Curiosity is second nature to human beings. It is the stuff of science. It is at the heart of discoveries and inventions. But there is something curious about curiosity: some people are more curious than others. Some are very curious, some less so, and some, one might say, are either not curious in the least or do their best to kill their curiosity.
(Daily Times, 15 August2012)
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. In which case curiosity, I say, must be the father of all inventions. And curiosity it was, which led the US Space Agency NASA to spend $2.5 billion on a spaceship it aptly named “Curiosity”. Last week it landed on Mars after a journey of 570-million kilometers lasting over 8 months at a speed of 20,000 km per hour.
Weighing 1,000 kg, Curiosity has 17 cameras. Its “high gain antenna” allows the vehicle to communicate directly with its “handlers” on planet earth. The pictures it has sent are so sharp that they show the dust thrown up by the landing and it is even possible to pick out the discarded heat-shield. Curiosity’s job is to move around looking for interesting rock features for scientists to study.
Engineers and scientists who have worked on this project for nearly 10 years “punched the air and hugged each other” when news of the successful landing on planet Mars reached them on planet Earth. The last few minutes of landing were so complicated that they were dubbed the “seven minutes of terror”. President Barack Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren, called it “the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of planetary exploration.”
And it was curiosity which gave birth to the Large Hydrogen Collider (LHC), Higgs Boson Projector, Hubble Telescope and its successor, James Webb Space Telescope, which will cost $8 billion. The LHC is situated in a tunnel 27 km in circumference, 175 metres beneath the Franco-Swiss border. Its purpose is to find answers to some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing human understanding of the deepest laws of nature.
Curiosity, again, has led scientists to build and live in the Concordia research station in the centre of Antarctica, “a place so remote – and so cold – that it is only possible to get in and out for three months of the year.” It is the coldest, darkest and most extreme environment on our planet, with nothing but ice for more than 1,000 km in most directions.
Curiosity created science and led to the branching and further branching of the sciences. We had physics for a start, but now we have astrophysics, astronomy, geophysics, quantum physics and molecular physics, to name a few. In Chemistry, we have astrochemistry, biochemistry, geochemistry, agrochemistry. From biology came microbiology, cellular biology, genetics, parasitology, molecular biology.
We are curious about our past, which is why we record, research and revisit it, and we call it history. The study of history has led to such specialized areas as archaeology, numismatics, paleography, sociology, anthropology, etc. Curiosity led to the discovery and exploration of continents, rivers, mountains and tribes. Curiosity has taken explorers to icebound Arctic and Antarctica, to the harsh sandy deserts of Sahara and Australia, to the wind-swept, frozen peaks of the Himalayas, Alps and the Andes. Many paid for their curiosity with their lives and continue to do so. The fatalities include 18 astronauts and cosmonauts killed in space exploration. Neither hardship nor the fear of death would deter mankind from the quest for knowledge.
Curiosity is second nature to human beings. It is the stuff of science. It is at the heart of discoveries and inventions. But there is something curious about curiosity: some people are more curious than others. Some are very curious, some less so, and some, one might say, are either not curious in the least or do their best to kill their curiosity. Some like to investigate further and know more; others allow neither curiosity nor facts to shake their inherited or acquired beliefs.
While science has conquered the moon, is now probing Mars and has, to a large extent, explained the workings of the mind, the body and the universe, theologians have been going in circles trying to justify belief with belief. The best that they and their followers can produce is the occasional “weeping Mary” or “milk-sipping Ganesh”, besides the rather sickening assertion that natural disasters are divine punishment for our alleged sins.
Such is science’s power of persuasion, if I may use the expression, that theologians are compelled to retreat before it, time and again. Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Sydney’s archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, in a recent debate with evolutionary biologist, Professor Richard Dawkins, conceded that evolution is ”probably” right. In 1996, Pope John Paul II officially conceded much the same. Do they have a choice in an age when every biology class is premised on the theory of evolution, just as most of our physical actions take into account the theory of gravity?
Compressing the earth’s 4.5 billion year existence into a 24-hour cycle (from midnight to midnight), Francis Collins in his book “The Language of God” summarises thus:
If the earth was formed at 12:01 am, then life would appear at about 3:30 am. Dinosaurs would appear shortly after 9 pm and would become extinct at 11:40 pm, at which time the mammals would begin to expand. The divergence of branches leading to chimps and humans would occur with only one minute and seventeen seconds remaining in this 24-hour day, and modern humans would appear with just three seconds left. “It is not surprising that many of us have a great deal of difficulty contemplating evolutionary time,” Collins concludes.
Be it noted that Collins, a highly regarded American scientist, is also a deeply committed Christian. However, not all theologians and their followers are as honest as Cardinal Pell or Dr Collins. Faced with irrefutable scientific facts, many choose to banish curiosity from their minds, suspend their inquisitiveness, go into denial and repeat their cherished mantras.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American physician and writer, regarded as one of the best writers of the 19th century observed: “The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it the more it will contract”.
By Razi Azmi