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That’s Interesting

Curiosity drives discovery. But what, exactly, makes us curious?

Roald Hoffmann

The title phrase, said with just the right intonation, could be dismissive: a polite, thinly veiled way of saying “I am not really interested.” But my concern here is with the sincere variant of the expression—particularly in science, when it is said to oneself, sotto voce. For this statement is how curiosity is stirred. And, as I will argue in a continuation of a small campaign to value the “unmathematicizable” in science (I’ve also written about the importance of metaphor and storytelling), psychological interest is a progenitor of scientific creation itself.

As a descriptor of an experiment or theory, interesting resides more or less comfortably between beautiful and strange. Aesthetic judgment, such as attribution of beauty, is generally avoided by scientists as they write—paradoxically so, I’d say, for they would like nonscientists to value not just the technological utility of their labors, but also the elegance. Is it reticence that leads one to avoid writing “this molecule is beautiful” in a scientific paper? No, I think it is a fear of the spiritual, as if calling a molecule beautiful in a paper would put one in the company of art critics. Or, God forbid, priests. And strange, when used to describe a scientific observation, can carry a hint that something might be amiss: a spectrum not quite correctly interpreted, a mistake of sign in a derivation. But interesting, when said without a veiled smirk, is very much a positive valuation. That is, as positive about other people’s work as scientists often allow themselves to be in public.

The word’s etymology is revealing. The noun came into English from French, which took it from Latin. There, it derived from the verbal phrase inter esse, meaning literally “it is in between.” (So the Oxford English Dictionary says; there is some debate about this point.) That construction, inter esse, meant that something made a difference and thus it was important. The claim for value in diversity was explicit: To be different, to be in the middle, neither this nor that—all these things mattered. In the same spirit, I entitled a book about chemists and chemistry The Same and Not the Same. Diversity in the structure and function of molecules is exactly what gives chemistry its power and value.

But when interest first came into English, it was used only in the legal sense of having a right or title to something. Only at the end of the 18th century did the word begin to signify curiosity about a person or thing. Now, as then, to be in between is to be not understood in a world ruled by dichotomizing logics. To be in between is to transgress. For instance, the late anthropologist Mary Douglas described how the Lele people of central Africa avoided eating flying squirrels. According to their taxonomy, the creatures were “not unambiguously birds nor animals,” Douglas wrote in her 1966 book Purity and Danger. It’s a tense place, that middle. But maybe, just maybe, it’s the place where understanding is waiting to be found.

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