During my visit to the University of Vermont today I had lunch with seven talented Microbiology Ph.D. students. One of them asked me what was an important quality to have for achieving success in science. I said without hesitation, ‘Be curious’.
It’s the answer I always give. Being curious is the first step to being a scientist, and it’s the quality you must always have to be a successful scientist. If you are not curious about the world around you and how it works, do something else.
Which is why I find this statement by Aaron Swartz extremely moving:
When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity.
(from Dave Winer)
If Swartz is right – and I suspect he is, at least in part – then by driving curiosity out of kids, we are destroying future scientists. Except for the rare few who keep on following their curiosity.