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'Falling For Science': Swinging Eggs In A Basket

Me? I fall for stories. Tell me a tale about some guy climbing Mount Everest and in my head I’m with him -- grabbing at the ice, slipping, breathing the thin air, I’m there. I’ve always hitchhiked by reading or listening to other people’s yarns. But that’s only one way to fall in love with the world. Another way, says Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT (whew!), is to play with things.

Turkle thinks that when you get your first microscope, or your first set of Legos or take apart your first broken radio, you become an explorer. She says that for some kids, the thrill of touching, fastening, examining, rebuilding and unbuilding is life-changing, mind-changing and never goes away.

She recently published a book, Falling For Science, which collects essays written by senior scientists (artificial intelligence pioneer Seymour Papert, MIT president and neuroanatomist Susan Hockfield and architect Moshe Safdie, for example) and by students who passed through her classes at MIT over the last 25 years. They were all asked the same question: "Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?"

And after a tidal wave of Legos (seven different essays), computer games and broken radios, I found a few wonderful surprises. One MIT student reported how she couldn’t stop braiding her My Little Pony’s tail, weaving the hairs into endlessly repeating patterns (a clue, perhaps, to her fascination with mathematics). But this one…this one is a gem.

It tells the story of a little girl (now a computer scientist) and her Easter basket.

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Corrected: December 16, 2008 at 9:00 PM PST
In some versions of this story, the introduction incorrectly identified an MIT professor as Shelly Turkle. Her name is Sherry Turkle.
Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.