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Curiosity

March 26, 2015

The Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow),[1] was released in the US during my college undergraduate days. In our physics department, we renamed the film, "I Am Curious (580 nanometers)," where 580 nm is the wavelength of yellow light. This mildly pornographic film, directed by Vilgot Sjöman and starring Lena Nyman, was a companion to the film, I Am Curious (Blue). According to the opening narrative of the yellow film, the blue film was too risqué for audiences outside Sweden, thus the yellow version.

Not that the yellow version didn't have its problems. It was banned as being obscene, until several US courts overruled the ban. One tactic used by filmmakers is to insert content of "redeeming social value" into films like this as an argument against such bans. The film had an interview with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was in Stockholm during filming, and some documentary about the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The public had its own curiosity about the film, since it was the twelfth most popular film screened in the US in 1969.

Lena NymanBlue and yellow versions.

Anna Lena Elisabet Nyman (1944 - 2011)

(Artistic rendering of a Wikimedia Commons image.)

Our perception of curiosity has changed over the short span of human civilization. As Philip Ball wrote in his 2013 book, "Curiosity,"[2] curiosity wasn't encouraged in early history. Eve and Pandora were excoriated for their curiosity. Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) (a.k.a., Saint Augustine) wrote that curiosity was a disease.[3] The French mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662), wrote in his Pensées that "Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it."[3] The proverb, "curiosity killed the cat," dates from 1598.

At the time of the Renaissance, curiosity started to become an admirable trait, and this change in attitude enabled the studies of Galileo (1564 - 1642) and other scientists of that time. The modern view of science is that we will always learn more by looking harder, but that attitude took a while to develop.

Still, the English polymath, Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703), who practiced science just after Galileo and demonstrated Hooke's law, thought that nature was imprecise. As Ball writes, Hooke thought that nature didn't closely follow mathematical laws.[4] Hooke's contemporary, Isaac Newton, had the opposite conviction; and, just as Galileo, showed the the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.

Flea engraving from Robert Hooke's MicrographiaNo math required.

Robert Hooke collected micrographs of natural objects in his book, Micrographia (1665).

(Flea engraving from Micrographia, via (Wikimedia Commons).

Hooke also collected drawings of his observations with a optical microscope into a 1665 book, Micrographia. Such a collection, requiring no mathematical description of objects, was a common expression of curiosity in the 17th century, when "curiosity cabinets" were a polpular diversion. However, a scientist's focused curiosity was long in coming. Einstein valued curiosity as a reason for his success in science. In a 1952 letter, Einstein writes, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."[5] Today, curiosity has become a valued trait, and now there's even a robotic rover named Curiosity on Mars.

What can be more self-referential than scientists studying curiosity? They've found that curiosity peaks depending on the information we have on a topic. We're most curious when we have a little information, but not enough information to quench our desire to learn more. The feeling of curiosity is the result of a gap between what's known, and what we want to know.[6]

Qiong Wu of Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) published an article on computational curiosity in 2013 in the ACM journal, ACM Computing Surveys,[7] and she has posted a draft of a book, "Computational Curiosity," on arXiv.[8] Computational curiosity involves both modeling of curiosity and the use of curiosity as an agent for such computer applications as recommender systems. In the book draft, Wu gives examples of some of the theories about curiosity. In one such theory, curiosity is seen as a means to mitigate fear. Fear is associated with unfamiliarity, and curiosity motivates exploration that renders the environment familiar.[8]

As most of us know from experience on large retail websites, such as Amazon, recommender systems are a welcome technique to enhance our online experience. Many interesting items are discovered through such referrals, but these systems might be enhanced by a curiosity-driven algorithm. An example given by Wu is to recommend that oddball item purchased by another who has a purchasing history similar to my own.

I'll end this article with a few quotations by scientists about curiosity, as harvested from the Good Reads web site.[3]
"Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible." (Richard Feynman)

“Satisfaction of one's curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life." (Linus Pauling)

"No one asks how to motivate a baby. A baby naturally explores everything it can get at, unless restraining forces have already been at work. And this tendency doesn't die out, it's wiped out." (B. F. Skinner)

"Real scientists do not take vacations. They take field trips..." (E. O. Wilson)

"Science is not an intelligence test. Intuition is important, knowing what kind of questions to ask. The other thing is a passion for getting to the core of the problem." (Torsten Wiesel)
The climate change controversy is just a recent chapter in the assault on science. In 2001, Torsten Wiesel, who was awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was nominated to an advisory panel of the National Institutes of Health. The Secretary of Health and Human Services at that time rejected Wiesel's nomination, the supposed reason being that Wiesel had signed too many full-page letters in The New York Times that were critical of then president, George W. Bush.

References:

  1. I Am Curious (Yellow) (1969, Vilgot Sjöman, Director), on the Internet Movie Database.
  2. Philip Ball, "Curiosity - How Science Became Interested in Everything," University of Chicago Press (April 3, 2013), 480 pages. Available from Amazon.
  3. Quotes About Curiosity, Good Reads Web Site.
  4. Peter Forbes, "Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything by Philip Ball," The Guardian (UK), June 8, 2012.
  5. Albert Einstein, Letter to Carl Seelig (March 11, 1952), Einstein Archives 39-013, via Wikiquote.
  6. Jonah Lehrer, "The Itch of Curiosity," Wired August 3, 2010.
  7. Qiong Wu, "Curiosity: From psychology to computation," ACM Computing Surveys, vol. 46, no. 2 (November, 2013), Article No. 18, doi:10.1145/2543581.2543585.
  8. Qiong Wu, "Computational Curiosity (A Book Draft)," arXiv, Feb 17, 2015.

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