Herbet A. Simon was an intriguing polymath – economist, political scientist, psychologist, sociologist, professor, and pianist. Over the course of his lifetime he pioneered the fields of Cognitive Psychology and Artificial Intelligence, and his concepts are being used to prototype our future. These discoveries warranted several awards and accolades during his time, and several posthumous ones. He passed away in 2001, but what is Curious about him is his ‘last lecture’ delivered in 1991 entitled ‘The Cat the Curiosity Couldn’t Kill’.
In the first phrases of this lecture he reveals that he had chosen that title way before actually knowing the content of what he was going to talk about, in his own words: “When it came time to outline my remarks for this occasion, I had forgotten what mad impulse had generated that title. What could I possibly have meant by it?” What followed is an elaboration on the presence and persistence of curiosity within the context of his scientific research.
For Professor Simon, all scientists are simply cats who are driven by curiosity, seeking to relieve “the itch of curiosity that constantly torments them.” Yet curiosity is not limited to science, through any exploration a person learns, until they reach a level of understanding and mastery where the curiosity is replaced with intuition, transforming mystery into certainty.
The lecture is quite something to read, penned by such an able polymath to sound like it was read aloud to you as you read. At length he discusses creativity and curiosity – describing the process of how Johannes Kepler revisited his law of motion a decade after publishing them, the itch of curiosity had made this cat scratch once again. Much like Fleming, Krebs, and many others that had been surprised by an experimental result and in following this feeling of surprise had come across some Curious discoveries (such as penicillin).
Children are innately Curious, and some have said that it is schooling the reduces our curiosity as we grow up. Simon’s thought there also might be a biological element for it, as by adulthood our body seeks to protect itself from potentially risky or dangerous environments. Places where the Curious cats among us fear not to tread, but whose exploration might cause them to lose a whiskers.
Those that can keep hold of their childhood curiosity are truly blessed : “For the curious, being a student is life, a pleasurable and exciting life. I hope you don’t interpret that to mean that it isn’t hard work. It is interesting hard work, something far more rewarding than aimless leisure.”