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That’s Interesting

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

Roald Hoffmann

The Quiet Goad to Creation

2011-09MargHoffmannFD.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageSo, an interesting thing is new and unusual, but not so new that one cannot describe it. I think of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes when, a hundred years ago, he saw the electrical resistance of mercury drop to zero for the first time. There were conflicting ideas among physicists of the time on what would happen to the resistivity of metals as they were cooled. Onnes was in the position to make the first measurements of the conductivity of metals at the lowest temperatures, just made available in his own laboratory by the newly liquefied helium. I also think of interesting molecules and interesting theories—such as the one that led Paul Dirac to the puzzling but valid negative-energy solutions to his foundational 1928 equation for the quantum-mechanical and relativistic behavior of electrons. Taken seriously, those odd solutions resulted three years later in the prediction of the positron. Such anomalies, faced by individual scientists in solitude, are, I believe, the stimulus to much creation.

In the psychological literature, I found support for my assessment that scientific interest springs from stimuli that are novel but understandable. In his book Exploring the Psychology of Interest, Paul J. Silvia calls interest “an eccentric emotion,” and he describes the experiments he uses to characterize it. In one, his subjects viewed and rated randomly generated polygons with respect to interest. At the same time, he gauged the subjects’ curiosity and openness to experience. In another experiment, participants rated as interesting (or not) some abstract images, and simultaneously appraised the comprehensibility of the same pictures. Silvia concludes that interest derives from an “evaluation of an event’s novelty-complexity” and its “comprehensibility.” Other psychologists have studied the adaptive function of interest, how interest derives from appraisal of a situation, and the obvious role of interest in learning. The late Daniel Berlyne, who was a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, singled out novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict as the qualities appraised in a judgment of interest.

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