Dr. Marilyn Pifer discusses what mutated candy corn can tell us about scientific thinking and reminds us all that we were once scientists... tiny, baby scientists.
The crisper, cooler air and shorter days here in the temperate latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere signal that we are entering a change of seasons: Beach Season now gives way to Candy Season, that dangerously delightful time that stretches from late October (Halloween treats and Day of the Dead sugar skulls) through December (Hanukkah gelt and Christmas candy canes), into February (Valentine’s Day chocolates) and wraps up in April (Easter eggs NOT made of egg). As I prepare for another diet-busting six months, it seems an appropriate time to consider how we all start out as scientists, how and why many of us lose that curiosity, and what we can do to get it back. Such as … eating candy corn.
Stay with me on this one.
We all start out as scientists
Babies are wonderful scientists - endlessly curious, exploring their world and experimenting to find out more about it. Long before language acquisition, babies form thoughts and conduct experiments:
“I knocked the spoon-thing off my high-chair tray and it fell down. And it made a neat noise on the floor! Now I’ve got it back, what will happen if I do it again? Ooh, same thing! And again? This is neat! Also, Mama keeps giving it back to me. She must like that I’m doing this! Oh, now she’s not giving it back. That’s different! Why?”
As children grow, they keep asking “why?” and “how?” and “what will happen if…?
"This wall looks like a big sheet of paper. Can I use my crayons on it? YES! It works!"
“I wonder why the clock makes that ticking sound? Maybe I can open it up and find out…”
"What an interesting-looking bug! If I pick it up, will it – OWWWWWW!”
But many of us lose that natural hands-on curiosity
Maybe it’s the disappointment and frustration of being told “don’t touch.” Maybe an overtired, overworked, underpaid teacher told us the answer instead of suggesting that we figure it out ourselves. Maybe it was just easier to find the answer online.
Whatever the reason, for too many of us, science becomes a subject of avoidance and suspicion, instead of the source of fascination it was before we ever knew the word “science.”
In the USA, despite having universal primary and secondary education and many of the finest scientists and engineers in the cosmos, there are still plenty of educated adults that question what science tells us – about climate, about genetically modified food, about evolution, even about whether the moon landings were real. In a world highly dependent on technology, we risk dangerously uninformed policy decisions if our policymakers are among the science doubters.
It’s true that some scientific truths initially seem counterintuitive, even heretical – like the earth going around the sun, instead of the sun going around the earth. This is what got Copernicus and Galileo into trouble. But if we learn through our own observations that the correct conclusions may be quite unexpected, perhaps we can also learn to trust the observations of scientists, no matter how surprising they initially seem. Maybe we can restore our early impulse to think like scientists, and apply that curiosity and critical thinking to our daily lives.
Which brings me back to candy corn
We all know the look and shape: a rounded yellow end, with an orange middle tapering to a white tip. And yet there’s something not quite right about some of the kernels. A yellow end has a bit of orange on one side. Or there’s no yellow top at all. Or the orange middle is mysteriously missing. What happened to those?
It turns out that examining the ones that don’t look like the others reveals information about how candy corn is made. Is the white part ever on the wrong end? Are the kernels with just two colors the same size as the regular ones? Are any of the odd ones larger than the regular ones? By observing the mistakes, it’s possible to figure out the basic process. Which part is made first? How do you know? I won’t spoil it by telling you. You can figure it out for yourself.
This is the same way biologists figure out what’s going on in living things. There’s a lot to be learned from looking at the “normal” organisms – known as the “wild type” – but what’s really revealing is to observe the unusual ones – the mutants – the ones in which something is different. Sometimes the difference is better, more often not so good. Looking at enough of the different ones can help us figure out how the “wild types” get to look and behave the way they do.
The approach of noticing the different ones is not limited to biology
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics honors the observation that neutrinos can change their basic characteristics. These sub-atomic particles can mutate! It’s pretty complicated, but the two 2015 Physics Laureates proved that this unexpected change means neutrinos have mass, which further proves that the Standard Model cannot be the full description of the universe. Like many other Nobel Prizes, this prize honors a discovery that fundamentally shifted thinking in a scientific field, in this case, the fundamental theory of how the universe is put together. Wow. Was this an obvious result? No way.
And that underscores something else about science: a lot of the easily observable stuff has already been figured out, so breakthroughs are likely to be non-obvious and non-observable to those outside the field. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong. The scientific method requires replication, verification, argument, interpretation, and ultimately consensus.
If we rely only on what we can directly observe, as the science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke observed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Let’s give those who are trained in their subjects the benefit of the doubt. But let’s also turn our own powers of observation to what we can directly observe. There’s a lot we can learn.
So, think like a scientist this Candy Season. Embrace your inner scientist, that kid scientist that each of us once was. No, not that boring grown-up, that kid scientist that each of us once was. Rediscover that once boundless curiosity that drove us to drop our spoons off our kitchen tables and color on the walls.This Halloween, and the throughout the rest of candy season, examine some mutant candy corn, or some oddly-striped candy canes, or a bunch of funny-looking jelly beans. Observe. Experiment. You might discover something about how your favorite sweet treat is made.You might discover something different or entirely unexpected! You might even re-discover the joy of discovery.
Field Note: My latest discovery is that mutant candy corn tastes just as good as wild type, but I’m continuing my experiments.