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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Curiosity

Artist's Rendition of Curiosity on Mars
This morning, we witnessed the launch of the latest Mars roving explorer, aptly named, Curiosity. What a wonderful moniker for a machine that will, hopefully, spend the next few years exploring the surface of Mars and sending back gigabits of new types data to the anxiously awaiting scientists here on Earth.

Curiosity is something that you don't hear much about these days but it is very clear that curiosity has been one of main drivers of our technological advances for millenia.  Certainly, a lot of technology developed less from curiosity and more from simply trying to fill a need.  But with all the potential solutions that people tried, there had to be a lot of, "I wonder what will happen if...".

Boulton and Watt Steam Engine
You might argue that curiosity is more a driver of science than technology. Science is almost entirely based on the desire to learn and understand - not a bad definition of curiosity itself. As technology developed, it often preceded the science of understanding how the physical world worked. Steam engines, for example, developed before the thermodynamics of steam were understood. Once the science caught up to the technology, major advances and refinements became possible.  James Watt had the benefit of 50 years of scientific investigation of steam before he made his much-heralded advances in the improvement of Thomas Newcomen's original steam engine design.

It seems to me we live in an age of curiosity but most people experience it in ways that aren't so much related to science and technology. We are social creatures and seem to be endlessly fascinated with what other people are doing.  We try to keep up with them through any number of social networking websites. We are curious about the rich and famous and scan the gossip magazines and newspaper columns for juicy tidbits.  We check our smartphones to find out the latest football score or read our email. As humans, we cannot help but be curious.

As you can tell, I am all for curiosity.  We need to follow our desire to know more than we do.  But what we seek out is at least as important as the desire to seek in the first place.  We might need to lift our sights a bit and seek to know something more interesting than what's the latest on Lady Gaga. We might want to spend just a little time learning more about what is going on in our world. What's behind Occupy Wall Street? What's happening in Egypt? What's happening in electric vehicle design, or climate change, or even green energy initiatives?  Most of what I see going on in social networking is like a candy bar - a quick energy boost but no substance.

Personal Disclaimer: I also spend a fair amount of time each day on Twitter and somewhat less time on Facebook. What I follow on Twitter are posts that relate mostly to news, technology, science, and culture. Why? Because I find them interesting. There is so much that is being put out there each day that it is nearly impossible to keep up with it. I try to screen the Tweets that relate to technology and technology history and put them up on my own Twitter Stream - TechAlmanac1.  As I screen this torrent of information, I learn a lot that I otherwise would be unaware of. 

I am not advocating for Twitter or any other particular  web tool. I am not even advocating for the internet. Curiosity can be pursued anywhere.  Curiosity is like a muscle - use it or lose it. The more you open yourself to wondering about something, the more you find the world an interesting place.

We need more well-directed curiosity.  The great thing about curiosity is that it requires no particular preexisting expertise.  It only requires a desire to learn something new.  I believe that if we are not learning something new our minds are stagnating and even going backwards. Let's hear it, then,  for Curiosity.

p.s. Stay tuned over the coming months to Curiosity, the Mars Rover. Its landing on Mars eight months from now will be one of the most technically challenging landings ever attempted by a space craft. JPL has put together a really good animation of how they plan to get Curiosity on the surface.





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