When he rang the doorbell, Zia hadn't planned to step inside. He was there to pick up his fiancee who was babysitting, but she couldn't leave (the parents were running late) so Zia agreed to hang out for a bit. His fiancee said, "Let me introduce you to the kids" — the 2-year-old girl, the 7-year-old boy and, most important, squatting, with no shoes on, surrounded by ants on the back patio, the oldest — the 9-year-old — the one he would make world-famous on YouTube.
Nine is what fourth-graders are. You don't expect them to be wise; they're still boys. When the two started talking, there was no hint of what was about to happen, except for the slightly odd introduction. His girlfriend said he "is interested in cosmology." "Really?" Zia thought, "cosmology?" So he leaned in and asked — just to be a badass — "What do you think about dark matter? Any ideas?"
Wait! I Need To Film This
The boy looked up, started to answer, and almost immediately Zia thought, "Wait!" Zia Hassan is a Washington, D.C.-based musician, blogger, teacher-in-training and video cameraman and he's learned to act on instinct, and his instincts were telling him, "I need to film this." He said to the boy, "Uh, can I film this? Is that all right with you?"
The boy didn't mind. And here, a million-and-a-half views later, is what the boy told him about the universe. I don't know the right words to describe what I feel watching this. Quiet surprise? Joy? Mystery? You should just look for yourself ...
We all know smart kids, who are curious, who collect information. "I knew more things in the first 10 years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since," says the writer Bill Bryson. But what Bill knew growing up in Iowa was local: "I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them." Boys gather information by climbing, crawling, inspecting, gossiping.
But this 9-year-old — what he knows is different. It's not local; it can't be found looking under a couch. It's mind stuff, found mostly in books or college classrooms, or by letting your mind run free.
I Could Be Wrong ... I Could Be Wrong ...
Where, I wondered, did he learn about multiverses, free will, the odds of intelligent life in the universe? How does he manage to be so aware of what he doesn't know? "Of course, I could be wrong," he says over and over, offering his opinions in the most unassuming, gentle way. And his brother, talking about how baseball satisfies our need for drama ("We do not have that kind of suspense in our lives."), he's doing it too — thinking, connecting, reflecting — and he's 7!
What's going on in this house? Are these kids outrageously smart? Zia says they're "certainly bright," but not scarily so. Is it something the parents are doing?
"I've gotten lots of questions about how they've raised [their kids]," Zia wrote me. "I don't think they have a particular method or anything like that. They're both excellent human beings and they treat their kids as if they're intelligent young people, and not children who couldn't possibly understand how the world (or universe) works."
This, he thinks, may be the key. These kids are encouraged to think out loud, to say what they think, even if they might be wrong. Each is appreciated. The parents, he says, "are also in awe of their children." And that frees them.
"I think there are a lot of kids who think about interesting things," Zia says. "It's my guess no one really asks them about it."
Maybe that's what this family does: They turn to their kids, and they ask.
Robert Krulwich is co-host of Radiolab, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning program that examines big questions in science, philosophy and the human experience through compelling storytelling. Today, Radiolab is one of public radio's most popular shows. Its podcasts are downloaded over 4 million times each month and the program is carried on 437 stations across the nation. In addition to Radiolab, Krulwich reports for National Public Radio. “Krulwich Wonders” is his NPR blog featuring drawings, cartoons and videos that illustrate hard-to-see concepts in science.