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Every three year old is a scientist. This is the age we ask “why” about nearly everything around us. And even after hearing the answer, we often do not believe. We have to experiment and see the results for ourselves. This is the age of reaching new and sometimes painful conclusions. I think people who become scientists, like I did, may continue to ask “why” longer, but not in a way very different from a young persons’. Why is it science becomes so distant from many of us when we grow up?

When I was young, I had the idea that I could see through things. I thought my parents should know, and told them about it. Mom’s advice was not to talk about it. Dad looked at me for a while, then asked what exactly it was that I thought I could see through.

Laying on my side with a pillow close to my face, I could see my hand on the other side. The vision of my hand was off and on, depending on whether I was relaxed or trying too hard to see it. Then it disappeared. So, I concluded that I could see through things if I was relaxed enough.

The new experiment: Dad asked me to repeat this, but closing one eye, then the other. Trying this made it clear that one eye had a view of my hand, the other eye a view of the pillow. The discovery of the “why” behind my strange thought delighted me. For the first time, I started to get the idea of perspective and what having 2 eyes meant, how it affected my view of the world around me.

A few years later I learned to sew at home, and had a similar experience. When I held my fingers up to the very intense lightbulb on the sewing machine, I could see through them a bit. The skin became transparent, and the nail and bone darker. It was a little creepy, but this is how I came to understand the idea of X-rays. Light and other kinds of rays can pass through skin more easily than through bone.

When do we stop asking “why”?

For me, a change came in high school. Science in high school was unpleasant for me. Lab was sterile. It smelled bad. Things stored in large crusty bottles could burn me. Other things could blow up. All that glassware to try not to drop. I had to figure out the goggles, which also smelled bad.

But worst of all, I was never, ever allowed to do what I wanted in the lab in high school. I couldn’t play. I couldn’t experiment. Even the word, experiment, took on a new meaning. Something like: Follow directions. Don’t spill things. Don’t blow things up. Write down what happens. Write it legibly.

I rediscovered how much fun it is to ask “why” in college in the lab. I started working in and experimental research lab when I was 19, and didn’t get out of lab work until 20 years later. It was in molecular biology, and I was running DNA through little gels to separate one strand of the double helix from the other. I had fun. Yes, then I loved science again.

I’ve started a new science blog this year, Science rEvolution [Big ideas, little words] to share new science reports using normal words, with less jargon. The focus is on health, enviroment, engineering and research studies. Blog posts are from scientists, healthcare professionals and engineers. If you think you might love science too, I hope you will come visit me there.

About the picture: Does anyone know why birds do this, fly together so perfectly? I took the photo in Rome in the evening during blackbird migration.