Thursday, January 10, 2013

The case for curiosity driven research

The case for curiosity driven research In what follows below, two friends, the noted English chemist and inventor, and Robert Dunkin, a Quaker businessman and mentor of the young scientist, discuss the nature of discovery and invention and the necessity of always remaining curious about the world we all inhabit. Robert Dunkin: I well remember the words you wrote when you were but a lad, indentured as an apprentice. Humphrey Davy: Which words were those? I said many - talked and talked, confounded my masters and scandalised my sisters, though I had no such intention. RD: These words in particular, my old friend. To scan the laws of Nature, to exploreThe tranquil reign of mild Philosophy, Or on Newtonian wings sublime to soar, Thro’ the bright regions of the starry sky. Those words. HD: Why those in particular? RD: Because with hindsight, which none of us has, they encapsulate a world view - your world view, even at that early age, sitting at the edge of the ocean - that portion of it that laps the shore of Mounts Bay, at any rate. HD: To be sure, that is what I thought to do, what I thought everybody should do - particularly in the golden days of youth. RD: But not every child is drawn to science as you were, you know. Most of us go through those golden days, as you call them, dreaming. HD: Dreaming? RD: Yes, dreaming. HD: Of what? RD: Dreaming of what is and of what can be, of what they see and what they think ought not to be. HD: I am sure you are right. I know I dreamt of such things. RD: So did I. So do we all. HD: Then why is it that so few continue that dream? For I am sure most inevitably do not continue. RD: Shades of the prison house, some called it, I know not what, but I suppose it must be that reality imposes itself upon one's dreams, rendering them ephemeral and vacuous - dreams and nothing more. HD: But dreams are so much more, surely. Dreams are the stuff of which reality is made, are they not? RD: Is that the right way around; or is the dream made of reality? Do not the day's event conflate into schemes that go beyond our powers of reason? HD: I do not think so, for our dreams are as particular to each of us as the shape of our noses, or the light in our eyes. Our dreams might stem from the reality of the day and the things that came to pass in its duration, but how, may I ask you, come we to our own dreams especially, even though our day and its events have been similar? RD: Because they have not been similar; they have all been clouded by what lies within our heads. HD: Which is broadly the same, is it not, or so our physiologists would have us believe. RD: Not so, or rather let us say that what they refer to as broadly similar is the cranium and all those structures within it which we are wont to call the brain. HD: What then? If all that is similar, where comes our difference? RD: In our minds, my friend, in our minds. It is our minds that make us individuals, make you who you are and myself who I am. HD: So we process the events of the day, be they ever so similar - the blacksmith at his forge, and his boy handing him his tools, working the tuyere to keep a steady heat - even as they look into that same fire, hear the bright hiss of steel being quenched, watch as shapes change under the smith's hammer - even as they experience that iron and steel reality - even then they go their separate ways to take their rest and dream - even then they form different worlds? RD: Yes, even then, even after those coals and the irons they have whitened have etched their light upon their retinas, even then, as powerful an image as that must have left, even then they come to structure dreams so different as to suppose one was at work in the field even as the other was hard by the forge. HD: Then if what we dream does vary so much, and I am now convinced it does, it follows that how we come to look at life in the light of day upon waking differs. RD: Of course. The smith thinks of what he must do to make a crust for his family, the apprentice comes to his day full of either how he thinks his life shall be or how, perhaps he hopes it will turn out. HD: Then what you are saying is that where we happen to be in relation to each other and in relation to our unfolding life both bear upon us in our waking reality? RD: Again, of course, for where it not so, we should all of us have no point of originality; we should be as sheep or any other of God's creatures, of which we are but one. HD: Yes, but since we are endowed with an imagination - nothing more or less than the ability to make something out of nothing - then we are capable of so much more than the birds and the beasts of the field, are we not? RD: That is undoubtedly so, but lest we get ideas that we may rule all merely by virtue of the fact that we can think, can imagine and they, we are taught to suppose, ar not, we should remember at all times that we too are nothing more or less than a part of God's creation. It is not for us to say what should become and what should not. HD: I agree, it is not, but in having the gift of this ability to imagine what has not yet come to pass, does it not fall to us to use it to better our world, and by so doing better the lives of all under its sky? RD: Making better is a worthy aim. The question now is how to remain noble, how to retain that goodness that should be ours to do good with. HD: I think the man of science would answer that since his area of thought and expertise is an absolute in terms of logic devoid of human design, then what is found is surely to be good, since God would not allow it otherwise. RD: I think I agree with you. It is in making designs on what is found by reason that we go wrong. But that should not prevent us from following what is logically reasonable - in the world of