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HOW TO SPARK YOUR CURIOSITY SCIENTIFICALLY

15.07.21

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Overview from TED

Curious how stuff works? Do a hands-on experiment at home. Physicist Nadya Mason shows how you can demystify the world around you by tapping into your scientific curiosity - and performs a few onstage experiments of her own using magnets, dollar bills and dry ice...

"There's a disconnect between us and the technology that we use. We're completely alienated from the devices that we most depend upon, which can make us feel helpless and empty."

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Nadya Mason

Experimental Physicist

Nadya Mason is a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her experimental research focuses on the fundamental properties of small systems and has applications in nanoscale electronics, including quantum computation devices.

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MY TAKE...

Nadya Mason’s TED Talk focuses on sparking curiosity. In the workplace – especially those with more traditional, hierarchical structures - it is all too easy to perform your duties without ever asking “why”? Children have curiosity in abundance: why are zebras stripy? Why does the sun set? Where does it go?


For children, gaining knowledge is part and parcel of their development: expanding their vocabulary, learning how things works, understanding the repercussions of their actions. To grow is to know, you could say.


It’s no wonder, then, that Amazon includes “Learn & Be Curious” as one of their Leadership Principles. Curiosity isn’t limited to “how” and “why”, it’s about inspiration, innovation and self-improvement. Employees who exhibit a curious nature are, in theory anyway, more likely to challenge the status quo with new or different methods. They are thirsty for knowledge. They are the game-changers of society.


Elon Musk famously utilises “Reasoning from First Principles” as a strategy for success. During an interview with TED curator, Chris Anderson, Musk explained that first principles reasoning is to:


“…boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.


“Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.”


Mason suggests we take our curiosity a step further, with hands-on experiments - an action she feels is pivotal to reducing the disconnect between humans and the everyday technology we depend upon:


“I think that we can reconnect to our devices, rehumanize them in a sense, by doing more hands-on experiments. Why? Well, because an experiment is a procedure to test a hypothesis, demonstrate a fact. It's the way that we use our senses, our hands, to connect the world and figure out how it works. And that's the connection that we're missing.”


She has a point. And it’s not just relevant to technology.


If you’ve ever watched The Great British Bake Off you’ll be familiar with “under-proved and over-baked” creations. To non-bakers – such a myself – they may as well be speaking gibberish. It’s only when you spend time manually working with dough that you truly appreciate the fine line between good and bad; a Paul Hollywood Handshake or a Paul Hollywood Head Shake.


As an experimental physicist, Mason is less focussed on kitchen scales and more on nanoscale electronic devices, and specifically their fundamental quantum mechanical properties. Sounds complicated, right? But I’m curious to know more…

THE "WOW" BEFORE THE "HOW"

Mason’s TED Talk reminds me of a trip to a science museum. They were always much more fun than stately homes or museums. The reason? They were interactive. Hands-on experiments spark curiosity in a way that paragraphs and pictures never could. 


Remember the thrill of touching a plasma ball for the first time or making your sibling’s hair stand on end with a balloon? Maybe you made a rocket in school out of an old Coke bottle, or blew bubbles with Fairy Liquid and a pipe cleaner? As children, experiments were often the first step of learning – the “wow” before the “how”.


Then, one day, we consider ourselves too mature to be wowed by experiments anymore. We seek out knowledge from Google, documentaries, podcasts and books instead. And that, seemingly, is where the so-called “disconnect” comes in.


Mason presents her first experiment to illustrate how a touchscreen works:


“It's just two metal plates, and I can put charge on one of the plates from a battery. OK. And I can measure the charge separation with this voltmeter here. Now -- let's make sure it's working. So when I wave my hand near the plates, you can see that the voltage changes just like the touchscreen responds to my hand.”


She continues:


“But what is it about my hand? Now I need to do more experiments. So I can, say, take a piece of wood and touch one of the plates and see that not much happens, but if I take a piece of metal and touch the plate, then the voltage changes dramatically. So now I can do further experiments to see what the difference is between the wood and the metal, and I should find out that the wood is not conducting but the metal is conducting like my hand.


“And, you see, I build up my understanding. Like, now I can see why I can't use a touchscreen with gloves, because gloves aren't conducting. But I've also broken down some of the mystery behind the technology and built up my agency, my personal input and interactions with the basis of my devices.”


Now, I don’t expect many of us will rush out to buy a voltmeter to replicate the experiment at home but it provides an important lesson nonetheless. As Mason states: “experimenting is a step beyond just taking things apart. It’s testing and doing hands-on critical thinking…   In all cases, I'm gaining control and understanding of the basis of the things that I use.”


But the benefits of a hands-on approach are not limited to control and understanding:


“For one, I'm using my hands, which seem to promote well-being. I'm also engaging in hands-on learning, which has been shown to improve understanding and retention, and even activate more parts of your brain. So hands-on thinking through experiments connects our understanding, even our sense of vitality, to the physical world and the things that we use. Looking things up on the internet does not have the same effect.”

REMEMBER, REMEMBER

I whole-heartedly agree on the retention aspect. I remember far more from experiments I undertook at school than from documentaries I watched a month or so ago. I believe it’s a sensory thing. 


I can still smell the soldiering iron from Design classes. I can feel the heat from a Bunsen burner glowing against my brow in Chemistry. I remember building a bridge out of newspaper, paper straws and toilet rolls. And that crushing feeling of defeat when another team’s bridge withstood heavier weights.


Mason continues with an experiment around magnetism, demonstrating the reactions of different materials and (re)introducing us to superconductors. She explains:


“Now, superconductors can be complex, but even simple experiments can connect us better to the world. So now if I tell you that flash memory works by rotating small magnets, then you can imagine it. You've seen it. Or, if I say that MRI machines use magnetism to rotate magnetic particles in your body, you've seen it done. You've interacted with the technology and understood the basis of these devices.”


It’s fascinating to watch something so complicated being broken down into easily digestible facts. Something I only hope I achieve with my own iluli videos.


Mason concludes – as many TED speakers do - with a call to arms:


“Now, I know that it's hard to add more things to our lives, especially experiments. But I think that the challenge is worth it. Think about how something works, then take it apart to test it. Manipulate something and prove some physical principle to yourself. Put the human back in the technology. You'll be surprised at the connections that you make.”


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to power up a light bulb with a lemon…

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