Recently I came across an editorial in Nature Physics, titled as Physics is our playground, which emphasized how playfulness has had an important role in some of the major inventions and discoveries in physics.
A particular example of this is the discovery of graphene, and how it has evolved into one of the most important topics in condensed matter science. Nowadays graphene is used as ‘Lego’ blocks to build higher order structures and the so-called ‘Van der Walls’ heterostructures are one of the most exciting applications of 2D materials. What started as a playful project in the lab has now turned out to be an important part of emerging technologies.
Two important inferences can be drawn from the playful attitude towards doing science :
First is that making modular elements and stacking them creatively can lead to emergence of new structures and function. Anyone who has used lego blocks can immediately relate to it.
Second is that toys are powerful research and teaching aids. Please note, that I emphasized research and teaching here. This is because toy-models are ubiquitous in research, and they help us create modular state of a problem in which unnecessary details are discarded and only the essential parts are retained. This way of thinking has been extremely powerful in science and technology (for example : see ball and stick models in chemistry and mega-construction models in civil engineering )
When it comes to toys and education, there is no better example than the remarkable Arvind Gupta (see his TED talk). His philosophy of using toys as thinking aids is very inspiring. Being in Pune, I have had a few opportunities to attend his talks and interact with him (as part of an event at science activity center at IISER-Pune), and I found his approach both refreshing and implementable. Importantly, it also showed me how creativity can emerge from constraints. To re-emphasize this, let me quote APS news article on Andre Geim :
“Geim has said that his predominant research strategy is to use whatever research facilities are available to him and try to do something new with the equipment at hand. He calls this his “Lego doctrine”: “You have all these different pieces and you have to build something based strictly on the pieces you’ve got.””
Now this is an effective research strategy for experiments in India !