pierre laszlo

language as an analogy in the natural sciences
Article Index
language as an analogy in the natural sciences
The elucidation of molecular structure
Building a molecule
Mixing and combining
The lesson from science history
Combinatorial chemistry
Parallels with linguistics
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3. Mixing and combining

Allow me at this point a short excursion. Piagetan epistemology is the inspiration. Its contribution has been a typology of the gradual acquisition by children, as they grow up, of various mental skills then related, as so many basic elements, to our advancement of knowledge about the world.

I'll draw on two well-established behaviors, quite a few years apart in child development and yet related to one another in a deep sense. The first is echolalia, as an infant starts to speak. His or her first utterances do not make sense (and perhaps do not attempt at making sense, at communicating yet with parents and siblings). The child is learning the sounds of a particular language. After having heard speech around him, he makes noises with the twin characteristics of a chanting according to the phonology of the language being acquired, thus following the rules of what can indeed be termed prosody, and of emitting a series of phonemes pertaining to the language being learned. The point of the matter is that the string of phonemes, in such echolalia, is assembled seemingly at random but of course in rather strict conformity with the phonological rules for this particular language. It seems as if the maturing brain were combining modules of speech, both in playful and experimental manner. Gradually as the baby becomes more and more familiar, both with the discrete elements of human speech (phonemes) and with their further temporal organization into e.g. tonal modulation (phonology), he will start uttering syllables and words and he will start associating meanings to these phonic emissions.

And one might complement such data, regarding speech acquisition, with other and structurally similar observations, regarding for instance sensorimotor skills, as when the baby tries sorting out objects of various shapes, in a task such as slipping a disk or triangle through the appropriate slots in a box. The observer cannot help noticing that, rather than a moronic trial-and-error procedure, the child tries out, in more or less systematic manner, various configurations resulting from combining the elements at hand. Play here is inseparable from cognition.

A few years later, a young boy or girl will start a chemistry of sorts. The usual first step is play, at home or at kindergarten, with colors. The child tries out, from the paintbox mixing colors in an experimental spirit to find out the result from combining a red and a yellow, or a purple and a green, and so on. Of course, there is no essential difference between such an activity and the earlier echolalia. Both aim at establishing a store of knowledge about generating new species of artifacts from the combining of available discrete elements, whether these are speech units or chemical dyes.

Later on, usually in an age range of say 6 to 12, the child is sometimes presented with a chemistry toy kit. And all recommendations from the instruction booklet ignored, the boy or girl if left alone to play with the set of chemicals, will again investigate, in a playful inquisitive mood, whether combining two or several ingredients will have an interesting result, such as an unexpected color change, a brusque heating, and better yet a spectacular explosion to startle the parents with the magic prowess that the little brat had been able to endow himself with by his own wits! Children love to mix things together. Chemists perhaps are the segment of society allowed to continue indulging in such "childish" behavior.

Let me summarize this section thus:

The small child spontaneously mixes together substances, paints for instance, in what can be termed as "creative curiosity." Thus, from the standpoint of genetic epistemology, the combining urge is basic to chemistry.