By Rich Jensen
Curiosity is certainly an apt name for the recently landed Mars explorer.
Every creature not entirely governed by instinct possesses a measure of curiosity. Surviving in an environment means learning about and understanding that environment, at whatever level of understanding a particular animal is capable of.
We, having mastered the basics of survival (at least in most places, most of the time), are still curious. Curious about all sorts of things. In fact, science is nothing more than curiosity in its Sunday clothes.
When there was that general unease in the U.S., in the early 60s, over the “Space Gap” – the Soviets seeming to have poached either more of Germany’s rocket scientists or better ones than the U.S. – Kennedy declared that the U.S. would put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before 1970.
Putting a man on the moon would do nothing to address the security concerns regarding Soviet satellites, but frankly, that wasn’t the primary reason for going to the moon. Sure it made it easy to get funding, but the reason for going to the moon?
Well, there wasn’t really a reason. We wanted to go, cooked up a plausible reason and then figured out a way to get there.
That’s the thing about curiosity. You might be able to come up with some theories for why it’s a useful characteristic. You can eulogize the discoveries that have been made because of it, but ultimately, it’s a desire that, like most desires, can’t be fully explained. It just is.
Curiosity can be channeled in rational directions, but it seems to defy rational explanation. We want to know what’s on the other side of the hill, on the other side of the river, on the other side of the sea, on the other side of the ocean. We come up with all sorts of ‘reasons’ why we want to know these things, but the reasons always come after the desire.
Somewhere in the rationale for sending the Cassini explorer to Saturn is the idea that there might be life on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). Actually, we sent Cassini to Saturn because we have a need for something like this that is not just a fundamental part of being human, but, almost, a fundamental part of being alive.
There’s a similar rationale behind Curiosity. Sure, there’s talk about searching for evidence of life either past or present, but that’s just window-dressing. This mission, like so many things that we do collectively and individually, is being done so that we can see something we’ve never seen before.
About the author: Jensen is smart and interesting and works in computers, but probably could do pretty much anything he wanted. We’re glad he’s on our team.