I was ten years old when I saw the light – the scientific light. For me, it was a Road to Damascus experience, catalyzed by a single event. My grade school teacher instructed each of the students to select a single, thin volume from the science encyclopedia and begin reading quietly at his or her desk. In retrospect, I realize it was probably the desperate act of an overwhelmed teacher who simply wanted a bit of quiet time. For me, though, it was a transformative revelation, a portal on a world of rationality, cause and effect and experiment-driven understanding.
For all those nagging questions, there was a systematic, repeatable mechanism to obtain and verify answers. The world could make sense, and the unknown was knowable. There were other people like me, and I could dream of being one of them – a scientist! It was thrilling and wondrous, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had found the passion of my life.
The Universal Passion
Over the past 40+ years, that passion has led me to extraordinary and unexpected places. Yet across all that diversity, I have observed a universal behavioral constant, one that transcends national borders, cultures and languages. Scientists and scientific thinking are the same everywhere. They see the world through the same eyes and value the same things, a common approach to problem solving and reasoning. Above all, though, they share the passion and the curiosity, the unrelenting desire to know, to understand.
What drives us? It's not tenure; it's not publication; it's not research funding. Those are artifacts. It's not even fame, fortune or glory, though a few scientists seek those too. Rather, it's the desire to know, to understand, to add a small piece to the varied mosaic that is our limited but expanding human knowledge of this vast and varied universe. Depending on your assessment of the Fermi Paradox, perhaps it's to be the first sentient being in this brane to understand a small bit of its workings. If knowledge is your passion, that is reward enough.
I am often asked, "What made you become scientist?" But I can't stand far enough away from myself to give a really satisfactory answer, for I cannot distinctly remember a time when I did not think that a scientist was the most exciting possible thing to be.
I am no behavioral psychologist, but I suspect that all children are born with the insatiable curiosity that sustains scientific curiosity. All too often, though, I fear that our educational system punishes curiosity and rewards conformity. Only a small fraction remains sufficiently iconoclastic and self-confident to resist, asking those seemingly annoying questions that defy authority and drive discovery.
Why? It's a simple but profound question.
"Daddy, why is the sky blue?" It's Raleigh scattering, of course!
"Mommy, why does is it cold in winter?" It's axial tilt of the Earth! (Sadly, a stunning fraction of North American college graduates believe it's because the Earth is closer to the sun during the summer.)
The answers to simple questions often expose deep truths. Encourage and preserve the curiosity of children. Share the wonder; share the passion; share the good news. Scientists and children – they are more alike than different.