I grew up in mountain country in Northern Arizona. When I was in elementary school the outdoors was my playground. I spent lots of time flying kites and spinning tops. You donít see many youngsters playing these games nowadays, but these pastimes made me observe and think. I wondered then what makes kites fly; what keeps a top from falling over? In both cases something is moving. If there is no breeze and you just stand still holding the kite string, you know what will happen. The kite will just lie of the ground (CAUTION: Donít fly kites near electric power lines. You could get electrocuted!). If the top isnít spinning, it is impossible to have it stand on its tip. Try as you might, you just canít balance that top on its tip. But just give it a little spin and itís upright. If you try to move a top that is spinning very fast it will wobble a bit but then go back to spinning. As it slows down it starts to wobble and finally tips over. I didnít know it at the time, but there is a branch of science, called physics, that provides answers to these questions that came to me as I played.
Early on I became interested in airplanes. Here my two play experiences came together. Tops have everything to do with how airplanes fly and navigate. I learned that the shape of a wing is designed so that the air moves faster over the wing than under it. This air movement is what keeps the airplane up in the air. You see, when the air moves faster over the wing than under it, the pressure below is stronger than the pressure on top. This air pressure pushes the wing upwards and keeps the airplane in the air.
Gyroscopes are used in airplanes, boats and submarines to detect when there is a change in direction. At the heart of a gyroscope is a spinning top. Just like a spinning top will wobble when it is pushed, a gyroscope will wobble when the airplane changes direction. This wobbling will disappear after a bit, but the wobbling will tell the pilot that the direction has changed. The pilot can then make the necessary corrections to the flight path.
My childhood games taught me about the world. Play presented me with experiences that I could not always understand. This is exactly what a scientist does, except that a scientistís games are called experiments. Experiments are planned to gain insight into how nature behaves. These insights are then used to make more fuel-efficient cars, develop vaccines to prevent disease, and many other things. By playing, children are learning to become scientists. They learn to observe and play by the rules.
My life has taken me far away from the mountains of Northern Arizona. One of my major responsibilities has been to manage a ten million dollar Department of Energy research portfolio. I provide funds to scientists throughout the U.S. to carry out their experiments on improving the use of energy and the development of new energy sources. Since I have had to decide which scientists and projects to fund, I have had to travel to many different places and talk with many different scientists to be able to make good decisions on investing taxpayersí money. My life in science has been filled with fun, hard work and excitement. And it all began by playing interesting games that caused me to observe and think. I hope that the games that you play will provide you with the great gifts of life, curiosity and wonder.