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The Dilemma of Curiosity and Its Use

Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special gift, but I am passionately curious.” Certainly, Einstein was being tremendously modest. But, just as certainly, curiosity is a powerful driving force in scientific discovery. Indeed, along with talent and interest, as well as mathematical or other quantitative abilities, curiosity is a necessary characteristic of any successful scientist.

Curiosity betrays emotional passion. It is a state of being involuntarily gripped by something that is difficult to ward off and for which, since one cannot act otherwise, one is accountable only in a limited sense. We all come into the world curious, equipped with the psychological drive to explore the world and to expand the terrain that we think we master. It is no coincidence that a well-known book on developmental psychology bears the title The Scientist in the Crib, a work that traces the parallels between small children’s behavior and the processes and research strategies that are usual in science.

But the urge for knowledge that drives inborn curiosity to transcend given horizons does not remain uncurbed. Parents can tell many a tale about how, with the beginning of school, their children’s playful approach suddenly changes, as they must now focus on objects dictated by the curriculum. Likewise, however desirable its ability to produce the unexpected and unforeseeable, science today cannot claim that it is not accountable to society.

Curiosity is insatiable and, in research, it is inextricably tied to the unforeseeability of results. Research is an endless process, with a destination that no one can predict precisely. The more that unexpected results, brought forth by research in the laboratory, are a precondition for further innovations, the more pressure there is to bring the production of knowledge under control, to direct research in specific directions, and to tame scientific curiosity. But curiosity must not be limited too severely, lest science’s ability to produce new knowledge be lost.