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Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: ‘Why,’ About the Science of Curiosity

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It’s quite different. I thought I would write only about the research on the nature of curiosity. What are the mechanisms in the brain? What psychological states does it represent? But as I was writing, I kept thinking about all these extraordinarily curious individuals, both from the past and some who live today, who are fascinating, and it occurred to me that I could not write about curiosity without somehow trying to get into the minds of these people.


Patricia Wall/The New York Times

So I ended up doing, for example, an entire chapter on da Vinci, who is perhaps the most curious person to ever live, and another on Richard Feynman. But I also interviewed nine people who are alive today, people like Brian May, the lead guitarist for Queen who also has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Or Fabiola Gianotti, who helped discover the Higgs boson and is also a musician, an accomplished pianist. I’m sure there are some readers, perhaps, who are really not that interested in the precise mechanisms in the brain, but they may still be intrigued by these people.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

I’m not sure about influence, but certainly inspiration. I’m primarily trained as a physicist, and I also did a degree in mathematics. So my icon clearly is Albert Einstein. Not even for everything he did, though that is very inspiring. When you work in experimental physics, or observational astronomy, you can make discoveries that are extraordinarily important but serendipitous. Usually you have to be somewhat prepared to make those discoveries. But like Louis Pasteur once said, luck helps the well prepared. In theoretical physics, that cannot be. Usually progress there is fairly incremental. Everyone adds another piece to the puzzle. But every now and again, you have someone, like Einstein, who comes up with something that is not in the air at all. And that is how Einstein’s general relativity is. To this very day, I cannot understand how he thought of that. So that’s the kind of thing that I’m in awe in front of.

Persuade someone to read “Why” in less than 50 words.

Curiosity inspires the most exciting things in our lives, from conversation to reading books to seeing films. It drives all scientific research, and education. Other species are curious, but they don’t have the ability to ask why. This is uniquely human. I think everybody should be curious about curiosity.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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