The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cartoon lessons in Physics.

Cartoons are teaching our children about the world. However, the lessons they teach are a tapestry of errors.

Today, I was watching a cartoon with my kids, when I saw something that is typical of the cartoon world. A baby fell from a building and an adult jumped after it, some seconds later, in an attempt to catch it, and cushion its fall. Apart from, of course, the lunacy of imagining that two falling people are better than one, I saw a fundamental problem with the sketch that unfolded - and so did Ainan.

As is the way of cartoons, the journey to the Earth was rather eventful, with many twists, turns and interesting encounters on the way down - though both baby and adult continued, generally, to fall.

Towards the end, baby and adult took different paths. The adult fell into a giant tube, the baby passed alongside the outside of it. Oddly, the adult, who had jumped second, came out of the tube at the bottom FIRST - and caught the baby, saving the day.

"Impossible!" I said, to Ainan's agreement.

I know cartoons are meant to be enjoyed, but is it necessary for them to teach young children errors about the physical world? The acceleration due to gravity is going to be the same for all falling objects, the only variation being their ultimate terminal velocity. Basically, the man cannot catch the baby, because both are subject to the same acceleration, unless, for some reason, the baby's terminal velocity were lower than the man's.

Cartoons are eagerly watched for many years by growing children. I watched them, too. Yet, now that I am a father, I find myself concerned at whether children who watch them, come to imbibe misunderstandings about the physical world.

This, of course, leads to the question: is it impossible to be entertaining without breaking the laws of physics? I don't think so. There is nothing in the nature of entertainment or a child's mind that requires physics to be discarded when making an entertaining cartoon or any other form of entertainment. I think the problem here is more likely to be that cartoonists DON'T KNOW ANY PHYSICS. I think many of the cartoonists don't know that some of the things they do violate basic principles and are thus purveying misinformation. Of course, in other cases, I am sure that violation of basic physical principles is done precisely because it leads to interesting consequences - but there is nothing about how humans are entertained that requires that cartoons do that, universally.

All that our children hear, see, touch and feel, is part of their education about the world. I would like to see more responsible cartoon making that doesn't include subtle errors that might confuse a child about how physical reality actually works. Physics is difficult enough, for most children, without confusing them about its basic laws.

Some people will dismiss my concerns with a "Of course the children know it is not real!". Well, that is most certainly not so for young children (my two year old, Tiarnan, for instance, is convinced that he knows where Ben 10 lives!). Furthermore, many of the errors of physics found in cartoons are subtle - such as the falling adult catching the baby. They are impossible, but not obviously impossible to a young child. These are particularly dangerous. It is only when a child has developed sophistication about the physical world that they will spot such errors (such as Ainan did). However, the cartoons, themselves, will interfere with the development of such physical sophistication.

I think it is time that cartoon makers and Hollywood, in general, behaved a little more responsibly towards their young audience. I don't think it helps the world to be confusing young minds in this way, with lessons in misinformation that they may, actually, never unlearn.

Films and cartoons can be fun, without misinforming the audience. Why not try making entertainments that actually respect the laws of physics? It would certainly make it easier to be a teacher of young children, without having to correct a myriad of cartoon induced misunderstandings.

Note: It has come to my attention that at least one reader thinks I am stating that my own children are confused about physics. They are not. In fact, the eldest is very competent in physics and the others are just fine. I write about children in general, in this case and NOT my children in particular.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:26 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Cawley,

I would disagree with you over this issue. What would childhood be without Santa Claus and tooth fairies? Fret not, children outgrow these fantasies.


1:07 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You seem to have missed my point. It is not the obviously untrue things that I am concerned about: it is the subtle errors like the one referred to for falling bodies. They may not outgrow the subtle errors, even when the obvious ones become clear to them.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Here's a good website about 'Hollywood physics', it's a pretty entertaining read too:

2:08 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Colin, for the link. It is interesting...

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what abt james bond/MI/batman/marvel comics superheroes (and others) with their physically impossible tools like laser watches...etc?

I believe the important thing is to educate the child to know that these are merely cartoons/shows/movies. It would be good too to point out the errors.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. Hollywood is filled with the unfeasible and it is important that parents direct children to understand that the world of film is not the world of reality. However, again, the subtle physical errors are likely to be overlooked as errors and absorbed as unconscious lessons in how the world "works". Unfortunately, though, it doesn't work that way, which can be confusing for any child (or in fact adult, in some cases).

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right. Even adults miss out the errors. That's why we have Mythbusters!!

10:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you. I had rather thought it was a worry.

