Originally published on October 6, 2015
Last Thursday on the walk to school, Jay asked me how deep a diver could go if he had the biggest oxygen tank in the world.
It was a little past 7am, not quite morning. I walked down the sidewalk, one hand on the stroller pushing Leo, the other holding hands with Jay. I explained that the size of the tank wasn’t really the limiting factor. I told Jay about nitrogen absorption in the blood, the bends, water pressure, all prefaced with a disclaimer: I’m sure I have some of the details wrong.
We turned the corner onto Pine Street. Up ahead I saw other pairs of parents and children emerging out of the neighborhood toward school. Jay thought about what I’d said and offered the example of the sperm whale, which is often on his mind. “It’s a mammal, too, how come it can dive to 3,280 feet without the pressure hurting it?”
I said I didn’t know. Jay surmised, “It has a thick layer of fat, maybe that protects it from the pressure.” We walked on, he continued chewing on the question. “But actually, the giant squid can also dive deep and it doesn’t have a layer of fat,” he said. “So it’s probably not fat that protects the sperm whale from the pressure.”**
The way Jay reasoned about the facts available to him surprised me. Afterward I remembered an anecdote reported from the chess matches between Gary Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue in the 1990s. In their initial matches Kasparov held the advantage, but eventually Deep Blue surpassed him. At one point the computer made a move that caught everyone’s attention. Observers described it as creative, like the way a human would play. It demonstrated a sophistication of thinking people had assumed the computer didn’t possess.
Listening to Jay try and formulate an overall theory of diving, I was struck the way observers of Deep Blue may have been struck. For a while now, Caroline and I have listened to streams of facts from the boys—about the biggest this, the fastest that, carnivores, omnivores, googolplexes and infinity—all pieced together with exercises in half-baked logic.
Jay hasn’t outgrown this stage completely. He could use a few more facts to work with and layers of complexity await his attempts to figure out how the world works. But he’s definitely onto something.
**Jay read this post as I wrote it, the first time that has happened. He recognized the scene I was retelling. When I got to the part where he reasoned between the squid and the whale he said to me—I was wrong, the squid can’t dive as deep as the whale so it could still be the fat layer. He couldn’t understand why I was repeating what he now knew to be incorrect information and not adding in the new depth figures he presented me with. I explained I wanted to tell the story as it actually happened. He couldn’t understand why.