Friday, July 22, 2011

Kuriosity Killed the Kat

They say that curiosity killed the cat. However, my question of late is: What killed curiosity?

I used to think that as people got older, they lost creativity. I didn't believe it to be the side-effect of a physical condition, just an exchange: I'll trade you my creativity for routine.

However, the lack of creativity in older people (say, anyone over the age of sixteen) is a red herring: the essential characteristic that goes missing is curiosity. From the moment we begin breathing air we start trying to figure out what's going. It's not long before we get to why and how. These two questions are later joined by what if?: what would happen if? Why would that happen? Hmmm... then what about this? How would that work?

These questions are the essence of curiosity. We observe some thing or some process. We ask why it does what it does. We as how it works. We make suppositions or guess about what might happen if we were to... We try it out. It doesn't work. We try it again or we try something else.

The "it doesn't work" part is never a bad thing; it's just part of the process perhaps more accurately expressed as "it doesn't work as expected."

As grow older, why, how and what-if are displaced by who, what, where and when. Curiosity in the world around us is replaced by fascination with gossip or sports or the news. I guess you could still call it curiosity, but it's different. It's non-participatory curiosity.

Why is that?

Perhaps it has to do with being taught that getting it right is more important than getting it. Scientific method is based on making your best guess, trying it out, seeing where it takes you, and then making another guess based on what you learn. A good scientist makes increasingly better guesses, but she expects all guesses but the last one to be at least slightly wrong.

On the other hand, engineers have to guess right the first time. Usually its done by repeating all the required calculations many times, and then doubling what you think you need. Whether you're constructing a bridge or a electronic device, better to equip it with more than enough capacity than too little capacity.

In school, when we pretend to teach science, we actually teach engineering. Experiments have expected outcomes. We're graded on whether or not our results match the expected outcomes. While this approach may teach experimental procedure, it does nothing to teach science. Anyone can learn how to piece together an experiment: nothing to it. To really teach scientific method, you must teach someone how to derive the next question.

We observe a phenomenon. I ask you, "Why did that happen?"

What now?

The true scientist is simultaneous master of both discipline and creativity. She asserts, "Well, I guess it could be... or perhaps it's..." The assertions lead to more questions which lead to more assertions which lead to experiments.

When science is taught in this manner, there is a delight in the process. Ah hah! moments lurk behind every corner. The delight in discovery fuels greater curiosity which intensifies the delight. A curiosity developed in this way can never be quenched. We become Ah hah! junkies.

But most of us are not taught that way. We learn to squelch our curiosity and get with the program, get the results that are expected of us. Some rarely experience the delight of discovery and without that, curiosity dies.

Doesn't that make you curious?

Happy Friday,
Teflon

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