Publisher's Notebook: Curiosity lands on Mars, but also needed here on Earth
Tuesday, August 14, 2012 6:13 AM
Curiosity is a great name for the rover that recently landed on Mars. The simple name belies the complexity of the nuclear-powered, six-wheel robotic explorer that will try to learn if the Martian environment could have ever supported microbial life.
The roving scientific laboratory will investigate the environment of Mars, prodding and probing - well, just acting curious. It's ironic that a mobile robot in outer space is showing this trait that fewer and fewer humans seem to exhibit any more.
Many proponents of space exploration are touting America's success in safely landing Curiosity 154 million miles from earth in an elaborate seven-minute sequence that slowed the space lab from 13,000 miles per hour to a soft touchdown on Mars. The president's science advisor touted the "one-ton automobile size piece of American ingenuity...sitting on the surface of Mars."
That is quite an accomplishment and it really does show America's expertise in pulling off this highly complex technological endeavor that is the work of thousands of people in government, universities and private enterprise.
Highlighting American ingenuity and leadership in space exploration is a worthy exercise, but perhaps the rover Curiosity could also highlight the importance of generic curiosity.
Too often these days, politicians reduce science to opinion because the conclusions don't fit their world view. So, they dismiss evidence that may change that world view because they are threatened by the uncertainty.
Fortunately, politicians don't have the last word on discovery. If we took their certainty for fact, we may still believe our planet is the center of the universe - and flat, for that matter - or that the sun orbits Earth. Even just a generation ago, scientists assumed that conditions on Earth with its protective atmosphere and ample water made it the only planet that could possibly support life.
Curiosity is a driving force behind scientific research and other disciplines of study, but it is also a necessary ingredient for any type of learning or exploring. One may even say that it is vital to human relationships, work and connecting with the world.
Many relationships, even long-term ones, can occur on the surface only with little feeling among the people involved. It can be pleasant enough, but provide minimal meaning or fulfillment. Adding curiosity to the equation shows interest in a person - that you want to know more, that you care, that you are interested in exploring their depths.
In other words, it is the ingredient that is the basis of forming a real connection.
Often the best workers are thought of as those who do their job and don't ask questions. But, many employers welcome inquisitive workers who don't necessarily want to be spoon-fed directions and continue on as always because that is the way it has always been done. Curiosity signals that the worker is engaged and wants to do what is best for the company, not what is easiest.
How many of us pass the same streets every day without really noticing them? We get so used to a certain pattern that we never take time to wonder about or explore what is really happening in our environment that we encounter every day. Unlike, the rover Curiosity, we may miss all signs of life even if it is so obviously right in front of us.
There is a fascinating, exciting world out there that many of us miss because we don't have the curiosity to explore it. In fact, one may even say that curiosity, which leads to knowledge, really can bring happiness. Helen Keller, for one, thinks so:
"Knowledge is power. Rather, knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge - broad, deep knowledge - is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low. To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man's progress is to feel the great heartthrobs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life."
Finally, curiosity can even lead to spirituality. Although this column began with the wonders of science, with its quest for objective information that at times clashes with religion, curiosity, such as wonderment at how these complex space exploration projects are even possible, also leads to deeper questions about the mysteries of the universe and life itself. Curiosity, or contemplation, can lead to a spiritual connection that is more rich than merely following doctrine.
As 12-year-old Clara Ma wrote in her winning essay that led to the naming of the roving science laboratory, "Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives." For her, it is something that "makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day."
Curiosity may have landed on Mars so we can explore a world millions of miles away, but those of us on Earth need to also create our own roving curiosity, or passion, to explore the surprises all around us in this world. Sure, there are risks, but, as Ma notes in her essay, we still need to continue "to wonder and dream and create and hope."