Recently I found myself in the position of making the closing remarks at a science fair awards program. As I thought about what to say to budding young scientists, I considered what it is that drives the scientific impulse. It seemed to me that we humans have a bundle of compulsions which vary in force from individual to individual and are sometimes mutually contradictory. The two compulsions which were foremost in my mind at the time were curiosity and our need for certainty.
Curiosity can be a superficial wondering for some, but for the scientifically inclined, it can be an open-ended concern to understand the world and universe around us and how they work. I say open-ended because because curiosity has its own unique way of leading us onward. Once we understand one thing, the quest raises more and more questions about further subjects. Curiosity can grow and become more refined with additional knowledge and education; it can change our world views and our lives.
All of us are cusious to some degree, but some pursue their curiosity more doggedly and demand more rigorous proof to satisfy it. I imagine the young scientists I would address could be described in this manner.
While all of us need stability in our lives, some are much more concerned to find that in certainty and knowing just what to believe. Such certainty may come from logic and analysis, but more often is based on what the individual wants to believe, regardless of the “facts.”
Curiosity is an open door, but certainty is a dead end. It limits learning to what will conform to its parameters; contradictory information is not considered. All too often certainty leads us to judge harshly those who do not conform to it.
Certainty is ill-suited to a large and diverse democracy such as ours. With so many contending points of view, tolerance becomes an essential stance for our citizens. Without tolerance we are constantly in conflict with one another and are unable to find the common ground which will allow us to move forward.
Curiosity, on the other hand, is the great engine of science and education. Being curious may cause us to be unsettled at times and make us wish for the solace of certainty, but we must be comforted by the knowledge we are in engaged in the great enterprise of the human mind, coming to understand the world and universe around us. We will never know it with certainty, but the effort will enlighten and ennoble us.
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