A Call to Adults to Be Curious

12 02 2011

It’s a shame that we mainly associate natural curiosity about the world with childhood. The inquisitive nature of children – asking questions, touching and taking things apart, wondering how everything works – those are traits that adults should exercise as well. They are curiosity, and they open the door to an excitement for learning.

The natural probing of one’s surroundings begins to fade with the start of formal education, as the standardization of curricula constrains the exploration of curiosities. Like muscle, with disuse the inquisitive spirit atrophies. Curiosity is a spirit to be flexed and fed. It grows as more and more understanding teaches us how much can be known – and how much more there is to know.

Curiosity has a curious effect on attention, as it can both focus and distract. As I sit at the table writing this entry, there is a hand of four bananas to my left. A few minutes ago I got curious about them. A flurry of keystrokes later, I now know that:

  • A “hand” is the proper term for a cluster of bananas
  • The same enzyme that browns bananas is also found in apples, potatoes and pears
  • Apes eat bananas upside down, using the stem as a handle
  • Banana leaves are sometimes used as umbrellas

I also know that I haven’t gone very far in making my point, other than in a meta way. My curiosity got the best of me, but it also focused me – on bananas. It started with wanting to know why they turn brown. Wait a minute! Temperature makes a difference in browning? No way! Hey! A picture of a banana tree! It’s not a tree? Oh, okay, it’s the largest herbaceous flowering plant. So how do I even refer to this cluster of bananas? A bunch? A group? (Hint: Don’t call it a bunch. Bunches of bananas are collections of hands that can weigh over 100 pounds. If you ask for a bunch of bananas, get a reinforced shopping cart.) And on. Curiosity both distracted me from writing, then intensely focused my attention on a long yellow fruit.

Curiosity also has an intimate connection with information gathering, which occurs in a number of ways.

  1. Self-Guided Experimentation (1). “I don’t know the answer. Others probably do, but I’ll find out myself.” (How will mom react to my drawing on the wall? I’ll try it and test. – – How hard is that rock? Let me see if I can scratch it with an iron nail.)
  2. Research. “I don’t know the answer. Others probably do, so I’ll see what they’ve figured out.” (How do jet engines work? Wikipedia it. How do I solve a generalized eigenvalue math problem? Read an introductory text in linear algebra.)
  3. Self-Guided Experimentation (2). “I don’t know the answer. I’ve researched the topic and others don’t know the answer either.” This is how science and innovation happen. Asking “Is there a better way to store computer data?” led to our talking today about terabytes. “Is there a cheaper way to manufacture items requiring multiple steps?” led to the assembly line. “Why did the staph in my contaminated petri dish stop growing?” led to the discovery of penicillin. And simpler – “How can we see how ant colonies operate?” led to the creation of the glass-face ant farm. Questions in this category also tend to begin with “I wonder whether…”

Asking questions and pursuing answers is the best way to flex our brains and experience the world. So look out at, say, the Grand Canyon. Feel awe. Be inspired. And then ask: How did this form? Make a call on your cell phone. Wouldn’t it be great to know how your voice found its way to your caller? And why you lose signal in some buildings but not others?

The more you know, the more you’ll be amazed at what we understand and can do, intrigued by what we don’t understand and can’t do, and most importantly – the more you’ll want to know and perhaps do more.

Postscript: In the relatively short time it took to write this, a tab spawn took place in my browser. Now open are articles on: bananas, plantains, dessert, musa balbisiana, assembly lines, pectinase, herbaceous plants, ant colonies (one is a how-to guide!), and penicillin (definitely not a how-to guide). Looks like it’ll be a late night.

posted by yair

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4 responses

12 02 2011
Bree

Hey Guys!

More facinating information about this amazing fruit:

http://www.jmaxbits.com/file_cabinet/Household%20Tips/Bananas.pdf

Tally Ho!
Bree.

13 02 2011
Christy @ Technosyncratic

So true! I love hanging out with kids because their curiosity is (largely) intact. Wouldn’t it be great if adults continued to find wonder in seemingly mundane things? There is SO MUCH to learn and explore, but we just don’t take the time…

Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

15 02 2011
Albireo

You stated, “Apes eat bananas upside down, using the stem as a handle.” That’s incorrect. Most people eat bananas upside down, using the stem as a handle. Apes, monkeys, and Pacific Islanders eat bananas from the top to the stem. See http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Eat-a-Banana-Like-a-Monkey/. Cool blog!

15 02 2011
Albireo

Oh! I see what you mean by “handle.” I thought you meant apes use the stem as a handle to open the banana!

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