But satisfaction brought him back.


Kerry Emanuel explored the history of climate science and listed many contributors to the development of this discipline. Throughout his talk, what really stood out to me was that curiosity is a driving principle for the advancement of climate science. I venture far as to say that curiosity is a driving principle for ANY science. Curiosity opens up the conceptual space for exploring new ideas not available before, and allows for experimentation, both theoretical and practical.

According to Emanuel, curiosity about why the Earth’s temperature was what it was, why the old ice sheets behaved the way they behaved, and what determines the nature of the surface of the Earth is what guided many scientist’s experiments in climate science. This desire to know guides not only climate science, but also any other scientific endeavors; it reflects an awareness, want, and need to fill in a knowledge gap. It is also a source of personal satisfaction and of aliveness: according to Ian McEwan, “the standard measure of how alive you are is your curiosity.”

Taking curiosity as a guiding principle in science leads to many paths that are not necessarily useful at first glance. Endeavors led by curiosity are often thought of as useless because they do not have any immediate practical applications, and are waved off as daydreams or delusions. Those who follow their scientific curiosity, and dare to ask the “what if…” question (or any other questions), are often the ones that make significant contributions. In these types of experiments, utility is not the primary purpose, the motivation to realize them is not utilitarian.

This does not mean, however, that any inquiry based on curiosity will result in something useful. “Fooling around” with an idea does not make it automatically better, but it does offer conceptual freedom and “shackles off the human mind” (Flexner, 546) and sets it free for adventure. According to Flexner, curiosity is the “outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered” (Flexner, 545).

Emanuel made it clear that the revolution in climate science, just like any revolution, has a long and intricate history. Each scientist finds bits and pieces of a theory and then the pieces are organized in a systematic way to make a real contribution to science. All of these experiments enrich our world view and aid in the pursuit of science and truth.  “The mere fact that [experiments] bring satisfaction to an individual soul-bent upon its own purification and elevation is all the justification that they need” (Flexner, 549).

References:

Flexner, Abraham. “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Harpers, vol. 179, 1939, pp. 544-552, https://library.ias.edu/files/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf.