Default to Curious

Many of the technologies that we take for granted today, like GPS and touchscreens, trace their routes back to MIT's Media Lab, which has a broad range of research areas across science, art, media, and more.

In his book The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, former MIT Media Lab director Frank Moss describes the inner workings of the lab, including a story about a group focused on designing an exoskeleton-like device that could make running easier.

Among the many challenges the group faced was the problem of attaching it comfortably to people's bodies. Skin tends to slide across bones, which makes attaching an external device like this difficult.

Hazel Briner, an undergraduate intern at the time, ultimately solved the problem by sewing non-slip fabric under the straps. Moss points out that not only was Briner a capable sewer, she also spent four years touring as an aerialist with Circus Smirkus, the internationally recognized youth circus. As such, Briner's previous experience with harnesses informed her solution.

With an interest in both circus and biomechatronics, Briner is clearly a curious person. The world tends to reward curiosity like this; when you follow your nose down the paths that interest you, you never know how the things you learn along the way can be combined to solve novel problems down the road.

And exploring broadly and cultivating a sense of curiosity in everything that you do doesn't just help you solve problems.

If you approach meeting new people with that same spark of curiosity, you're more likely to assume that everyone is interesting. This in turn leads to richer conversations and deeper social connections.

So default to curious. You never know where it might lead you.

Latticework of Ideas

Although knowledge in a specific discipline resembles a tree, knowledge across disciplines resembles a forest — a latticework of facts and ideas with many crisscrossing connections.

Much of our progress now comes from finding these novel relationships between subjects. As I recently wrote, Claude Shannon did this when he paired Boolean alegra with circuitry design, which laid the foundation for modern computers.

And Shannon's cross-disciplinary breakthrough is not an anomaly. David Epstein in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, writes, "Fifteen years after publication, studies that made multiple new knowledge combinations were way more likely to be in the top 1 percent of most-cited papers."

Even though those same papers tended to be published in less prestigous journals and take longer to garner attention, they ultimately became more influential.

Intellectual innovation, therefore, often comes from remixes of existing knowledge, rather than completely new discoveries.

Literature and Medicine

Poetry, Aristotle wrote, is capable of expressing the universal, while history excels at recording the particular.

There's a reason why many undergraduate programs have a set of core requirements that extend far beyond the narrower disciplines that students have chosen. MIT, for example, requires students to take almost 25% of their classes in subjects like philosophy and music.

Paul Kalanithi, the neurosurgeon who wrote the bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air, found himself torn between his interests in literature and medicine. He reports that the two disciplines can go hand in hand:

One recent [MIT] graduate who went on to medical school wrote about how her practice as a physician requires not only medical knowledge, but also the ability to interpret her patients’ accounts and stories — a skill she gained reading literature, studying the various forms of narrative, the many ways humans share vital information. “MIT biology prepared me for medicine,” she says. “Literature prepared me to be a doctor.”

A historian, doctor, or any other type of technical specialist needs to be precise in their craft. But poetry and the rest of the humanities show us how our work fits into a broader context.

They remind us that information is not the same as wisdom, that logic does not represent understanding, and that the great truths in life lie somewhere in between the universal and the particular.

Cosmic Songs

In 2016, NASA and Apple Music co-produced a video on Juno’s mission to Jupiter. It examines how both scientists and musicians are, at their core, explorers. No matter our discipline, we're all striking out to uncover truth.

Music is ultimately just waves. Paul Halpern, writing for PBS, explains how this makes it a kind of universal language: "Just as mathematical patterns underlie the musical scales and intervals most pleasing to the ear, they also describe the probability waves at the heart of quantum theory."

As the video above points out, Juno's communications back to Earth are also comprised of waves, which means the spacecraft is essentially singing back to us. Its cosmic song tells us how it's doing and where it's going.

As we move through space and time, we leave a wake of waves behind us too.

Life isn't a ladder to climb or something to achieve. It's a song we're meant to play along the way. We find others to harmonize with throughout our journey, and after we die, our presence continues to reverberate.

In season 1, episode 10 of The Bicameral Mind, Robert Ford says, “An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music.”

Even if you're not a composer, your life echoes through the universe.

Let's turn up the volume together.

See also: Borrowed Stardust

Paint Tubes: A Technological Innovation

Until the mid-19th century, the best containers artists had for holding paint were pigs' bladders.

But bladders aren't great at this. They have a tendency to unexpectedly burst, and once they're open, their contents dry out pretty quickly. This makes painting outside of your studio difficult.

Enter John G. Rand, an American artist who invented the tin paint tube. That simple technological innovation helped pave the way for Impressionism, because it allowed painters to complete their work from virtually anywhere and even enabled new paint colors.

Artists soon took advantage of this, capturing the world like never before. Claude Monet apparently got so close to the subject of his 1885 work Waves at the Manneporte, you can find sand embedded in it:

Waves at the Manneporte by Claude Monet (1885)

Inventor Danny Hillis famously remarked that "technology is everything that doesn’t work yet." We don't tend to think of a paint tube as technology, because we eventually take innovations like it for granted. (See also: the wheel.)

Technological innovation removes barriers to human expression, enabling new styles and even entire disciplines. Sometimes, all it takes is a paint tube.


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