Kind regards

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If children considered to be prodigies aren't pretty clearly getting that physics in cartoons isn't intended to be realistic, I would be concerned. Do they also have problems with understanding myths - like do they think Zeus is a real guy who comes down from the sky and that his dad ate his siblings? What about comics like Spiderman - really there aren't people with magic webs coming out of their hands and stuff like that. Does this also cause confusion?

8:03 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Wow. Anonymous at 8.03, you are an idiot. I think that needed to be said. My children have no problem distinguishing real physics from fake physics. Tiarnan is TWO years old, so of course he thinks Ben 10 is real. You obviously can't read. I noted above that Ainan agreed with me that the physics in the cartoon is wrong.

I am very concerned that an adult (as I presume you to be) human being can't read and can't think about what he or she reads.

Perhaps you should go back to school to learn some basic literacy.

I write about the confusion that would be caused in SOME children - not in MY children. Why on Earth would you think that I would only write about my children's perspective?


10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me rephrase...
Any child who is confused about this is clearly spending too much time watching TV. Children, even ones gasp not as brilliant as your children, experience gravity. They've falled down, dropped objects and watch them fall, thrown objects, etc. I have never met a child who was unable to understand these basic principals because they live in the physical world. If has come to the point where you think only the prodigies of the world are aware cartoons aren't supposed to reflect reality it might be time to mix it up and meet some new people. Just a social skills tip though - it isn't good manners to call other people idiots.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Mythbusters exists precisely because adults CANNOT distinguish real physics from Hollywood physics...but you think that all children can? I think you haven't much idea of how children actually think (talk to young ones).

Yes, they know they can fall...but do they know whether or not bullets make a spark when they hit an object? Do they know whether it is possible for one falling object to catch another? Do they know if objects make a noise in space? (When they have no personal experience of space?)

I found your heavy sarcasm really offensive...hence my retort re. idiot. I thought it a fair comment given your level of sarcasm (which itself is just as offensive as the word "idiot").

You seem to object to my efforts to communicate a particular situation that is not much recorded: that of the growth/education/life of a prodigious child. I wonder why?

I have never been drawn into this kind of exchange before, but I did find your first post offensive. Is that part of good social skills?

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not remotely offended by the discussion of the topic of prodigious children. For a number of reasons I don't believe it is a good idea for parents to disclose detailed personal information about their children to the entire www. But, I would like to see more, not less discussion about the needs of gifted children as far too often these needs are not met.

It sounds in this post like rather than speaking about gifted children, you were attempting to generalize about the development of scientific understanding in typically developing children. Of course we'd see a lot fewer blogs if people were actually required to know something about the topic they are writing about, but I'm wondering as it relates to this particular topic what expertise you have. I believe you've labeled all your children geniuses and prodigies - so where does the authoritative knowledge about the development of typical children come into play?

The kind of ignorance you are describing where children are perplexed about basic science concepts due to cartoons is something I've never seen. I find an instructor knows how to teach, they find that typically developing elementary school kids already have a pretty good intuitive sense of many science concepts. I haven't seen what you are describing in typically developing kids. When I've seen children in well taught elementary school science courses and workshops, I'm really amazed by how much kids really understand. Unfortunately there is a lot of underestimating of kids. I would suggest thinking they can't learn physics because of cartoons is a good example of that.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

On the contrary, I think you are overestimating kids and adults in general regarding scientific understanding. That science is not as well understood, in detail, as one might hope is, in fact, the foundation of the series Mythbusters, which goes to great lengths to explore the misconceptions people have about the way the world works, courtesy of Hollywood et al.

Mythbusters have a plentiful supply of urban myths re. science and technology which they explore week after week. There are clearly a huge number of misunderstandings out there.

I am not writing of gross concepts of science...but of subtle ones, the kind of concepts that end up on Mythbusters and similar shows precisely because EVEN ADULTS DO NOT UNDERSTAND THEM.

As for not knowing children very well...I have taught for a decade in various schools and at various ages. I have seen young minds at work from many nationalities, cultures and levels of ability. I have a pretty good idea of what normal children are capable of.

From your use of the words: "elementary school", I assume you are writing from the USA (since that is where such words are commonly used.) If so, I would like you to explain why, if elementary kids in the US have such a good grasp of science that they do so poorly in international comparative tests of scientific understanding, particularly compared to Northern Europe and Asia?

10:39 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

A further observation:

When I was at Cambridge University, I had a fellow student who was a brilliant linguist. She got a first in Modern Languages. However, one day, while I was in conversation with her, I realized something odd: she seemed to think that the Sun went around the Earth. I raised the point with her and argued for a heliocentric solar system. She actually laughed at me...and ridiculed the idea. She pointed to the fact that the Sun went around the Earth in the sky, every day and would hear nothing of my contrary explanations.

