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A breathtaking shot of the transit of Venus in 2004, found here

I’ve spent a lot of virtual ink taking to task the College of St. Catherine (a Catholic college for women on whose faculty I spent many years) for the hypocrisy that eventually made me pull up stakes and go solo. But I don’t often enough mention the positive things St. Kate’s gave me.

St. Kate’s is where my interest in critical thinking turned from hobby to academic specialization to lifelong enthusiasm. It inspired the satirical novel that launched my little writing career. And it made me a genuine feminist.

Which is good, because now I find myself raising two girls, doing what I can to keep limiting assumptions from calcifying around them.

That takes some doing. Kids gather assumptions about the world by the bucket, taking tiny samples, believing most of what they hear or see, spinning huge generalizations, and moving on. You can bemoan or huzzah this all you want, but it’s both a fact and inevitable. I touched on this in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in just over six thousand days. Think of that. A certain degree of gullibility necessarily follows. Children are believing machines, and for good reason: when we are children, the tendency to believe it when we are told that fire is dangerous, two and two are four, cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on, helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults. The immensity of the task requires children to be “suckers” for whatever it is adults tell them. It is our job as parents to be certain not to abuse this period of relative intellectual dependency and trust. (p. 181)

Kids soak up unintended messages as reliably as the intended ones, and they don’t always announce it when they’ve begun to form a pearl around the grain of a new assumption. Once in a while I become aware that something’s been ingested that I didn’t know about. Like gender roles.

My favorite of these surfaced in the pediatrician’s office with Erin (now 11, then 8), waiting to see Dr. Melissa Vincent, her doctor since birth.

“I like Dr. Vincent,” Erin said.

“Me too.”

Long pause.

“But I was wondering something,” she continued. ” Can boys be doctors, too?”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Erin’s desire for a career in or near medicine had a lot to do with the example of Dr. Vincent. Currently at the top of her list is cellular biologist, followed by family practice GP in a small but not too small town.

Her sister Delaney (7) wants to be a scientist but isn’t sure what kind. (I tell her the clock’s ticking. “You don’t wanna be one of those pathetic third graders still wandering through the curriculum trying to ‘find herself.'”)

One of Laney’s common openers is, “Do The Scientists know how/what/why…” I think this disembodied image of The Scientists is pretty close to my own early image of science. I decided to try to individualize it more for her as we engaged the questions:

“How did The Scientists figure out what’s in the middle of the Earth if nobody’s even been there?”

“I’ll bet it started with somebody wondering about it, then maybe asking about it, just like you do. Then he thought about the problem, and how you can learn about something you can’t see.”

(Dammit! Did you catch that? Shitshitshit.)

I had her close her eyes. “How can you learn about my face if you can’t see it?”

“I have no idea.”

“Sure you do.”

“I could peek,” she giggled.

“Cheaters rarely prosper. So you think maybe the scientist peeked at the earth’s core?”

“Dad, jeez. Oh wait, I have an idea!” She extended her hands and began exploring my face. “Pokey,” she said when she got to the beard. “You’re a porcupine!” said the blind man to the elephant.

(Or blind woman! Shitshitshit.)

Yesterday she asked if The Scientists have found any planets like Earth yet. Last summer I told her about the search and described the extremely cool inductive method used to find gas giants (Jupiter-plus sizes) by measuring tiny eccentric wobbles in their home stars — a method that has turned up 344 extrasolar planets in ten years.

Number of known planets outside our solar system 15 years ago: 0

At the time, Laney had signaled her agreement that this constituted one of the most paradigmatically significant discoveries in human history by declaring it “so awesome to think about” — but was sorry the method couldn’t locate smaller, rockier bits like Earth.

Now she was checking to see if we’re closer to finding fellow Earths. Thanks to a NOVA podcast I heard a few months ago, I knew we were.

I simplified it into a graspable narrative. “One of the scientists got a great idea. If a planet crosses in front of its star, that star would dim a tiny bit…you know, like a fly passing in front of a light bulb.”

She started to tremble with excitement, doing this weird hand-flapping thing that is endemic to our family. “Yeah? And??” Flap-flap-flap.

“But she realized we needed a much stronger telescope, one that…”

“SHE?” Laney interrupted. “The one who figured it out was a girl??” Flap-flap-flap!

“Uh…I think so, yeah!”

Now the fact is, there wasn’t any one person — there rarely is — and I have no idea whether those involved had knishes or putzes. But I knew she wouldn’t have blinked if I said “he,” which means I’d uncovered a potentially limiting assumption — hopefully before the pearl could form.

I went on to tell her about the Kepler telescope, launched earlier this month (to almost universal public disinterest) for the primary purpose of finding other Earths. She dubbed it “so awesome.” And maybe the Kepler, connected in Delaney’s mind to a woman of science, will become a useful grain of sand as she continues to form her own possibilities.
NOVA podcast “Finding Other Earths” (4:44)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.