Albert Einstein had no shortage of colorful quotes, but my favorite is perhaps his best known. In a letter to the biographer Carl Seelig in 1952, he wrote, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” When Einstein penned those words, he was already the world’s most celebrated scientist, the winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize, and one of the creators of modern physics. Yet he fobbed off his achievements on something as seemingly pedestrian as curiosity.
He wasn’t alone. Scientists from Newton on have waxed poetic about curiosity’s role in discovery. Books extol the virtues of the childlike mind. There’s even a design conference dedicated to the power of play. I’m not one to judge, but despite coming from famously scientific minds, this all strikes me as rather unscientific. Curious, I decided to investigate.
As a species, humans manifest a quality called neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Neoteny has physical ramifications—scarce body hair and a flat face are two examples—but it also has neurological ones. Namely, we have an extraordinary capacity to continue learning throughout life.
If neoteny helps to explain our ability to learn, researchers are now figuring out what drives us to take advantage of it. In 2008, a group of scientists set up a novel fMRI study. When a subject’s curiosity was piqued by a question (“What is the only country in the world that has a bill of rights for cows?” for instance), certain regions of the brain lit up. Those areas, known collectively as the basal ganglia, correspond to the brain’s reward centers—the same ones that govern our desire for sex or chocolate or total domination in Call of Duty 4. When people say they have an itch to figure something out, they’re not speaking metaphorically. They’re looking to get high on information.
Curiosity, then, is not some romantic quality. It is an adaptive response. Humans may not be the fastest or strongest creatures, but through the blind luck of evolution, we developed the desire and capacity to continually update our understanding of the world. And that has allowed us to master it—or get darn close. Call it the biological basis for being a nerd.
Our job as editors of Popular Science is to satisfy that innate craving on every page of every issue. In that regard, our annual How It Works issue is the equivalent of crack cocaine. Want to know how to put a rover on the moon? Go to page 40. Want to understand the inner workings of our planet, the process behind “pink slime,” or why a Wiffle ball takes such an unpredictable path? We explain that too. In 10 glorious pages, we dissect and demystify the world around us.
Will you gain a selective advantage from understanding the nuances of a surgical snakebot? Probably not. But again, I’ll defer to Einstein on this one. “The important thing is to not stop questioning,” he said. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Enjoy the issue.