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I Don’t Know! Robert Root-Bernstein I still have the copy of GeraldAmes and Rose Wyler’s The Giant Golden Book of Biology that I was given when I was eight years old. Two characteristics have made it dear to my heart. The illustrations by Charles Harper, highly abstract and stylized yet illuminating, appeal to my visual sensibility. Equally compelling is the concluding paragraph of the foreword by George Wald. “I knew I would like this book,” he wrote, “when I read on the first page: ‘Questions are just as important as answers .’Science is a way of asking more and more meaningful questions. The answers are important mainly in leading us to new questions. So try to learn some answers, because they are useful and interesting, but don’t forget that it isn’t answers that make a scientist, it’s questions.”1 George Wald was listed at the end of the foreword as being a “Professor of Biology, Harvard University.” If I hadn’t known before, I certainly learned from the book that biology was the science of life. I’m not sure that, at the age of eight, I knew what a professor was. I’m sure I’d never heard of Harvard. But I can remember deciding at the age of fourteen, when Wald was awarded a Nobel Prize, that he probably knew what he was talking about. That’s also about the age I knew that I would become a biologist. I’m not sure how much to blame Ames, Wyler, and Wald for the impish interrogator that I have become. After all, we have a tradition in our family called “doing a Bernstein” that involves getting up in public and questioning the dearly held assumptions of our various professions . Questioning was something that happened every evening at dinner, when my father would regularly discount everything we took for granted. He was a skeptic. It was good training for learning to think for oneself. My earliest memory of “doing a Bernstein” occurred, coinciden- 234 Robert Root-Bernstein tally, the same year Wald got his Nobel Prize, when I was fourteen. It involved geometry, not biology, however. The problem must have arisen during the first week or so of geometry class. The teacher defined a point as a dimensionless object with no size, infinitely small. Lines, she then explained, are made of an infinite number of points, planes of an infinite number of lines, and solid objects of an infinite number of planes. Standard textbook stuff, definitions, in fact, not open to question. Yet I objected. Having read Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth many times, I knew full well that neither his hero, Milo, nor anyone else could ever scale the “Infinite Staircase,” for there was always one more step, and one more, and one more, and one more after that . . . By analogy, no matter how many infinitely small points I placed between two others, there would always be room for another, and another between them, and another between them, and another between them . . . So, no matter how many points I accumulated, I wouldn’t be able to make a continuous line. In fact, the more points I added, the more gaps there would be, sort of like Xeno’s paradox: move halfway to your destination , then half the remaining distance, then half of that, then half of that, and, of course, you never get there. So, if I could never fill in the gaps between two points, I couldn’t make a line; no lines, no planes; no planes, no solids; and you can see where that led! Apparently, I argued with the teacher for much, if not all, of a class period, and I can still remember my dismay at being told that discussion was at an end; I would have to accept the definitions. I never did. I learned to use them, but I never accepted them. I continued to question every definition and axiom. I quibbled and quarreled. I ended up with a B in the class, the only B I got in junior high school. I even flunked a quiz that term, something I had never done before and never did again. And yet, and yet, at the end of the year, despite my relatively poor performance, despite several friends who had aced that and all their other math classes, I was awarded the school’s mathematics prize! It would be decades before I understood what I was grappling with...


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