Why does scientific interest die?

Earlier in the summer, I decided to visit the Science Museum in London – one of my favourite destinations as a kid, but one that I had not been to in some time. I’ve always been curious about the world and the universe, and so the museum serves as a fix for my addiction.

Apart from taking in information served to me by curators, I also began to observe the demographics of the other museum-goers around me. It didn’t take me long to find a pattern – the overwhelming majority of visitors were children. The few adults that were present were either chaperoning the aforementioned kids or were foreign tourists.

Now I agree, the simplest explanation may be a valid one. It was a weekday in early summer. There were a few groups of children there as part of a school trip, and many adults would have been at work. This may explain the skewed proportions.

However, it does not explain the second thing I noticed – the general demeanour of the visitors. Although there are always exceptions, the vast majority of the adults that were there seemed laboured – politely taking a look around if they were alone, or being dragged around by children. The younger visitors generally seemed amazed and awe-stricken by most of the things they saw. And why shouldn’t they be? It was inspiring to see their thirst for knowledge and understanding, the fascination when they saw how electricity was first generated or satellite photographs of economic activity on the earth.

Sadly, looking at ‘grown-ups’ around me, I see that my trip to the museum was a microcosm of society. Most things are taken for granted. Somewhere along the ageing process, most people seem to lose interest in asking ‘why?’. Their lives revolve around immediate concerns: “I need to work my way up to get promoted” or “Look at the car I just bought!”.

Why do we stop asking ‘why?’

It seems like it’s human nature to some extent. We all adapt to our surroundings and eventually take things as given, focusing on the few variables that actually directly affect us on a daily basis. But I don’t think this means that we should stop contemplating and discovering. There is no reason why the way in which chromosomes unwind, separate and lead to mitosis is any less amazing than it was when we were kids.

There are people for whom this childlike enthusiasm for discovery never goes away. These people are the Einsteins and Feynmans of the world. So, one possible conclusion this leads us towards is that the preservation of scientific curiosity in later life is down largely to inherent personality traits – the ‘nature’ argument. I certainly think there is some truth to this. Psychological personality theory has a lot to say, and looking at Jungian and other personality test results can go some way to predicting who these people are.

But this is of less interest to me in many ways than the ‘nurture’ side of the story. There will always be people with a greater aptitude for science and research. However, the fact that many people seem to lose interest in science during or after high school suggests some environmental or social influence.

There is definitely something that needs to be said here about the rote memorisation and exam mentality of schooling. Whilst I can’t speak for the rest of the world, schooling here in the UK consists predominantly of textbook exercises and exam preparation. Sure, there are experiments from time to time, but this method of teaching really doesn’t persuade people who are on the fence to begin with to maintain their interest in science.

I recently saw a video from physicist Michio Kaku emphasising this point:

His point is that kids seem to get this impression from school that science is just a bunch of very big words and difficult facts to remember. And who can blame those kids if they want to have nothing to do with the subject afterwards?

I think that the most important idea to take-away from all of this is the following: although it may come across that way (and for good reason), science is not merely a bunch of facts or a bunch of intellectual elitists working together to envelop society in a mist of confusion and complication. Science is a process – with which to question the fabric of the universe we live in and discover the answers in a rigorous enough way to avoid ambiguity.

If you are in the kitchen and ask what is happening when the water in the kettle is bubbling, you are a scientist. If you watch a cyclist riding past you and wonder how the tyres stick to the road and pull him along, you are a scientist. If you wonder what process in your body is making you tired after you eat, you are a scientist. My view is that if we stop restraining ourselves from following through to seek the answers, we might all remain just a little more enchanted and enlightened like those kids at the Science Museum.


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