Curiosity: Must It Fade With Age?
By Paul D. Coleman ’40
Curiosity, the desire to know, which leads to inquiry and investigation, is a natural-born trait. It is always a treat for me to see a baby in the crib reacting to a new toy or situation. However, in my experience, the word “curiosity” is not used frequently in conversations these days, especially among my senior friends. Curiosity has helped me in my education and my research career in physics. I have not made a textbook search of the subject as I was taught to do, so my view may not be in agreement with well-established principles on curiosity. But at 91 years old, I still like to talk.
First of all, I believe Susquehanna Currents readers would agree that an education is important. History has shown us that great nations of the past, such as Greece, Rome and Great Britain, had an educated population with great scholars. Nevertheless, I believe that curiosity can and does play an equally important role in one’s pursuit of knowledge.
Formal education is not easily obtained. It requires dedication, hard work, incentives, encouragement, finances and opportunities. In short, an education is a challenge; otherwise we’d all be Nobel Prize winners. My main objective for seeking an education was to be able to use and contribute to new knowledge in my profession. But curiosity was the greatest help to me in generating new ideas in science and engineering.
In the field of physics, time is known as the curious dimension. Famous tales describe Archimedes theorizing about density and volume while taking a bath, and Sir Isaac Newton conceiving the laws of gravity while sitting under an apple tree. Yet I do not believe curiosity is simply a wandering mind straying in thought that stumbles upon great scientific principles. Rather, it is a purposeful act—a conscious decision to learn and contribute to the body of knowledge on a subject.
While my main interests are in physics, chemistry and math, today’s economic situation and world affairs obviously get my attention. I have always been interested in the how and why, and many of our government’s programs are curiosities to me. I always feel I need to know more, because curiosity adds a second conscience. My friends are almost all senior citizens between 70 and 90 years old. At the weekly meetings of the clubs to which I belong, I have the opportunity to be a gatekeeper and suggest topics for discussion. As a lifelong teacher, I like to ask questions. While my friends have all heard of such things as energy, nuclear threats and electricity, they all respond negatively to any science problem I volunteer to explain, even without using mathematical equations.
Here is an example: The Lions Club has for years had a commitment to helping people with visual and hearing impairments. We talk about improving “sight and sound.” I asked recently whether I might do a presentation on how the eye works, taking light and guiding it through the retina, which functions as an organic solar cell, a frequency transformer of sorts that then distributes it to the optic nerve.
I thought this could be informative and interesting for the group. Sadly, they believe that, at their age, they no longer need to know. They have lost their curiosity and wonder, and stopped learning.
Modern medical advice says to exercise both your mind and body. To me, learning is a lifelong endeavor. Use it or lose it. (Besides, it’s difficult to compete with someone who can think.)
Yet all things in this world appear to have limits. Curiosity is no exception. It needs to be tempered with common sense. If you wonder whether it will hurt to butt your head against a stone wall, common sense will come to your aid. I respect a person with common sense as much as I do many people with Ph.D.s. Unfortunately, common sense is almost never taught in schools and universities. How refreshing it is to witness those rare occasions when educators pique students’ curiosity while at the same time giving them a healthy dose of common sense.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”
I wish all in the Susquehanna University community health, happiness, a great family, career and friends, and a life full of curiosity.
Paul D. Coleman holds a doctorate degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he taught for 37 years. Among his graduate students are 13 recipients of the university’s distinguished alumni award. His legacy as an educator and researcher will be honored at Susquehanna with the future development of the Paul D. Coleman Physics Center in Fisher Hall.