Curiouser and Curiouser: A Love of Learning

Asking someone why they’re curious is like asking them why they’re tall, or why they have brown eyes. From the moment we are born, our brains are hardwired to experience an innate sense of curiosity and wonder, a love of learning and a desire to explore. When I was little, I was intensely interested in dinosaurs, to the extent I dreamed of being a palaeontologist and even dreamed that a giant dinosaur footprint was discovered on the school oval. This dream was so extraordinarily vivid, I sometimes catch myself thinking of it as actually having happened. Science is all about this childhood curiosity and wonder, but there’s a disconnect between this underlying intuition and the way society values scientific research and a science education.

Think back to when you were young. What made you curious? Perhaps you pulled apart everything in your path to see how it worked.  Maybe you ate things to see what they tasted like, such as my friends who admitted to eating kangaroo poo, mum’s Chanel lipstick, or the perennial schoolyard classic: glue. Maybe you were like another friend of mine, who performed experiments in his dad’s shed, trying to figure out which things would catch on fire. Some might say budding pyromaniac, but I say aspiring scientist.

Because everyone starts out a scientist, but sadly, few retain this curiosity into adulthood. Why does this happen? To answer this question, ask yourself: when was the last time you wondered why apples turn brown when you slice them? Or looked up at the stars and wondered, is there a planet home to little green men out there? When was the last time you were intensely and genuinely curious? Maybe you have been exceptionally inquisitive recently, however there is a misguided idea that curiosity is only for the young. Carl Sagan summed it up perfectly when he said, “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

I agree wholeheartedly – the problem lies in the system, in the “transmission of facts” style of education that is forced upon us. This diminishes natural curiosity and replaces a love of learning by discovery with the boredom of simply being told stuff. School science classes epitomise this with textbooks as thick as tree trunks to be rote learnt and regurgitated in an exam. Instead, science education needs to foster creative and curious mindsets, to convey the wondrous unknown of the world around us, and to nurture a lifelong love of learning. Because science isn’t about memorizing a maths textbook – it’s about an impassioned desire to figure out why and how something is. It’s about constantly reinterpreting, reinventing and rediscovering what reality is. As Albert Einstein famously said, “I am neither especially clever, nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious. We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Having a drive to learn and explore is essential in science, as you’re constantly faced with something unexpected. For example, Dan Schectman, Chemistry Nobel Prizewinner in 2011, discovered beautiful but strange entities called quasicrystals. When Schectman made the discovery, he was looking at crystals that had been studied before. That is, several people had previously made the key observation and dismissed it as a mistake. As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’.” In Schectman’s “That’s funny…” moment, it was undeniably a love for learning and a curiosity that impelled him to investigate further. But having such moments is becoming increasingly difficult and the pressure to generate problem-solving outcomes is immense. The value of “fundamental research,” which aims to investigate and explore the world around us without regard for potential applications, is often overlooked.

Some might argue that research with no specific application is “frivolous” given the current economic climate. But even if you don’t think exploring new frontiers is worthwhile simply for the sake of expanding mankind’s knowledge, you’d be wrong to deem such science expendable. For instance, sea sponges. Why on earth would we study a plain old sponge that lies around on the bottom of the ocean? The only things sponges are good for are washing dishes and providing TV entertainment in the form of a certain yellow cartoon sponge. Right?

Actually, several chemical compounds have been found in sea sponges that could be anticancer drugs. That’s right, studying sea sponges can lead to a cure for cancer. Similarly, but from a technological standpoint, the smartphone in your pocket and the Wi-Fi that’s pretty much everywhere now would not exist if it weren’t for fundamental research into electromagnetic fields and mathematics. Often the benefits of such research remain unknown until decades after the original work. The bottom line is: without a love for learning and a deep-seated curiosity, we would not be able to achieve such enormous technological and medical advances.

So, if we want to engage a new generation of scientists to discover cures for cancer and develop tomorrow’s technology, we need to inspire them. We want young people to be gripped by the idea of shaping millions of lives through science, and equipped with the ability to dissect the complex challenges society is facing. We need to convey the adrenaline kick you get when you learn something new. We need to instil an insatiable curiosity, a profound and infinite love of learning.

This is an abridged version of a speech written for the 19th Annual Lions Oratory Competition.