Mario Livio's 'Why': A stilted, elitist look at human curiosity

Mario Livio, author of "Why: What Makes Us Curious."


What Makes
Us Curious

By Mario Livio

Simon & Schuster.

252 pp. $26.

Reviewed by Katherine Harmon Courage

What is it that compels us not only to gaze at the stars but also to build the technology to reach out to them, study them, understand them? It is, of course, that mysterious, powerful force of curiosity that is with us from infancy, blossoms in childhood, and persists throughout our lives. Plenty of animals show a keen interest in the world - but in Why?, astrophysicist Mario Livio argues that humans are the only species to ask not just what, where, and who, but also why.

Livio, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, treats the topic with a physicist's sensibility. Examples (Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Feynman) are put under the microscope, the science (fMRIs, neurotransmitters) is assessed, hypotheses (do scientists consider themselves curious?) tested.

But the result is rather stilted, yoked to the cult of individual scientific genius, embellished with umoored quotations from Western thinkers, and delivered in a tone that often reads as didactic.

Perhaps the most interesting segment delves into the role of curiosity in learning and memory. Participants in one study were asked to rate how interested they were in learning the answers to various questions on a list. They were then shown the questions, one by one, followed by the corresponding answers. But subjects had to wait for that answer, during which they saw a brief image of a random face. Later, an unexpected memory test showed people best recalled the faces shown when they were waiting for an answer they had been particularly eager to know. The lesson: Stay curious, remember more.

Livio elevates the high-profile scientist as a different breed. He surmises that "curiosity requires certain cognitive abilities . . . governed to a significant degree by genetic inheritance." Left out of his picture, however, is the majority of humankind, who live neither in a state of constant threat nor in the academic world. By exalting the few, he undercuts the true beauty of curiosity, one thing that truly unites and ignites us as humans.

But he rescues his book with an unexpected moral call that is worth listening to: "Curiosity," he writes, "is the best remedy for fear." It can turn such detrimental potential energy into true human progress - which can take us to the stars and beyond.

Katherine Harmon Courage is a science writer and the author of "Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea" and "Cultured," a forthcoming book about cuisine and the microbiome. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.