MIL: Where did the original idea come from?
RW: Both Josh and I already spend too much time thinking about value and objects, I guess. There is one minor detail of interest in the back story of S.O.: I broke a coffee cup I’d bought as a souvenir on a trip with my now-wife, early in our relationship. I was very sad to have ruined it, but I realised it only had value to me—it was just a coffee cup from some diner—because of the story behind it. This got me thinking about whether stories for worthless-seeming objects could be invented, and whether that would increase their value. That led to conversations with Josh that culminated in Significant Objects: We would buy cheap thingamabobs from yard sales and thrift stores and the like, recruit creative writers to invent stories about them, then put the object up for auction on eBay with the invented provenance as its description. (It’s important to note that we were explicit about the invented nature of the Significance; there was no hoaxing.)
MIL: Are you surprised by the results?
RW: We expected that the stories would increase the value of the objects—but we were very surprised by how much. The first round involved 100 objects/stories, and in the end we sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. (The money went to the writers in Volume 1, by the way.) That’s a Significance Markup of more than 2,700%. While nothing we bought cost us more than $4 (and most were a buck), several objects sold for more than $100. We did not think the prices would go that high. I still have old e-mail exchanges between Josh and me from the first week, as we were very excited to see auctions reach, say, $15.
Science is fueled by passion, a passion that is often attached to the world of objects much as the artist is attached to his paints, the poet to her words. From my first days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976, I saw this passion for objects everywhere. My students and colleagues told how they were drawn into science by the physics of sand castles, by playing with soap bubbles, by the mesmerizing power of a crystal radio.
Since this was the early days of computer culture, there was also talk of new objects. Some people identified with their computers, experiencing these machines as extensions of themselves. For them, computers were useful for thinking about larger questions, questions of determinism and free will, of mind and mechanism ...
Objects don’t nudge every child toward science, but for some, a rich object world is the best way to give science a chance. Given the opportunity, children will make intimate connections, connections they must construct on their own ...
If we attend to young scientists’ romance with objects, we are encouraged to make children comfortable with the idea that falling in love with things is part of what we expect of them. We are encouraged to introduce the periodic table as poetry and LEGOs as a form of art.