the physical sciences. HD: Then what is the star we should follow, if our light is provided by reason? RD: Why, by our curiosity, of course. That is the star we should follow, the stare to guide us to the discoveries we shall make if we work with the light of reason, following our star - curiosity. -00000- HD: Our curiosity should drive our quest for knowledge then? RD: Yes, it should. HD: But what of our present needs - real and pressing as they are? What of finding answers to help us solve the problems we already know about? Why not concentrate our energies on those? RD: I agree in part, that we should indeed concentrate on those problems that are besetting us as I speak. However, I am still of the opinion that science that is motivated and driven more by a healthy curiosity than by a present, even a pressing need, should still be pursued. HD: Why particularly? RD: Because of the potential such research offers; consider, as you, yourself have said, there is ''nothing is so dangerous to the progress of the human mind than to assume that our views of science are ultimate, that there are no mysteries in nature, that our triumphs are complete and that there are no new worlds to conquer.'' HD: Thank you for quoting me in full, my friend. RD: You are most welcome. I do so because your point serves my argument. We can never be at a frontier of knowledge where our world and everything in it and connected with it is concerned; not in medicine, not in physics, biology, psychology - no area of study is at an end or anywhere near it. HD: That is undoubtedly true, as I have said, but my main point is this; that there is nothing so dangerous to the human mind than to assume that our views of science are ultimate - they clearly are not, and so we must never assume they are, nor must we neglect any form of activity that seeks to delve into the bottomless mine that is scientific exploration and the knowledge that originates from it. To do otherwise would not only be folly, it would be detrimental to the minds of all of us - scientifically inclined or otherwise. RD: I wholeheartedly agree with you, and would add some more to your stance. HD: Which is? RD: Which is that the species of education that chooses willfully to ignore our propensity to be curious is no education worthy of the name. HD: Again, we agree. The basis of education is surely not merely to find answers, but to promote the construction of questions, for without questions, nothing can proceed, even as some would have us believe. RD: Any system of thought that concentrates itself upon answers rather than the formulation of questions is more akin to a faith than a field of study, is it not? HD: Most surely, and while I hold that faith is a vital component in our mental and physical well being, it is not alone in being so necessary. RD: We are born with curiosity and take it with us to our graves, I feel. HD: Though some would undoubtedly have much more curiosity than others, I think. Is this not true? RD: Most definitely. I repeat my claim that we are all born with an innate habit, if you will, or desire, to search for that which perplexes, and there is a very great deal of it. HD: Is that not the delight of youth; that one is perplexed by everything initially, and as one grows, the jigsaw of life begins to fit into a whole? RD: Yes, but you are right to state that it begins to fit into a whole, for I believe that it never can be fully rounded into a coherent whole. That is left to our maker, is it not? HD: Most certainly, but that does not negate our wish - desire - habit - of wishing to find, to learn, to discover what there is to find, to learn and to discover. Take away that wish, discourage it in any way and you remove what it is to be alive as a thinking, living and breathing member of our species - it is to remove our humanity. RD: Here I must stipulate that not everything that is learned, sought to learn and Discover is bounded by the walls of our universities, much though that may be. The child playing at his mother's feet, with light upon him from his father's gaze, is continually searching - from birth - who knows, inside the mother's womb. To bring anything like doubt to that child that it can find, learn and discover is to dash out its brains, in its devastating effect upon the child's health, mental and otherwise. HD: Be that as it may, we must also assume our determination to assist the child as he matures through childhood into maturity. We must have in place those likeminded individuals who foster a healthy and enduring curiosity in fields of study. Without that spirit of being curious, any subject would be as dry and lifeless as dead grass, laying to be picked and collected as so much fodder for beasts. RD: One need only think of one's own time at university; think of those who had only a limited amount of anything remotely akin to curiosity. We have all met those students who had developed an insular instrumentality to their studies, rendering them instantly forgotten once the object of that instrumental frame disappeared. Whereas the student who began to see the object of his studies as an extension of himself and he of them, found, to his sheer joy that everything connects. That is the point of studying, surely, is it not? HD: It is to us, my friend, but may not be so to those whose coffers are to swell the funding of those great edifices of learning of which we speak. If those are unconvinced of the truth of our arguments, then we will be lost and those unfortunate to be studying lost also. We must maintain a steadfast connection between what there is being learned and the benefits to all of us who live and breathe in a world whose resources, be they human, concrete or abstract, depend upon the curiosity that makes one stretch his mind to take in all it can without end. Robert L. Fielding