Crazy toasters and mad scientists – do we need them?

Search catalogueI have a theory that creativity is fostered best by an environment which allows for individual experimentation – even when it gets a bit crazy.

I come from a long line of eccentric scientific types and have an older brother who loved to experiment with things scientific and technological. He was always trying out something new or figuring out how something worked. Tolerance for his experimentation included putting up with some odd results. He fixed the toaster for us once using the only spring he could locate, which happened to be a bit strong. When you put the bread in the toaster you took two steps back and waited to catch the finished product when it was flung several feet in the air.

Perhaps the author Alan Bradley lived in a similar household. One of my favourite characters in crime fiction is a young girl called Flavia. She lives in a crumbling pile in the English countryside, largely unsupervised due to her mother’s death. The books are mysteries – she has a habit of getting involved in police investigations, but her great passion is the abandoned laboratory she has discovered in one wing of the house. Here she experiments with chemistry and educates herself about science.  Her big sisters tease her mercilessly and she has consequently developed an enthusiasm for  poisons which she fantasizes about using to get her revenge. The books are full of equally eccentric and clever characters and are a lot of fun.

Imagine my interest then when I read Oliver Sacks autobiography Uncle Tungsten. His family were scientists, including both his parents and an uncle who made tungsten filaments for light bulbs. In his household, elements like tungsten were things for which one had a passion. Oliver lived in a large house and had his own laboratory. Amazingly he experimented there unsupervised, unnoticed – except for the occasions when he caused an explosion. The landmarks of his youth are the moments when this led him to  understand a new scientific principle. The result was somebody who approached his field with curiosity and creativity

To answer my own question then – yes I think we do need to let the mad scientist in our children out. It’s the people who are creative and push the boundaries who take our society forward. What do you think?