“Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiarity with knowledge …. The scientist, who is not content with superficial views, harasses himself with fruitless curiosity; and still, as he inquires more, perceives only that he knows less. …” so wrote the English man of letters, Samuel Johnson nearly three centuries ago.
Like the scientist, the minds of children are eternally and sometimes infernally curious about everything – the familiar is after all, still not yet so ! Alas, with time we all fall into the same trap, numbed by the mundane, searching for the sublime.
But if we look at history and learn from it, in science, in art, indeed just about everywhere, we have also been inspired by the mundane. This is particularly true in the everyday world as we experience it; if we took the time to look carefully, hear patiently and touch gently we find that Nature is not only shy, but in her living designs often subtler than we might even imagine. Somewhat reversing the trend towards reductionism, over the last few decades there has been a growing appreciation of the richness and variety of phenomena that arise from relatively few and fairly simple causes in the natural world. Nowhere is this more evident than in life itself. This occasional column is a reminder, dare I say, even sometimes a celebration of the humdrum, as observed through the senses, collectively, of the curious child in all of us. There is mystery and magic in the mundane. And what is more – it can be experienced, everyday, everywhere by everyone. It is also a gentle reminder that science can be an engaging, enriching cultural, and ultimately human activity, not always a means to an end.
An innate curiosity defines humans and our search for what, where and who we are. Directed outwards, the same insatiable hunger to understand what is, and create what never was, drives our species to measure, to abstract, to create. Start now, not in a lab, but in the familiar world around you. What sets the color, shape and gentle falling patterns of leaves as they leave their trees, the sounds and shapes of raindrops on your windows, the waves behind boats on the Charles, the colors of the sky at dusk, the rotting snow on the pavement, the blooming of a flower, the power of a storm? As you peel away each layer of understanding, you will find a new layer of questions that draw you in, with glimpses of a solution, and hints of the deeper patterns. And soon, you will be part of the greatest adventure there is- forever fruitful, forever uncertain, forever!