Curiosity may have killed the cat, but …

Go ahead and Google this phrase and you will see this idiomatic warning goes all the way back to the 1500s and Shakespeare.  I have heard it all my life as a warning that being curious carries certain obvious risks.  You could be venturing into the unknown with potentially serious consequences.  I think about what we know now about what we can and can’t eat when it comes to mushrooms and other foods, especially seeds, which are poisonous to us.  Yet, these deadly plants are often sources for healing agents when studied carefully by curious people.

Our recent challenges with COVID are just one more illustration of this irony.  A recent article in USA Today reported that way back in 1966, two curious graduate students visiting Yellowstone National Park discovered a new bacteria that thrived in waters above 160 F and named it Thermus aquaticus. The discovery of this hardy bacteria revolutionized the fields of biology and medicine.

“A lot of people thought (the research) was kind of a specialized sort of thing,” said Tom Brock, now an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who started the research project. “Working on organisms in Yellowstone in the summer sounded kind of like a ‘vacation study.'”

What no one could have known then was that inside that bacteria was the key ingredient for the gold-standard diagnostic tests that would be deployed nationwide by the tens of millions nearly 50 year later, on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

Perhaps what I enjoy the most about these curious people is that they are keenly observant of things others just ignore or take for granted.  They seek to better understand … they are not satisfied until they do understand.  We need to encourage this kind of critical thinking in even the mundane so that we are better prepared to solve life’s problems in seemingly unrelated areas.

As we now read the relentless criticisms about what went wrong in Texas, watch for the quest for insights out of curiosity and contrast that with what I expect most will do: assign blame.  We need to be curious about how we can correct this in the future, and perhaps not just with sweeping large answers like eliminating the DC ties that keeps ERCOT separated from the rest of the US.  Don’t we remember when we lost the Northeast grid due to that massive power outage back in 2009?  It can all be traced back to a tree growing too tall in a transmission corridor.  Yes there were other factors as well.  Tree trimming costs money … someone tried to save money.  Gee … perhaps we should fix things like that?

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