Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Power of Curiosity

'Wonder is a window from where you are to where you want to be.’

On part two of the most recent episode of The Thrive Global Podcast, Thrive Global founder and CEO Arianna Huffington sat down with astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson to talk about fake news, childlike curiosity and the relationship between spirituality and science.

The media often portrays scientists as founts of information, but deGrasse Tyson debunked the myth of the scientist “sitting back in their chair commanding all knowledge of the world.” For deGrasse Tyson, wonder plays an important role in his job. “I wonder every day,” he said adding, “I don’t want to imagine life without it.”

Wonder is essential for all scientists, deGrasse Tyson said. “If you’re an active scientist, you’re always at the drawing board. You find the place where our ignorance of the universe is most profound, that attracts you. Because at some point you have to learn to love the questions themselves. The answers are not always forthcoming. So it’s the search that gets you there. But in all cases, what’s driving you is the wonder, it’s, ‘Wow I wonder how that works and why, will we ever know? Am I asking the right questions? Am I bringing the right methods and tools to bear?’"

deGrasse Tyson said he often thinks about how people with more pressing needs like food, water and shelter can make room for wonder in their lives. To which Huffington said, “Participating in wonder, even when we are struggling, helps with our resilience.” It can help to find “meaning in your darkest hour,” she said. deGrasse Tyson agreed, “Perhaps wonder, no matter where you are or what your circumstances might be, wonder is a window from where you are to where you want to be. No matter what that location is.”

Wonder is particularly important for adults who’ve been taught to abandon their childlike curiosity in favor of the norms of adulthood. deGrasse Tyson shared that he considers himself a “particularly childish adult,” explaining, for example, how he feels compelled to swivel in his chair during important meetings—even though he knows he probably shouldn’t.

But if curiosity and wonder are childlike, then so be it. “When I think of science and scientists I think of kids who never lost their curiosity and wonder and then woke up one day as adults with the very same sense of search for what is and what is not true in the world,” deGrasse Tyson said.

deGrasse Tyson’s sense of curiosity influences how he teaches his own children. “What we tried to do is make sure that their curiosity was never quashed,” he said. “What they do when they manifest their curiosity is just make a mess of the house. You didn’t have kids on the expectation that your house will never be messy.”

deGrasse used a simple example to illustrate this point. “Your child reaches up to grab the egg...we don’t say anything. You know what’s going to happen. They’re going to play with the egg and then the egg will break,” he said. But the marvelous thing about such a small act is the valuable lesson it can teach curious children. “Right here is a child performing an experiment but it was 20 cents worth of knowledge gleaned about the natural world.”

And this can be a valuable process as they get older. “This might be a child’s first experience with something that is hard yet fragile. How many hard and fragile things exist in this world? Not many,” he said. “Children are entropy centers. All they ever do is disrupt and dismantle and destroy whatever is in their way. We know this. So the question is, how much will you let them do it? Because everything they touch is a manifestation of curiosity. Whether or not they put it back together again.”

To hear the full conversation, click here.

You can also listen to the Thrive Global podcast internationally for free on iTunes and Stitcher.

Life Lessons, Children, Wonder