Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Next Surprise

I was building with the young two-year-old, taking turns placing the wooden unit blocks. I positioned a long block as a ramp, then rolled a cylindrical block down it. He laughed, then sought out his own cylindrical block, giving it a go, laughing a second time at the way gravity worked. He rolled his block several more times, laughing each time, laughing even when the block simply fell off the side rather than rolling to the bottom.

Later in the day, some four-year-olds were playing with small plastic figurines on top of a large box. There were a couple holes cut into the surface that were intended as handles. One of the kids dropped a figurine into a hole. He laughed, then his friends followed suit. The more they dropped the funnier it got.

As adults, we tend to take gravity for granted, of course, even at times cursing it, like when glassware breaks on the kitchen floor or as we strain up a steep hill. We've lived for decades with this fundamental fact of our universe; it holds few surprises for us. But playing with children brings that wonder back to us, reminding us of the magnificence of this phenomenon that many of us struggle to fully comprehend, this idea that mass bends space in a way that it attracts other objects.

As I watched these children laughing as they played with gravity, I saw a connection that goes back through Einstein, Newton, and Aristotle, some of the greatest human minds that have ever existed. I imagine they they too laughed as they played, relying on philosophy, mathematics, and science to comprehend how gravity works, delighting their minds the way the children were doing with their simple experiments with ramps and cylinders and holes and small plastic human figures.

We don't always laugh as we test the universe, our cries of "Eureka!" just as often include tears. Discovery is always a surprise, altering our perception of how the world works, upsetting what we thought we knew. The moment makes us laugh or cry, excited or fearful, delighted or afraid, but never does it leave us unemotional. Only rote does that.

The boy rolled cylinders down the ramp until it no longer made him laugh. To do it one more time, he determined, would be a chore or a bore. There was no more laughter left here, at least not today, nothing to challenge his preconceived notions, so he moved on, in search of the next surprise the universe had in store for him.

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