Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio investigates perhaps the most human of all our characteristics—curiosity—in this “lively, expert, and definitely not dumbed-down account” (Kirkus Reviews) as he explores our innate desire to know why.
Experiments demonstrate that people are more distracted when they overhear a phone conversation—where they can know only one side of the dialogue—than when they overhear two people talking and know both sides. Why does half a conversation make us more curious than a whole conversation?
“Have you ever wondered why we wonder why? Mario Livio has, and he takes you on a fascinating quest to understand the origin and mechanisms of our curiosity. I thoroughly recommend it.” (Adam Riess, Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, 2011). Curiosity is not only at the heart of mystery and suspense novels, it is also essential to other creative endeavors, from painting to sculpture to music. It is the principal driver of basic scientific research. Even so, there is still no definitive scientific consensus about why we humans are so curious, or about the mechanisms in our brain that are responsible for curiosity.
In the ever-fascinating Why? Livio interviewed scientists in several fields to explore the nature of curiosity. He examined the lives of two of history’s most curious geniuses, Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman. He also talked to people with boundless curiosity: a superstar rock guitarist who is also an astrophysicist; an astronaut with degrees in computer science, biology, literature, and medicine. What drives these people to be curious about so many subjects?
An astrophysicist who has written about mathematics, biology, and now psychology and neuroscience, Livio has firsthand knowledge of his subject which he explores in a lucid, entertaining way that will captivate anyone who is curious about curiosity.
Astrophysicist Livio (Brilliant Blunders) makes the claim that the capacity for curiosity is one of the biggest differences between humans and other animals. He describes curiosity as coming in two forms: perceptual and epistemic. The former is "triggered by novelty, surprise, or puzzling stimuli," he writes, and is related to negative feelings associated with lack of knowledge. Epistemic curiosity generates positive emotions and "embodies our love of knowledge and the drive for its acquisition." Livio accessibly addresses some of the basic psychological and neurobiological underpinnings of curiosity, but he does so superficially. Similarly, he provides a shallow exploration of "two of the most curious minds to have ever existed" Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman. He also offers nine all-too-brief and wholly unsatisfying talks with successful individuals, ostensibly to determine if there are any similarities between them that might inform his quest to understand the drive to discover. Livio concludes by offering simplistic advice for educators: "Educators should frequently ask questions, but they should not provide the answers right away. Instead, they should encourage their students to give the answer themselves, and then to think of ways to test the correctness of their answers." While there are interesting nuggets here, Livio never delves deeply enough to get beyond the surface.