Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein
By Chet Raymo

Some years ago, when an insect called the thrips — singular and plural — was in the news for defoliating sugar maples in New England. Some species of thrips give birth to live young, some lay eggs, and at least one species of switch-hitting thrips has it both ways. Not even the wildest product of Dr. Seuss’s imagination,the Moth-Watching Sneth, for example, a bird that’s so big it scares people to death, or the Grickily Gractus, a bird that lays eggs on a cactus — is stranger than creatures, such as the thrips, that actually exist. A reader sent me a photograph of a real tropical bird that does indeed lay eggs on a cactus.

What about the Moth-Watching Sneth? Well, the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar stood eight feet tall and weighed a thousand pounds. In its heyday — only a century or so ago — the elephant bird, or Aepyornis, probably scared many a Madagascan half to death.

Pick any Seussian invention, and nature will equal it. In Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool there’s a fish with a kangaroo pouch. Could there possibly be such a fish in the real world? Not a fish, maybe, but in South America there is an animal called the Yapok — a wonderfully Seussian name — that takes its young for a swim in a waterproof pouch.

Dr. Seuss was a botanist and zoologist of the first rank. Never mind that the flora and fauna he described were imaginary. Any kid headed for a career in science could do no better than to start with the plants and animals that populate the books of the madcap master of biology.

One thrips, two thrips, red thrips, blue thrips. The eggshell of an elephant bird, cut in half, would make a splendid salad bowl. Is it Seuss, or is it reality? You see, the boundary between the so-called “real” world and the world of the imagination begins to blur. And that is just as it should be if a child is to grow up with a proper attitude toward science.

Do black holes, those strange products of the astronomer’s imagination, really exist? What about electrons, invisibly small, fidgeting in their atomic shells? How about the dervish dance of DNA as it unzips down the middle to reproduce itself? No one has ever seen these things, at least not directly. Like the Gractus and the Sneth, they are wonderful inventions of the imagination.

Most science books are packed full of useful information. What most of these books do not convey is the extraordinary adventure story of how the information was obtained, why we understand it to be true, or how it might embellish the landscape of the mind. For many children — and adults, too — science is information, a mass of facts. But facts are not science any more than a table is carpentry. Science is an attitude toward the world — curious, skeptical, undogmatic, forward-looking. To be a scientist, or simply to share the scientific attitude, one must be like the kid in Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra who refused to be limited by the fact of the alphabet: “In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.”

Curiosity, voracious seeing, sensitivity to rules and variations within the rules, and fantasy. These are habits of mind crucial for science that are best learned during childhood.

Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” At first, this might seem a strange thought as it applies to science. We are frequently asked to believe that science takes mystery out of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mystery invites curiosity. Unless we perceive the world as mysterious, we shall never be curious about what makes the world tick.

One Response

  1. The article is very good. Write please more

Comments are closed.