Friday, August 5, 2011

Curiosity Killed the Cat?

Fully alive. . . and enjoying the catnip!

Whose curiosity are we talking about? The cat’s? According to Wikipedia, one origin of this term was English villagers whose cats were being killed by the experiments of the local scientist. It was the scientist’s curiosity that killed the cat, not the cat’s. Interesting the way this phrase been turned around so as to imply that allowing your own curiosity free rein might bring you to a sorry end.

I wonder if this bit of mythology has accounted for what appears to be an astounding lack of curiosity in so many citizens of “developed” countries, especially including our own. It seems it’s become unfashionable for the average citizen to harbor curiosity about what goes on around us, where we all came from, what makes our universe tick, or even mundane matters, like how the shelves of our local food market get stocked. We might be curious about what’s going on behind a neighbor’s closed curtains, or about who was in the car wreck down the street. But beyond that, it’s almost as though there’s a fear that if we look too closely, something scary might emerge from the shadows and devour us.

Indeed, there’s merit to that fear. Donald Rumsfeld talked about “the things we don’t know we don’t know.” It’s true that once curiosity gets a grip on us we might learn a lot of things we didn’t want to know. On the other hand, if we knew about them, maybe that would render them harmless, or at least accessible to consideration.

Somehow, any fears that I might have associated with gratifying curiosity didn’t inhibit it, even though, at age eight, I used to get myself into a slightly spooky frame of mind by wondering what was outside the universe. The first phenomenon I observed, which sparked a passionate fascination with science, and especially electronics, was the mystery of magnetic attraction. When I was five or six years old, my uncle, whom I admired for his esoteric knowledge of electronics, gave me a little cylindrical magnet that came from a radio loudspeaker. It set my curiosity alight about the  invisible and unfathomable force emanating from this bit of metal. It's not surprising that I should wonder about it, because nobody knows really what magnetism is, even now, though we know a great deal about what it does. Sixty years later, it’s still an absorbing mystery to me.

A friend of mine, trained as a scientist, once told me he hated the word “mystery.” That surprised me because personally I love it. Our  neighbor, the American Museum of Radio and Electricity has adopted the slogan: “Where discovery sparks imagination.” I like to consider their slogan in reversed form, as in, “imagination sparks discovery.” Even better, try, “mystery sparks imagination and discovery.” The mystery of magnetic force stimulated my imagination and a passionate interest in science and, beyond that, a curiosity about how on earth did we and all this amazing world around us come to be. . . and how did we get to be in such a mess these days?

What bothers me most about today’s state of political, economic, and every other kind of unrest, is that it betrays not only a lack of curiosity, but a lack of general interest in just about everything, except the fact we can’t find a job. Sorry, I don’t mean to say that’s a trivial concern, but, if you delve deeply enough, you find out the reasons for that. . . and they ultimately have to do with the physical realities of energy, pollution, resource depletion, complexity, overpopulation, and various inadequacies of the industrial system that has held us in its sway for over 100 years. Oh yes, greed and politics play a big part as well.

We’ve become preoccupied with abstractions. . .unexamined assumptions taught by rote, like “the invisible hand of the free market.” (See this essay and its sequel, by John Michael Greer ) We’ve lost sight of crucial physical realities, like the source of our daily ration of food, about how natural ecosystems are essential to our continued well-being and very existence. Instead, too many of us are breathlessly awaiting the release of the latest iGadget, and distracting ourselves with other trivialities, like political sex scandals, in the face of climate change and economic catastrophe.

Curiosity can lead us to delve into physical reality, to look into what is actually going on. Once we overcome our anxieties, and get a grip on actuality, then we’re much less likely to be mislead by those to whose advantage it is to foster our ignorance by indoctrinating us with abstract slogans. Greer’s comments in his essay cited above address the part education plays in this “wising up” process. All too frequently, the sort of education we get in officially certified schools does not wise us up in ways that might actually bring about real change in the predominate beliefs that are now leading us, like lemmings, over a cliff.

Curiosity is a quality to be both fostered and followed. It can be an educational guide, and educational opportunities are everywhere once you commence looking for them. There’s the Internet, especially sites like TED, where you can watch all sorts of talks by thinkers and scientists that will open up a world of possible explorations. Besides Mindport, I suggest visiting our neighbor, right around the corner, The American Museum of Radio and Electricity. Just reading or exploring such web sites as TED is only a start. Hands-on  involvement with one’s fascinations is essential, whether done via manual artwork, or, say, by taking one of the Radio Museum’s courses in Amateur Radio or building crystal sets. Physical exploration leads us in unexpected directions that we’d never anticipate if we restricted ourselves to simply reading or watching video.

One of my greatest hopes for Mindport is that it will inspire curiosity in those for whom curiosity might have been numbed, regardless of age. If we succeed, we hope curiosity won’t stop here. Liberation from the tedium of ingrained and unexamined beliefs comes to those whose curiosity inspires them to take their education in their own hands, moving away from abstract theory and toward the sort of concrete knowledge that might serve in the long term to deliver us from the severe predicaments we now face.

Kevin Jones

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