Novelist Edith Wharton wrote once: “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one CAN remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
Indeed, human curiosity about the cosmos and about “what does it all mean?” has always exceeded that needed for mere survival or improvement in the quality of life. Curiosity is the ultimate driver of scientific exploration, and the key to creativity.
In July of 1994, the fragments of a comet – comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 – collided with Jupiter. Almost every telescope on the face of the Earth and in orbit (including Hubble), was directed to observe the collision. At the Space Telescope Science Institute, more than a dozen astronomers gathered around a computer screen, eager to watch the impact of the first fragment. Everybody was curious to observe directly, for the first time, the results of an extraterrestrial collision between solar system objects.
A photographer took a picture of the event. What is most remarkable about this photograph is that it captures the essence of curiosity. As soon as I saw it, the photo reminded me of a painting by Rembrandt, known as “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” In that painting too, Rembrandt’s focus is not on the corpse being dissected, but rather on the curiosity expressed by the attending doctors.
As Edith Wharton so insightfully observed, as long as we keep our intellectual curiosity alive, there is a clear path forward.