She refused to change her mind. She thought I was very wrong. Now, tell me again, that children understand science: here was an intelligent adult, at one of the best Universities in the world, who didn't have a basic understanding of such a simple matter.

I have encountered many adults in my life for whom science may as well be magic, for all that they understand of it.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, what gives you "authority" in the matter of typical kids?

You have deployed much sarcasm in your writing. I don't find this a fruitful way to conduct a conversation.

You have also made an appeal to what is yours?

11:08 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Furthermore, your implicit preference that bloggers be "authorities" on that which they blog about would stifle much genuine creativity. A person does NOT need to be credentialed to make a significant contribution to an area of thought. Indeed, too much emphasis on credentials leads to the kind of dead and deadening culture that Singapore exhibits, where everyone is wonderfully credentialed but very few people are actually thinking for themselves. I don't think it is a good model to follow.

Perhaps you would do better to evaluate a person's thoughts for the thoughts themselves rather than their credentialed origin.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm assuming "mythbusters" is a TV show. I'm not sure why the topics selected on a TV show would reveal anything about innate abilities or the typical development of scientific understanding in children, but I haven't seen the show.

I am most certainly not suggesting most children receive a good science education in the US - quite the opposite. Rather, I'd suggest that when science is taught well and conversations are facilitated well kids reveal they know a lot more than many adults might guess.

When given a brief lesson and an opportunity to work in teams doing something hands on for example designing a container to protect an egg from breaking when dropped off a building, I've been very impressed by what kids (both gifted and typically developing) kids come up with in those conversations and what is revealed about what they've observed. I've spent more time in classrooms with home schooling kids though so I'm seeing raw talent combined with experience not the product of typical science curriculums. At any rate, it suggests to me the culprit isn't cartoons.

Maybe it is just overall a different attitude about children. I believe that all children are born with abilities that deserve to be nurtured and that most children, gifted and otherwise, fail to get the education they deserve. I don't believe we will ever change that as long as we underestimate what children are capable of learning.

I understand it can be challenging to be the parent of a profoundly gifted kid(s). I would suggest though believing everyone (posters on the internet, schools in Singapore, your college advisers, etc.) is incapable of understanding or is incompetent is a pretty unproductive and negative place to dwell.

12:55 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I haven't time to respond to the length I would wish, at this time. However, I want to enlighten you about Mythbusters: it is a show that explores the scientific misunderstandings that people have. It is precisely evidence that such misunderstandings exist and persist in adulthood, never mind childhood.

I am not negative...just realistic. I state what has happened so that others might know that such things happen in this situation. If we were receiving ideal responses, I would state that my posts don't come from negativity, but the need to communicate what has occurred. That is all.

Thanks for taking the time to post your comments.

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


i have just read all the comments and have to point out something to you.

when you talk about the linguist in cambridge - "I realized something odd: she seemed to think that the Sun went around the Earth. I raised the point with her and argued for a heliocentric solar system. She actually laughed at me...and ridiculed the idea."

i am failing to see why she is wrong, if you fixed your sight on the sun you would see the earth moving around it, however, if you fixed it upon the earth you would see the sun moving around it. From what you say she hasnt mentioned that the earth is the centre of the solar system, just that the sun moves around the earth. This is in no way wrong, and she may have simply outsmarted you by saying . According to what you say she may even be cleverer than you are!!

7:52 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Sun and Earth.

I think you have confused yourself. The truth of the matter is that the Earth goes around the Sun. It only appears that the Sun goes around the Earth, because of the Earth's rotation about its own axis. It is actually the Earth that is doing the moving.

From her comment, it was very clear that she thought that the Sun orbited the Earth. This is not so. Your argument about viewpoints doesn't make it so, either. She was a great linguist...but scientifically very naive. However, that didn't stop her from being nice to know.

Thanks for your comment.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i too agree that the sun is at the centre of the solar system but you are stating that the sun does not move at all, or atlest not around the sun.
Let me try to explain this better. the concept of motion is relative. If for example you took out all of the other bodies from the solar system, you could not tell whether the sun or the earth was moving around the other. You may feel you are correct if you consider the universe is spherical but that is not the case, the universe has no cente, and therefore u cannot stand at one place and observe motion relative to there and say that the earth has an absolute revolutional motion according to the sun.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Gravity is your answer. The Sun is a much more massive body than the Earth...and so it is the Earth that shall orbit the Sun, and not the Sun, the Earth, basically.

As for the Sun not moving: it too is in orbit about the Milky Way.

The motion of the Earth is centred about the Sun, the motion of the Sun will be centred about the centre of mass of the galaxy (ignoring any motion of the galaxy).

Thanks for your interesting comment.

9:45 AM  

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