As the holiday season ends and familiar routines are restored, several people have talked of feeling low at the return to ‘same old same old’. So it might be a good time to recommend Ian Leslie’s latest book Curious. It’s full of fascinating stories and nuggets of information designed to encourage curiosity and questioning, with an eye on the potential wonder to be found in what might at first glance seem unpromising and dull.
“Every question is a little bet. From a very young age children sense that any information they gather, even if it doesn’t have immediate application, may come in useful in the future. Children are scientists, experimenting on their physical environments, but they are also investigative reporters pumping their sources for secrets. By the time we are adults we have fewer questions and more default settings.”
In a section on how to stay curious, he mentions ‘the transformative power of attention’ – the potential reward to be gained from sticking with things that we initially dismiss as boring. To support his argument he attends James Ward’s ‘Boring Conference’ where people go to enthuse about a range of highly unpromising topics such as IBM Cash Registers and Double Yellow Lines, including a keynote presentation: Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area. Ian is a very engaging writer – seriously, I find myself wanting to go to the next one…
Rediscovering the inherent fascination in what has become commonplace, he cites Georges Perec’s essay An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. In this project, Perec went to the same Paris square every day focusing on ‘the infraordinary’ to find out ‘what happens when nothing happens’. He wandered about and sat for hours in and outside cafes recording what he noticed. His brilliant advice to us all: ‘question your teaspoons’.
image courtesy of andrew ormston
This emphasis on paying curious attention to the over-familiar or unappealing reminded me of a lovely story told by Samuel H. Scudder, an American entomologist who studied at Harvard with the zoologist Agassiz who trained his research students in rigorous close observation and analysis.
“He asked me …whether I wished to study any special branch. I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.
He reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.
‘Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; by and by I will ask what you have seen.’ ”
In ten minutes Scudder had seen all he could see in the fish, replaced it in the jar, and taken a lunch break.
“On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz would not return for several hours. My fellow-students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me – I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.
He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me … When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment: ‘You have not looked very carefully…you haven’t even see one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery. Still more of that wretched fish!”
As the day wore on Scudder’s interest grew and he began to see how much he had previously missed. When the professor asked again, Scudder admitted that although he hadn’t found a clear answer he was realising how little he saw before. The professor suggested that he might be ready with an answer in the morning.
“This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by the Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.
The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.
‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’
His thoroughly pleased ‘Of course! of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. ”
Delighted and relieved to have arrived at the answer, Scudder asks the professor what he should do now. And the reply?
“Oh, look at your fish!” “
read Scudder’s essay on about.com
read a review of ‘Curious’ here
13 September 2014
liz burn: ah yes, in praise of curiosity: the antidote to frustration! 29 September
fiona duggan: what a lovely way to be gently turned around from looking wistfully at the summer fading to looking with curiosity at the months ahead….
I’ve got a suggestion for the ‘boring conference’ – I recently sat through a presentation on traffic management options as part of a university masterplan project and. much to my surprise, found it absolutely riveting! 30 September
armando magnino: In July in London I was visiting New Designers, basically a big “end of year exhibition” for design degrees from all over the country. I went to see the furniture mostly (some of the exhibitors were students of mine). But as I was going around I was struck by the creativity, energy and passion that I was seeing on all sorts of products. Ok, I am not particularly interested in IT-connected home appliances, or bee hives or bicycle design or even car design… but the people that designed those products were! They put as much effort and interest and research in their gadgets (that I hastily dismissed as “not furniture”) as I put in my work. And it struck me that probably if I put as much energy in developing an interest in other areas I could get as passionate. Ok, I like wood and working with wood and that suits me but at the same time if I made the effort to go past my initial disinterest I would find other areas and materials as interesting… Education needs to be teacher led to an extent because you can only find the passion once you really get inside a topic or a subject. As Don Sestero, my maths teacher used to say “bisogna assimilare” – it’s not about learning maths, you need to assimilate it, it needs to become part of you. And that requires time, practice and repetition. You need to build a solid base of knowledge to support your creative critical thinking. Without it all you have are ‘gut reactions’ and ‘intuitions’ – and those are only the starting points of an argument or a development process, not the result.