Saturday, December 5, 2020

An astrophysicist asks why we ask, Why?


In his new book entitled Why?: What Makes Us Curious, an astrophysicist who, until 2015, worked for the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope, takes a close look at many of human history’s most curious people.

Mario Livio, now retired and a prolific writer of popular books on math and science, is of the opinion that just about anything can be interesting — if only we look deeply enough at it. And humans, more than any other, are the only animals who have the ability to ask probing questions, like Why?

The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes him as saying this:

Everything is interesting if you look into it deeply enough. You can take the tearing of paper. When you really look into the physics of the tearing of paper, you find there are all kinds of interesting questions there that can be asked, and some of them can be answered. So I hesitate to say that there are things that bore me.

Writing about such curious people as Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, and Leonardo da Vinci — who once wrote that “the natural desire of good men is knowledge” — Mr Livio reaches the conclusion that one of the qualities of highly curious people is that they are constantly aware of the puzzles happening in the world around them.

And they seek to solve those puzzles, often by applying knowledge in other areas. Da Vinci, for example, was a great engineer but also very interested in art, which led him to make his drawings of machines he would never build, just design.

But unlike many people today, whose pursuits to save the planet have been shut down by the non-science in politics or religion, to the dismay of true lovers of humanity, Mr Livio’s book takes a more optimistic approach.

“Galileo, of course, suffered from the Inquisition,” he was quoted as saying. “There have been very courageous scientists who paid with their life for their ability to express their curiosity. As a scientist, I would like truth to always be revealed, irrespective of what the government or the church says.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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