This I Believe

Alison - Lansing, Michigan
Entered on May 11, 2007

I believe that there is great beauty and pleasure in understanding the world as it is.

This belief has knit me together for some time, but only became conscious for me this past winter when my 2 ½ year old asked me why we put salt down on the ice. I gave the most immediate explanation: “because it melts the ice and keeps us from slipping.” But he said “why?”

“Why do we put the salt down on the ice?”

“No, mommy, why do salt make ice melt?” It would have been easy to blow him off, but two things stopped me. First, I’ve been teaching too long to have blow-off reflexes to questions, good or bad. The second was that this was a very good question. Robbie was (not for the first time) experiencing one of the most basic of human curiousities: not “why do we do it?” but “why does it work when we do it?” At the most fundamental philosophical level, he was asking the Big Question: what’s really going on? Much of human greatness has come in response to this question, entire belief systems and the whole wealth of our scientific knowledge. Much of my personal happiness has stemmed from engaging this question as a philosopher, bioethicist and once-upon-a-time biologist.

I gave it a shot: “Robbie, you remember when we were stirring water and the water moved all around?” He did. “Well, that’s because there are tiny pieces of water and when you move your spoon or your hand around in between them, they get out of the way. It’s like a big pile of pieces of paper, only they’re tiny pieces of water so small you can’t see them.” “OK,” he said, but I wasn’t sure he was getting it. “You know how ice melts and turns into water?” “Oh… yes.” He’d been learning this all winter long during Michigan’s odd bursts of freeze and thaw. “Well, ice is little pieces of water all stuck together in a big strong block,” I flailed for an appropriate metaphor for a few seconds, “like when we put your Lego pieces together into a big strong building.” “Oh!” he said, sounding enlightened. “And the little pieces of salt get in between the little pieces of water in the thick frozen ice so that they can move around again. That turns the ice back into water, and the pieces are all moving again so that it’s not frozen anymore. And that’s why we put salt on ice so that we don’t slip.” “Ah!” he said, an I-get-it noise that is becoming increasingly common.

Later, in the bath, he splashed water all up in the air with the flats of both his hands; this is forbidden and he knows it. I started to get mad, but Robbie chortled and said “I make the little pieces of water go all up in the air and some is stuck to the wall!” And I laughed, too. Because there is great beauty and pleasure in understanding the world as it is.