Terrified by a Tyrannosaur

In John Brockman’s Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, a collection of 27 autobiographical essays by leading savants, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker scoffs at this oft-told story. Pinker relates that Gould dedicated his first book: “For my father, who took me to see the Tyrannosaurus when I was five,” and admires Gould’s “genius … for coming up with that charming line.” But he doesn’t buy it.

Pinker goes on to tell his own childhood story, with the caveat that long-term memory is notoriously malleable and that we often concoct retrospective scenarios to fit satisfying scripts of our lives. So don’t believe anything in this book, he warns, including his own self-constructed mythology; many children are exposed to books and museums, but few become scientists. Pinker concludes that perhaps the essence of who we are from birth shapes our childhood experiences rather than the other way around.

Lynn Margulis’s early interest in the wonders of the microscopic world began when she was a “boy crazy” adolescent, who was amazed to learn that some minuscule creatures never need sex in order to reproduce. Enter a teenage heartthrob: the budding astrophysicist Carl Sagan. (“Tall, handsome in a sort of galooty way, with a shock of brown-black hair, he captivated me.”) She was 16 when they met; eventually they married.

Sagan’s fascination with “billions and billions” of cosmic bodies resonated with her own fixation on the billions of microcosms to be observed through the microscope. Margulis’s study subjects have included a tiny animal in a termite’s gut that is made up of five distinct genomes cobbled together. She has argued that we and other animals are composite critters, whose every cell harbors long-ago invaders–minute symbiotic organisms that became part of our makeup. Her innovative approach to evolution has profoundly influenced biology.