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August 27, 2003 by AK

Curiosity kills mostly cats

Another amazing trait of Western civilization is (or was, shall I say?) unbounded curiosity. Watching one of numerous Egypt pyramid ‘documentaries’ with one eye an hour ago, I wondered why it was Europeans who needed to know so badly, so urgently what those hieroglyphs meant and how those obelisks had been installed. No one else seemed to care; no one cared at all from the fall of Rome till Champollion’s second birthday. No doubt this built-in curiosity played a very special role in the discoveries and conquests without which Australia and Siberia, to say nothing of America, would still be aboriginal (please note I’m not making moral calls here).

One major Soviet scientist — it must have been Nesmeyanov or Vinogradov, either one a chemist — used to joke that a career in science was an opportunity to satisfy one’s curiosity at the government’s expense. Since free markets make possible private funding even for theoretical research, we could reword the aphorism to say “somebody else’s expense”. Nesmeyanov is also credited with the recipe for nesmeyanovka, a special kind of spirit-based cranberry infusion (nastoyka). Considering that Mendeleyev proposed what turned out the best spirit-water proportion for vodka, a further inquiry into by-products of chemists’ thought might yield extra fruit.

[Note: In addition to misspelling “curiosity”, I was wrong to claim no one tried to understand hieroglyphs before the French — see C.Bloggerfeller’s comment.]


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