How cu­rios­ity can blunt our many fears of the un­known

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY KATHER­INE HAR­MON COURAGE Kather­ine Har­mon Courage is a sci­ence writer and the au­thor of “Oc­to­pus! The Most Mys­te­ri­ous Crea­ture in the Sea” and “Cul­tured,” a forth­com­ing book about cui­sine and the mi­cro­biome.

What is it that com­pels us not only to gaze at the stars but also to build the tech­nol­ogy to reach out to them, study them, un­der­stand them? It is, of course, that mys­te­ri­ous, pow­er­ful force of cu­rios­ity that is with us from in­fancy, blos­soms in child­hood and per­sists through­out our lives. Plenty of an­i­mals show a keen in­ter­est in ob­jects and sit­u­a­tions. But in “Why,” as­tro­physi­cist Mario Livio ar­gues that hu­mans are the only species to ask not just what, where or who, but also why.

This wide-rang­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion is no hu­man­ist’s dal­liance into won­der and whimsy. Com­manded by Livio, who worked on the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope, the topic is treated with a physi­cist’s sen­si­bil­ity. Ex­am­ples (Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Feyn­man) are put un­der the mi­cro­scope, the sci­ence (fMRIs, neu­ro­trans­mit­ters) is as­sessed, and hy­pothe­ses (do sci­en­tists con­sider them­selves cu­ri­ous?) are tested. Livio has the cre­den­tials for tak­ing on this un­wieldy sub­ject, hav­ing au­thored nu­mer­ous pop­u­lar-sci­ence books (“The Golden Ra­tio,” “Is God a Math­e­mati­cian?” and “Bril­liant Blun­ders,” among oth­ers), and is ap­par­ently plenty fa­mil­iar with the topic (the first line of the book is: “I have al­ways been a very cu­ri­ous per­son”).

His re­search roves broadly, from his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and tech­ni­cal stud­ies to per­sonal in­ter­views. But the re­sult is rather stilted, yoked to the cult of in­di­vid­ual sci­en­tific ge­nius, em­bel­lished with umoored quo­ta­tions from Western thinkers and de­liv­ered in a tone that of­ten reads as di­dac­tic. The reader feels less like a fel­low dis­cov­erer than an un­der­grad­u­ate in lec­ture.

Like any notable in­struc­tor, Livio in­cludes some fas­ci­nat­ing tid­bits along the way. Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing and use­ful seg­ment delves into the role of cu­rios­ity in learn­ing and me­mory. Par­tic­i­pants in one study were asked to rate how in­ter­ested they were in learn­ing the an­swers to var­i­ous ques­tions on a list. They were then shown the ques­tions, one by one, fol­lowed by the cor­re­spond­ing an­swer. But the an­swer was not de­liv­ered in­stan­ta­neously. The sub­jects sat through a wait­ing pe­riod, dur­ing which they saw a brief im­age of a ran­dom face. Later, an un­ex­pected me­mory test showed that peo­ple best re­called the faces shown when they were wait­ing for an an­swer they had been par­tic­u­larly ea­ger to know. The les­son: Stay cu­ri­ous, re­mem­ber more.

The cu­rios­ity me­mory boost in­volves a part­ner­ship be­tween the brain’s learn­ing and re­ward sys­tems. The hip­pocam­pus, which is as­so­ci­ated with learn­ing, and the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter dopamine, which is linked to plea­sure, were ac­ti­vated to­gether in a range of stud­ies on the phys­i­o­log­i­cal un­der­pin­nings of cu­rios­ity. “In other words,” Livio writes, “the de­sire to learn pro­duces its own in­ter­nal re­wards.”

This re­ward, at times, proves too en­tic­ing to Livio him­self. He of­ten starts into a promis­ing line of nar­ra­tive but then quickly veers off to insert a tan­gen­tial fact, quote or ref­er­ence be­fore mov­ing on to some­thing else en­tirely. As a re­sult, the reader must move through a scree field of asides, which have ap­par­ently tum­bled down from some great un­seen mono­lith of the au­thor’s mind.

This ten­dency gains a brief re­prieve when Livio leaves the sci­en­tific literature be­hind to probe cu­rios­ity in liv­ing peo­ple: pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Jack Horner, rock band Queen’s lead gui­tarist and as­tro­physi­cist Brian May, CERN Di­rec­tor Gen­eral Fabi­ola Gian­otti and sev­eral oth­ers. We learn that Horner is largely self­taught, May col­lects Vic­to­rian-era stereopho­tog­ra­phy and Gian­otti re­ceived her first de­gree in mu­sic. Al­though com­posed of fas­ci­nat­ing in­di­vid­u­als, his sam­ple leaves some­thing to be de­sired: Each per­son is fa­mous, all but two are sci­en­tists, and most of them are fel­low physi­cists. It leaves the reader to won­der: Is an im­pres­sive ac­com­plish­ment, un­ex­pected in­ter­est or sec­ond ca­reer the ex­clu­sive do­main of the rar­efied, “very cu­ri­ous per­son”?

Livio’s el­e­va­tion of the high-pro­file sci­en­tist as a dif­fer­ent breed backs up his premise that “peo­ple are not equally cu­ri­ous.” Fur­ther­more, he sur­mises that “cu­rios­ity re­quires cer­tain cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties . . . gov­erned to a sig­nif­i­cant de­gree by ge­netic in­her­i­tance.” He does ul­ti­mately add the much-needed ac­knowl­edge­ment that su­per­star cu­rios­ity is of­ten not at­tain­able for those in dire sit­u­a­tions, such as refugees and res­i­dents of re­pres­sive regimes (Livio’s own par­ents fled Ro­ma­nia dur­ing World War II). Left out of his pic­ture, how­ever, is the ma­jor­ity of hu­mankind, who live nei­ther in a state of con­stant threat nor in the aca­demic world: those of us who find cu­rios­ity in the peo­ple and things around us and in the de­tails of our work and hob­bies that will never be writ­ten up in Sci­ence or Rolling Stone. By ex­alt­ing the few, he un­der­cuts the true beauty of cu­rios­ity, which is that it is one thing that truly unites and ig­nites us as hu­mans.

But he res­cues his book with an un­ex­pected moral call that is worth lis­ten­ing to: “Cu­rios­ity,” he writes, “is the best rem­edy for fear.”

We now have an un­prece­dented abil­ity to quench our cu­rios­ity about the spe­cific. Nev­er­the­less, fear of the broad un­known — of­ten in the guise of pro­tec­tion­ism or ha­tred — re­mains. Cu­rios­ity is an over­looked cat­a­lyst that can turn such detri­men­tal po­ten­tial en­ergy into true hu­man progress — which can take us to the stars and be­yond.

By Mario Livio Simon & Schus­ter. 252 pp. $26

WHY What Makes Us Cu­ri­ous

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