lives, I spent a great deal of time watching them and their fellows, as I helped out at my daughter’s kindergarten and met with other “mothers’ group members” (for my fellow carers were and are overwhelmingly female in 2014 Australia) to talk about and watch their children. On spending any length of one’s time thus, one cannot help but make the following observation:

The scientific and logical mindset is something we are born with. It does not come through years of training: it is inborn and intrinsic to our species. We, like all other members of the Animal Kingdom are driven by instinct. And one of the most outwardly manifest of all human instincts in a small child is the drive to learn. Such instincts are somewhat seldom in the Animal Kingdom – not that many species show a love of learning for its own sake – but they are certainly there nonetheless: Wolves, Elephants, Bears, Orang-utans being the obvious ones. We are born to explore, observe, listen and learn, and the evolutionary advantage that such curiosity begets is blindingly obvious: how could it be any other way?

I watched my daughter pore over the tiny creatures of her World, she would watch ants working their nests and beetles lumbering their way for hours. She drew the most exquisite delight from tracing the veins in a leaf with her tiny fingers, glowing with life and the joy at being brought into such a beautiful World with so much to explore. One of the clearest memories of my son’s early life is of a baby as yet unable to crawl but yet still dragging himself stubbornly through the long grass in his aunt’s back yard, drawn to tiny flowers no less than a millimetre across, so small that I had long ceased noticing them in the World around me, if indeed I ever did. His face glowed with delight at the little jewels he found and beheld: tiny yellow, purple, orange and pink gems. And then suddenly he became aware of a snail slithering into his ken and was enthralled by this tiny, wondrous creature sharing his World for the best part of half an hour.

No, science is not arcane, unless we choose it to be. Scientists do not lack communications skills, at least not more than anyone else. The scientific method is nothing more, as observed by Geoff Davies, a  geophysicist of the Australian National University, than the formalisation of the kind of everyday thinking one does when urgently trying to work out such things as why didn’t my cat come home? No, it is ignorance that needs effort to cultivate. Years of refusing to listen to the World, years suffered by a child having the ignorance of grown ups around them punched into them. Ignorance is, in a wealthy country such as my homeland has been, not a lack of opportunity – it is a willful and often altogether cowardly conscious choice by people who certainly have the opportunity to know better. People who lack nothing, but for courage. This is the dross Einstein spoke of – this is what we amass by the age of eighteen. Having watched children as I have, Einstein seems spot on, perhaps even more so than he was when he gave us the wonderful geometric description of the World in the General Theory of Relativity. At least there is some uncertainty in the latter!: notwithstanding its almost unparalleled success in foretelling astronomical observation, physicists generally agree that it has to break down at some point in conditions of extreme gravity.

And what of this saying “Small things amuse small minds”? I found a rather lovely antidote to it some years ago at a mother-baby unit that Mindal and I both checked ourselves into when we found ourselves overwhelmed by the birth of our daughter Nakira. Much of the therapy in such a place is rightly directed at either growing or regaining one’s sense of wonder at the little being now in one’s care, and a poster there showed a drawing of a child, perhaps two years of age, experimenting in the kitchen. Making a bit of a mess. Expressing that learning instinct I speak of. The caption read: “The Worlds Greatest Scientists and Explorers – Wear Nappies”. How true it was and is.

And moreover, even in the realm of the professional scientist, the phrase “Small things amuse small minds” is so patently, so utterly unadulterated, neat bullshit. For it is precisely the intense focus on something small, something taken for granted by everyone else, and in that focus the seeing or grasping of a tiny quirk or seeming whimsy of Nature and the probing of something seemingly so everyday and so wonted – this is the kind of thing that almost invariably has begotten the true revolutions, the true leaps in knowledge in the history of science. The history of science has overwhelmingly shown, on the contrary, that

“Small Things Amuse Great Minds”.

Another truth of children one understands on spending time with them is summarised in the words of Plutarch of Chaeronea:  the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled. Actually I would go further and describe the child’s mind not so much as a fire to be kindled, but a thirst that must not be quenched.

So in putting together the activities of these notes, I have tried to concentrate on the very simple, to emphasise that by asking probing questions of the very simple and everyday World, deep insights are to be had. Much of my own generation has been irrevocably marred by the dross Einstein spoke of: our aim in the education of our children must therefore be to kindle and not to mould, if humanity is to have any hope of surviving. The cultivating of a love of learning, of an everlasting deep connexion with one’s own innate curiosity is the kind of thing activities like those here hopefully can help in some small way.