Being curious and obsessed can lead to interesting places
Let me start here with a story about deep, obsessive curiosity.
Back in 1964, the microbiologist Thomas Brock visited Yellowstone National Park to do some sightseeing. He was on a long car ride, and wanted to break up the monotony.
While peering into the hot springs, he noticed a curious blue-green tinge. When he asked a park ranger about it, he was told it was algae. That surprised Brock: Those pools are so hot that some of them reach a boiling temperature. At the time, scientists didn’t know of many lifeforms that could readily thrive such scalding environments.
But Brock couldn’t stop wondering about what exactly was going on in those boiling pools. He was dying to know: What was alive down there? How was it surviving?
So he spent the next six years revisiting Yellowstone and taking samples from pools, geysers, and vents. And along with his colleague Hudson Freeze, he discovered a species — Thermus aquaticus — that was previously unknown.
Essentially, they’d documented the category now known as “extremophiles”. As they wrote in a 1967 paper that hit the scientific world like an earthquake, “It is thus impossible to conclude that there is any ‘upper temperature of life.’”
That discovery is cool enough, yes?
But the story took an even more significant turn ten years later. Kary Mullis, a biochemist, was trying to create a faster way to copy DNA using enzymes — but the process he was designing required a lot of heat, he didn’t have any enzyme that could readily endure it, making it hard to scale.
Then one day he found Brock and Hudson’s Thermus aquaticus. Bingo: It thrived in heat, which is precisely the condition he was looking for. Using T. aquaticus, Mullis found the enzyme Taq polymerase, which could do the high-temperature copying necessary. Mullis wound up creating a process that could rapidly generate millions of duplicates. It’s a trick that’s incredibly useful for everything from police investigators trying to isolate crime-scene DNA to doctors trying to diagnose diseases.
Mullis co-won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for inventing this concept. You’ve probably heard of it: It’s called Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR for short.
In fact, PCR has been crucial in managing COVID. If you’ve ever taken a PCR test to determine if you’ve really got the coronavirus (PCR is much more accurate than home rapid-antigen tests) then you were using technology that owes its existence to Brock noodling around Yellowstone in 1964 and marveling at the boiling-hot algae pools.
I love this story, because it illustrates two key points about creativity and breakthrough ideas, which I’ve seen over and over again in my reporting!
- It’s enormously valuable to simply follow your curiosity—and follow it for a really long time, even if it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular.
- Surprisingly big breakthrough ideas come when you bridge two seemingly unconnected areas.
Let’s consider point 1, first: The value of following your curiosity.
Brock, after all, didn’t intentionally go to Yellowstone to look for a scientific puzzle. He was just poking around. But he was just a curious guy, so — literally in his leisure time, while on a car trip — he stumbled upon something weird.
Once he saw that puzzle, though, he let himself remain mesmerized by it. He kept beavering away, for a good chunk of his career. And he did this despite the fact that there wasn’t any immediate practical payoff in figuring out “what life forms can thrive in boiling hot water”. It was just pure-science curiosity, a hunger for knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake.
This type of curiosity can be a lot more powerful than the type propelled by a desire for money or repute. In these latter cases, if the payoff (the hunt for knowledge, for an insight, for a breakthrough) doesn’t seem like it’s going to come soon, the risk/reward ratio looks too grim, and we give up. But with pure curiosity, we keep going. It’s an intrinsic motivation versus an extrinsic one.
Keeping going, for six years no less, was the other crucial part of Brock’s story here. Persistence is key in science, of course; but frankly it’s key in most domains. Letting yourself stay curious about a subject for an unreasonable amount of time — to the point where your friends and loved ones wish you’d just shut up about it, already — can be powerful. This is, at its best, what propels “pure” science. Scientists just can’t stop being curious about things.
Now, point 2 is key also!
Brock wasn’t looking to invent anything that’d be practically useful for medical work. He was just super digging this algae mystery. Kary Mullis had a very practical problem to solve — but no inherent interest in the lifestyle of Yellowstone park hot-geyser lifeforms.
The breakthrough came from the intersection of those two seemingly-unrelated domains.
This is a pretty common pattern in creativity and invention. The Post-It note was developed when one 3M inventor created a weirdly unsticky glue, which he couldn’t figure out what to do with — until he ran into another 3M employee who sang in a choir and was pissed at how the slips of paper he used to mark pages in the hymnal always fell out. The Canadian “Group of Seven” artists revolutionized landscape painting by taking an iconic, modern aesthetic from Europe — “fauvism” — and applying it to the decidedly rustic setting of the Ontario outback. American blues took a weird classical instrument from Germany, the harmonica, and used its “bent” notes (originally considered to be practically mistakes, out-of-tune sounds produced by sharply drawn breath) to form a core part of the aesthetic.
I think I’m so smitten by this story — with its mix of deep curiosity into seemingly pointless subjects, followed by the discovery that this “pointless” material is wildly useful in a new domain — because it dovetails with my interest in “rewilding” one’s attention.
I’ve written a bunch about “rewilding” (essays here), which is basically the art of reclaiming one’s attention from all the forces that are trying to get you to obsess over the same stuff that millions of other people are obsessing over. Mass media tries to corral your attention this way; so do the sorting-for-popularity algorithms of social media.
Now, sometimes that’s good! It’s obviously valuable, and socially and politically responsible, to know what’s going on in the world. But our media and technological environment encourages endless perseveration on The Hot Topic of Today, in a way that can be kind of deadening intellectually and spiritually. It is, as I’ve written, a bit like “monocropping” your attention. And so I’ve been arguing that it’s good to gently fight this monocropping — by actively hunting around and foraging for stuff to look at, read, and see that’s far afield, quirkier, and more niche.
Basically, you need to go looking for your own hot-spring algae — whatever that might be.
Letting your curiosity go deep into a weird place can be enormously joyful. And in the long run, it can be powerfully useful, too.
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I’m a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. I’m also the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. I’m @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram, and @firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon.