"On August 27, 1783 in Paris, [Benjamin] Franklin witnessed the world’s first hydrogen balloon flight."
"Sir Joseph Banks, a leading botanist and president of the British Royal Society from 1778 to 1820, … corresponded with [Franklin] in Paris. Although ostensibly a man of science, Banks looked at ballooning from a Newtonian worldview, and wrote to Franklin that, “I see an inclination in the more respectable part of the Royal Society to guard against the Ballomania [until] some experiment likely to prove beneficial either to society or science is proposed.”
Franklin had told Banks that experimenting with balloons would someday “pave the way to some discoveries in natural philosophy of which at present we have no conception.”
He answered Banks’ objection by writing that “It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new experiment which apparently increases the power of man over matter until we can see to what use that power may be applied. When we have learned to manage it, we may hope some time or other to find uses for it, as men have done for magnetism and electricity, of which the first experiments were mere matters of amusement.”
When a spectator at one of the early balloon launchings asked Franklin what this new invention could be used for, Franklin gave his famous answer: “What is the use of a new-born baby?””
— Benjamin Franklin, on the use of hot air balloons. Quotes via The Schiller Institute & Wiki: .
This is a long one, but please try to read. It’s important.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a round table about “Ignorance and Curiosity
" — a discussion about how the former fuels the latter. In light of recent political / educational events, the events that transpired couldn’t be more appropriate:
Inevitably the conversation turned toward education, and how (or whether) any teacher can inspire curiosity in their students, despite handling large classes of various types of learners and in the face of budget cuts and systematic constraints.
The very last question of the day was the best — a man asked (and I quote somewhat loosely): “I understand that there’s a fraction of you, of your personality type, who cannot help but be curious and intellectual… but why do you want to expand that fraction? Why do you want others to be like you?"
A great question. One that many people wouldn’t even think to ask. After all, who doesn’t want to live in an intelligent, educated society — the ideal society of the ancient Greek philosophers? (Don’t answer that. It’s incredible, but I could think of a few people, too.) It’s funny that the inquisitor must be a curious man himself, to have challenged them thus.
After some initial difficulty, two of the speakers finally worked it out. Stuart Firestein
(Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences)
illustrated with the story above (of Ben Franklin and the hot air balloons) and Heather Berlin
agreed: the point is hope
The investigation of our world — science — works by Trial and Error. Especially in the beginnings of such an investigation, one cannot know what will work, what will be important, what it will be used for, how it may change our lives… So many people seem to have too little understanding of this. Unfortunately that’s especially true of those in powerful positions, who have the ability to affect human curiosity, education, progress, livelihood:
Recently, the Head of the US’s House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Lamar Smith, has begun preparing a bill to “revise criteria for science funding and research grants”:
According to ScienceInsider, the bill would require the NSF director to certify that every grant met the following conditions:
- The grant must “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and… secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science”
- It must also be “the finest quality, groundbreaking, and answer questions or solve problems that are of utmost importance to society at large”
- The grant should not be “duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies”
How does a person such as Smith — who clearly misunderstands the scientific process, who, by making such requests, denies the fact that “groundbreaking” discoveries take many teams, errors, and a wealth of time, and that one cannot always be sure which will be “of utmost importance to society at large” — become Head of The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology?
This is why we want to “expand the fraction” of the curious. Of those who are not simply ignorant, but who are motivated by their own ignorance to continue to be life-long learners, no matter their day-job description, and whether their scope of influence includes a single child or an entire country.
Images via Wiki & PCA.