David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

This Brain is Your Brain

There is a story about Enrico Fermi, the great 20th century physicist. A graduate student is trying to impress the professor by spewing off a litany of sub-atomic particles. Fermi puts the student in his place by responding, “Young man, if I could remember the names of those particles, I would have been a botanist.”

Why do generations of physics students love this story? Is it the put down that resonates so soundly? “I am a pure thought guy,” communicated the older scientist. “You cannot play in my league if all you can do is memorize.”

Surely with technology, memorization of facts is less important now that in previous generations when access to information was sporadic. The capitals of the states, the books of the Bible, the name of the Vice Presidents chronologically or alphabetically–all are available with a few clicks.

There’s a third “zing” from the Fermi story that I like even better than the “put down” and the “thinking is better than memorizing” take-aways. I like the “All minds are different” punch line. Fermi won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1938; he worked on the Manhattan project helping to develop the atomic bomb; he has a class of sub-atomic particles named after him*. In short, he was one of the greatest physicists of the modern age.

But he would have been a lousy botanist.

We need physicists and we need botanists. We need memorizers and we need pure thinkers. Of course, no one would be so short sighted as to argue that these categories are truly dichotomous. The best memorizers need to do some thinking and the best thinkers need to do some memorizing. There is room in our culture for all kinds of brains.

Is there room in your home for different learning styles?

Or when your kid comes home excited about learning Spanish, do you force her to do math? When your son comes home from school eager to finish reading Sounder, do you insist that he do math worksheets? When your daughter walks in the door excited about learning math, do you insist that she read a book instead? If your daughter wants to take apart a car engine, do you tell her to get back to her sewing?

Were Enrico Fermi your son, would you have discouraged him from studying physics?

So there is no possible misunderstanding, let me clarify that the following is not OK: If your child comes home from school excited about playing “Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Blood, Blood, Blood, Kill, Kill, Kill,” that child should be redirected to reading a book or engaging in some other activity that will not put him solidly on the path to rehab for video game addiction. If your child comes home and says, “What I’m best at and what interests me the most is smoking pot so rather than helping to cook dinner, I’m going to drive around town and blow dope.” that’s not OK either.

Cognitively, it’s time to allow our children to choose their own path; they will walk farther in the right direction if we do. By forcing–or attempting to force–kids to study what we want, how we want, and when we want, we lessen the likelihood that they will end up in the right place–on the dais in Stockholm, or under the hood of a car.

* “Fermions.” Which include quarks and leptons. How cool is that?



Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2022    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    [email protected]