Kids ask, scientists answer!

When I was a child I suffered with this puzzling question: if my dreams feel so real, how do I know that life itself is real?

I was not a unique child – many others have the same question. It was only much later, when I was already in college that I came across some of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophical concepts of defining reality. Curious child Evie, however, already got her answer to this same question at 5 years of age:

“Often wdoes my goldfish know who I ame have dreams and they feel so real that we might wonder whether we’re dreaming right now too. It feels like you’re wide awake now, but doesn’t it feel like you’re wide awake in dreams too? How on Earth can you tell the difference? Maybe you’ll wake up in a moment and realize you weren’t reading this book — because it never existed!

 Well, at least you know you’re probably real. Because even if you were having a dream right now, there would have to be a you somewhere who was having that dream about yourself. But before your head starts spinning too fast, here’s the important thought. We only ever really know about the stuff we see and hear and feel, and that’s only a tiny part of what’s around us. (For example, you can’t see what’s happening in the next room, or in someone else’s head.) We can only guess at what’s real from the little bit we know about — and often we get it very wrong. … So even though you’re probably not dreaming, it’s worth remembering that you’re only aware of a small part of what’s real, too.”

That’s how invited guest Derren Brown answered to a kid’s question on the book Does my Goldfish Knows who I am? Big Questions and Instant Answers. Editor Gemma Elwin Harris compiled several kid questions and sought scientists, writers, philosophers and many others to answer them. Other questions include: why do we cry; how does our brain store so much information; whether the universe has an edge; or – my favorite –if animals have accents:

“Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school — which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.”   

Answers like those are not just lovely, but a great way to enchant audiences – I’d even risk say they work for any age, not only for children. Going through the answers might help us – science educators and communicators – with our goal of communicating with clarity and ease.

Finally, I should thank wonderful cartoonist and illustrator Samanta Floor, who first pointed me to the book.  Along with the link, she sent me the comment:  “it reminds me of you answering science questions”.  You just made my day, Samanta, you just made my day.

Samanta Floor scientist and dog
Artist Samanta Floor also illustrates scientists and their dogs.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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