‘Why? What Makes Us Curious’ Is a Gem of a Book

Mario Livio Directs His Curiosity at Curiosity

<em>Why?: What Makes Us Curious</em>
Courtesy Photo

The ability to ask why is a fundamental human characteristic. To wonder what lies beyond the ocean, question how gravity works, ponder the cosmos, study tides, dig for dinosaur bones, and probe consciousness itself are just a few things that have preoccupied our species. In Why? What Makes Us Curious, Mario Livio, astrophysicist and author of numerous books, directs his own polymathic curiosity at curiosity. The result is a gem of a book.

In interviews with and studies of creative people such as Richard Feynman, Brian May, Leonardo da Vinci, and Fabiola Gianotti, to name a few, Livio traces curiosity across a wide spectrum of disciplines, showing the varied forms inquisitiveness takes and how the appetite for knowledge is the primary driver of all scientific and philosophical inquiry. Curiosity may be short-lived, ending when a question is answered or problem solved, but it can also last a lifetime, never dimming in intensity.

Livio devotes a few chapters to the neuroscience of curiosity and the work of cognitive scientists. With the help of fMRI technology, researchers can now image the brain in action, pinpoint which regions are used during particular mental processes, and identify the neural pathways. Although this material is heavier, in Livio’s deft hands, it’s not beyond the comprehension of a layperson.

While curiosity has led to astounding accomplishments, Livio balances his investigation by pointing out that curiosity was seen as dangerous and deviant. The curiosity of Adam and Eve, for instance, caused their banishment from the Garden of Eden; in Greek mythology, Pandora’s curiosity compelled her to open the box and release all the evils of humanity; and many a curious person in the early Middle Ages was mocked or persecuted for meddling in questions that were believed to belong to God alone. Livio, though, focuses more on virtuous curiosity of the sort that has propelled human intellectual evolution. If he had his way, Mario Livio would turn curiosity into an epidemic.


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