On finding things out, and not knowing

Curiosity involves two things: ignorance about something, and a desire to find out. That sounds simple enough. But curiosity can go wrong when the desire for certainty overwhelms one’s ability to live with tentative answers, or with no answer at all.

Consider two brief quotes from Richard Feynman (1918-1988), a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, and one of the most interesting people of the twentieth century (I recommend Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick, and Feynman’s own Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!). Feynman said:

Richard Feynman Nobel.jpg“People say to me, ‘Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?’ No, I’m not. I’m just looking to find out more about the world, and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything, so be it. That would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers, and we’re sick and tired of looking at layers, then that’s the way it is . . . My interest in science is to simply find out more about the world, and the more I find out, the better it is. I like to find out.” (Quoted in Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, p. 177.)

In other words, it was the process of learning things that was most attractive. But Feynman also said, in a 1981 BBC interview, “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.”

Recently I read 1491 by Charles C. Mann, in which the author describes current research about New World civilizations before Columbus. Fascinating stuff. I enjoy how the author describes the various disputes between archeologists, such as when people first arrived in the Americas, or how corn (maize) was developed, or how a particular civilization arose. The arguments often become personal, and over the years some archeologists have embarrassed themselves by clinging to pet theories long after the accumulating evidence has pointed in another direction.

After you’ve put a lot of time and work into a particular idea, it’s hard to say, “I think this is so, but we’ll have to wait and see.” Human nature being what it is, it’s easy for one’s values to subtly shift from a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads (even if it discredits your favorite hypothesis!) to a commitment to defending your ideas against all comers, no matter what.

There’s a lot of that out there. Some people like knowing more than they like learning. But Feynman was a great scientist not only because of his obvious brilliance, but also because his commitment was in the right place: he liked to find out, but he could live with not knowing.

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