Curiouser and curiouser: A love of learning

Asking someone why they’re curious is like asking them why they’re tall, or why they have brown eyes. Our brains are hardwired from the moment we start out with an innate curiosity and wonder, a love of learning and a desire to explore. When I was little, I was intensely interested in dinosaurs, to the extent I dreamed of being a palaeontologist and even dreamed that a giant dinosaur footprint was discovered on the school oval. This dream was so extraordinarily vivid, I sometimes catch myself thinking of it as actually having happened.

I’d like you to think back to when you were young, what made you curious? Perhaps, as a child, you were a tinkerer, pulling apart everything in your path to see how it worked.  Maybe you ate things to see what they tasted like, or to see whether they were edible at all, like my friends who admitted to eating kangaroo poo, mum’s Chanel lipstick, or the perennial schoolyard classic: glue. Maybe you were like another friend of mine, who performed experiments in your dad’s shed, trying to figure out which things would catch on fire. Some might say budding pyromaniac, but I say aspiring scientist.

Because all of these childhood anecdotes and their accompanying traits – creativity, curiosity, a love of learning – all of these underlie science. Everyone starts out a scientist, but few retain it into adulthood. Why does this happen?  Why are student numbers in science so low, and the public so scientifically disengaged? To answer this question, ask yourself: when was the last time you wondered why apples turn brown when you slice them? Or looked up at the stars and wondered, is there a planet home to little green men out there? When was the last time you were intensely and genuinely curious? Maybe you have been exceptionally inquisitive recently, but there’s this idea that curiosity is something for the young. Carl Sagan summed it up perfectly when he said, “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Sagan – the problem lies in the system, in the way we are educated, in a “transmission of facts” style. This diminishes natural curiosity and replaces a love of learning by discovery with the boredom of being taught and talked at. I’m sure there are many of you here who didn’t like science classes at school because they were hard and you had to rote learn lots of things and regurgitate them in an exam. Instead, science education, or perhaps even education in general, needs to foster creative and curious mindsets, to convey the wondrous unknown of the world around us, and to nurture a lifelong love of learning.

Because science isn’t about memorizing a maths textbook – it’s about an impassioned desire to know more, a love of figuring out why and how something is. It’s about constantly reinterpreting, reinventing and rediscovering what reality is. As Albert Einstein famously said “I am neither especially clever, nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious. We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Having a drive to learn and explore is essential in science, as you’re constantly faced with something unexpected. For example, Dan Schectman, Nobel Prizewinner in Chemistry in 2011, discovered beautiful but strange entities called quasicrystals. This discovery overturned long-standing paradigms in chemistry and shook the field to its core. When Schectman made the discovery, he was looking at crystals that had been studied before. That is, several people had looked at these crystals, made the key observation and written it off as a mistake. As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…” In Schectman’s “that’s funny…” moment, it was undeniably a love for learning and a curiosity that impelled him to investigate further.

But having such moments is becoming increasingly difficult in scientific research. “Fundamental research,” which aims to investigate and explore the world around us without regard for potential applications, is respected less and less by society. The pressure to generate problem-solving outcomes is immense, and the value of curiosity-driven research is often overlooked. No known application of your research? No money for you!

I guess some people might argue that undertaking research with no specific application is “frivolous” given the current economic climate. But even if you don’t think exploring new frontiers is worthwhile simply for the sake of expanding mankind’s knowledge, you’d be wrong to deem such science expendable. For instance, sea sponges. Why on earth would we study a plain old sponge that just lies around on the bottom of the ocean? The only things sponges are good for are washing dishes and providing TV entertainment in the form of a certain yellow cartoon sponge. Right?

Well actually,  several chemical compounds have been found in sea sponges that have the potential to be anticancer drugs. That’s right, studying sea sponges can lead to a cure for cancer. Similarly, but from a technological standpoint, the smartphone in your pocket, the television in your lounge and the wifi that’s pretty much everywhere now would not exist if it weren’t for the fundamental research done on electromagnetic fields and in mathematics. Often the benefits of fundamental research are not known until decades after the original work was done.

The bottom line is: without a love for learning and a deep-seated curiosity, we would not be able to achieve such enormous technological and medical advances.

This brings us back to the beginning: if we want to engage a new generation of scientists to discover cures for cancer and develop tomorrow’s technology, we need to inspire them. We want young people to be gripped by the idea of shaping millions of lives through science, and equipped with the ability to dissect the complex challenges society is facing. We need to convey that thrill, the adrenaline kick you get, when you learn something new. We need to instill an insatiable desire and curiosity, a profound and infinite love of learning.

This speech was written for the 19th Annual Lions Oratory Competition at ANU. I represented the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in the finals and was awarded 3rd place.