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A professor at MIT likes to ask her students to recall a moment very early in their lives. It's a moment when they began to think like scientists. The students answer by writing essays which Professor Sherry Turkle has collected for 25 years. She recently published a selection of them, including one from a student who went on to a career as a computer scientist. Her essay caught the eye of NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich.
ROBERT KRULWICH: One day, when computer scientist Erica Carmel was just five years old.
Ms. ERICA CARMEL (Program Director, IBM): I was in our playroom, at home, and I had this egg basket that was clearly from an Easter basket with those little plastic eggs.
KRULWICH: And Erica decided that what she wanted to do, right then, was to recreate a Disneyland experience.
Ms. CARMEL: I think I had been in Disneyland recently with my grandparents, and they had the nice gondola.
KRULWICH: You know, that ski-lift thing that takes you up in the air on wires so you can then look down at Fantasyland and down at Frontierland. So Erica, she looked at her jump rope and at her Easter basket.
Ms. CARMEL: And decided to create a gondola. So took jump rope, tied it to the door knob and...
KRULWICH: Stretched that rope.
Ms. CARMEL: Yes.
KRULWICH: All the way across her playroom to a book shelf on the opposite wall.
Ms. CARMEL: Climbed up on the top of the book shelf, tied it to the top of the book shelf, which of course, parents loved me doing.
KRULWICH: And now, with the rope, at a slant?
Ms. CARMEL: Yes.
KRULWICH: She takes the egg basket, she hangs it onto the rope, lets it go. And of course...
Ms. CARMEL: It slides down to the other side of the room. So at that point, that worked, which probably made it less exciting.
KRULWICH: Then, because she's a little bored, she took the rope in her hands, and she thought...
Ms. CARMEL: It would be fun to make it go back and forth.
KRULWICH: So she began to swing the rope.
Ms. CARMEL: And I'd get the basket swinging.
KRULWICH: Side to side.
Ms. CARMEL: Back and forth.
KRULWICH: Gently at first.
Ms. CARMEL: Back and forth. Little bit higher. Back and forth. Little bit higher. Back and forth.
KRULWICH: And why not? She gives it a real swing.
Ms. CARMEL: And...
KRULWICH: The basket makes a complete turn, up and over, all the way around the rope.
Ms. CARMEL: Three-sixty.
KRULWICH: With the eggs in.
Ms. CARMEL: With the eggs in.
KRULWICH: And amazingly, the eggs don't fall out.
Ms. CARMEL: Which is very, very surprising.
KRULWICH: Did you do it a second time?
Ms. CARMEL: Did it a second and a third time.
KRULWICH: The eggs stayed in every time?
Ms. CARMEL: Yes. And then, of course, I had to try it the other way, to make sure that they really should have fallen out. So I take the basket, untie it, put the eggs in, turn it upside down. And sure enough, the eggs fell out. I had discovered something. Whatever it was that made things fall no longer applied when you made them move around in circles.
KRULWICH: Can you remember what that felt like when you were the first person in the entire world to know about this secret thing, about eggs and baskets?
Ms. CARMEL: Oh, incredible, such excitement, which is why I still remembered it 20 years later, just that sheer excitement. So, I run out of the room.
KRULWICH: Clearly she had to tell somebody about this.
Ms. CARMEL: Dad, dad, I discovered this magical force. And I think I probably dragged him into the room. And he kind of looked at me like, OK. What is it that you discovered?
KRULWICH: Did you realize that you were not the first at that moment, or were you just puzzled by his, un-excitement?
Ms. CARMEL: No. At that point, I was crushed. I was crushed.
KRULWICH: OK. Skip forward 13 years. Now, Erica Carmel is in college.
Ms. CARMEL: Yeah, so I end up at MIT. I'm taking physics, which every single member of the freshman class is taking, with Walter Lewin.
KRULWICH: Walter Lewin is one of those legendary physics teachers, famous for bringing a bucket filled with water for his demonstration of centrifugal force.
Ms. CARMEL: So, he's got his pail of water, and he starts to swing it back and forth, higher and higher and higher. And then his arm goes in a full circle, and the pail goes completely upside down, and sure enough, the water stays in the pail.
KRULWICH: And you were thinking...
Ms. CARMEL: I was thinking I knew that.
KRULWICH: Even though at 17, she could admit centrifugal force was not really my discovery...
Ms. CARMEL: It is still my discovery.
Ms. CARMEL: Because, I made the discovery myself.
KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News.
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