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Of bees, children and the cool-ness of science

Feb 2011
Karen A. Newman

“Real science has the potential to not only amaze, but also transform the way one thinks of the world and oneself.” So starts a wonderful study on the vision of bumblebees published recently in the journal Biology Letters. But what on the surface is a paper about bees learning to solve puzzles is at heart a case for the importance of engaging children in science. It continues, “This is because the process of science is little different from the deeply resonant, natural processes of play.”

Called simply “Blackawton bees,” the paper notes its principal finding: “We discovered that bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from. We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.” The article can be found at

I received a copy of the paper from my brother-in-law, who has a PhD in experimental particle physics. Several years ago, he left his postdoc work to pursue a career focused on a different kind of analytic research but never for a minute sidelined his curiosity about the natural world. Cool for me. When I first started working for Photonics Media, he suggested we pursue an article on the status of optical cloaking – a subject he thinks is pretty exciting. I still have the notes from that conversation. Handwritten in pencil, the notes are all over the place with ideas for topics to cover, and are a reminder of the excitement for my new job that the discussion generated.

My brother-in-law has children of his own, so his reaction to the “Blackawton bees” study came both as a scientist and a father. He worries that as children grow up, they learn to shut down their creativity, because they are told that things can’t be done or are too difficult; instead of losing that natural curiosity about the world around them, he would much rather they be encouraged to explore it.

I’ve sent him a link to Google Science Fair, launched on Jan. 11 to encourage children to submit projects relevant to the world they live in. I am excited to see the experiments that are submitted. Check it out at

I also invite you to investigate the rest of this issue, then get back to the cool science project you’re currently playing around with. And let us know when you’re ready to share your results with the photonics industry. You can reach me at

AmericasBiology LettersBiophotonicsBlackawton beesbumblebeesEditorialeducationGoogle Science FairKaren A. Newmansciencespatial relationships

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