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That’s Interesting

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

Roald Hoffmann

Interests and Obsessions

The psychology literature helped me understand a distinction between interest and interests that I couldn’t quite put my finger on before. The strange case of the sulfur rectangles that Anne Poduska found was really exciting. But I also have less rousing interests. I am interested, quietly and expectantly, in the behavior of molecules under high pressure, such as that found at the center of the Earth. I’m interested in carbenes, metastable molecules with two groups attached to a carbon atom. I am also interested in Caucasian rugs and indigo and too many other things. Notice that I do not say that I am interested specifically in, respectively, silane (SiH4) under high pressure, methylene (CH2), an Akstafa carpet, or indigo made in ancient times from Murex snails in the Mediterranean, as used ritually by the Hebrews. My interests are broad and quiet. They are like beaches that I watch, waiting for interesting flotsam to wash up. But how do I decide which beach to watch, out of millions that I do not? Here the metaphor breaks down. I built those beaches. I did so out of a combination of chance and curiosity. The specific molecules I named, that particular Caucasian carpet, the Biblical blue—those were the novel initiating interests of my beach building. Now I wait quietly, with the confidence that something else will float up on the same shores.

That expectant interest is different from the feeling of mental arousal spurred by the atypical. Also different is a kind of interest that borders on obsessive. It happens to all of us. I watch the turning of a water wheel, one that once drove a millstone. Although its motion is repetitive, I can’t stop watching it. Or perhaps I can’t stop because the motion takes this form. I go out of my way to find other water wheels, so I can again immerse myself, figuratively, in contemplating them. Clearly there is interest here, as Michael Weisberg, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, reminded me. The motion of the water wheel is fascinating (a lovely adjective, still true to its origin in the Latin fascinare—to bewitch). I am indeed enchanted as I watch the water wheel. But is this the sense of interesting that I want?

I don’t think so. The familiar obsessive fascination with objects or motions might be one, normal end of a spectrum of autistic behavior. To me it seems to have something to do with resting states of mind, with meditation and biorhythms. The interest that puts us on the path to discovery is something else. It breaks a spell and feeds on mental arousal.

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