Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)
Astrophysicist Mario Livio worked on the Hubble Space Telescope for almost 25 years, until 2015. Throughout his scientific career, he has not only written hundreds of scientific articles and books on subjects ranging from the Golden Ratio to brilliant scientists’ big blunders—he’s also extended his creative reach to musical collaborations, including in his role as Science Advisor to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Livio’s latest book, Why?: What Makes Us Curious, is, by his own admission, the farthest afield from his usual subjects of study. But it’s no surprise that someone with as wide a scope of interests as Livio would want to know more about the nature of curiosity itself. We spoke by phone one Thursday morning in early June about what we know thus far about how curiosity works, the purpose it serves, and how to nurture curiosity in children. Livio also answered, with the patience and enthusiasm of an excellent teacher, my rudimentary questions about telescopes and astrophysics, and calmed the terror I feel when I think about how our universe is expanding into nothingness.
I thought we could start with you defining what curiosity is and the way you came to understand it through researching this book.
It’s funny that you should ask this question because one of the things that I concluded in the book, and this was only after I did all the research and everything, is that when we talk about curiosity, it turns out that there are several mechanisms involved. There is a curiosity that we feel when we see something that surprises us or when there is something ambiguous and we want to understand that. But it’s a relatively transitory-type feeling. There is a curiosity that we feel when we cannot remember the name of the actor who played in this or that film. That is another type of curiosity. And then there is the curiosity that drives, for example, all basic scientific research, and that’s our love for knowledge.
So while you will see various types of definitions, like a state for acquiring information and things like that, those never quite capture everything that is involved. Had we known as much we know now about curiosity, we might have invented different words for these different mechanisms. Read more…