Curiosity killed the cat, but the satisfaction brought it back

Blog » Curiosity killed the cat, but the satisfaction brought it back

Posted on 01 Mar 2014 05:33

“Invoking curiosity through counter-intuitive demonstrations and questions”

An excerpt from the talk given at Azim Premji University as a part of curiosity workshop on 28-Feb-2014

Have questions like these created curiosity in you?

Funnel and Ball experiment - Take a medium sized funnel and place a small plastic ball in it. Invert it but hold the ball with a finger so that it does not fall off. Start blowing air INTO it. The ball does not fall off. Why?

Candle Experiment - We all know the flame of a candle goes off when a glass (just for visibility) jar is inverted over it. Now take 2 candles of different heights and repeat the experiment. When the flame of the taller candle goes off, the smaller one is still present. If lack of oxygen is the explanation, then why is the flame of the smaller candle stays longer?

Heliocentric system - We all know the earth revolves around the sun. But what we see is the sun revolving around the earth. Why do we believe in heliocentric model?

Why is the hilltop colder when it is closer to sun than the sea level? ;-)

Why doesn't the sea level increase if ice caps of arctic melts but will increase only if the ice of antarctic mealts?

It surely has created curiosity in me and many of my students. The reason being these questions are counter intuitive. We are inherently curious of counter intuitive phenomenon in this myterious world as it given an evolutionary advantage. A phenomenon which is counter intuitive might be a threat. Our curious minds want to find out the answer so that it fits the model of the world we have. Infact we are so curious that we pay money to see a magic show though knowing there is actually no magic :-)

I feel counter intuitive questions and demonstrations can act as a very important pedagogical tool. We should just ask questions so that the mystery is vivid in front of students. The understanding is best enjoyed with exploration than formalizing all the questions and answers.
"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." - Albert Einstein

So what is the road ahead once the curiosity is triggered?
At this point of time true scientific rigour needs to be introducted else students start to make intuitive models which may be not correct. A few examples

  • Dieting - People resort to eating less and less for reducing body weight. Intuition is lesser the quantity of food, slimmer one becomes. But if one eats very less, body goes to panic mode and reduce metabolic rates. Therefore moderate eating is better than very less eating.
  • Evolution - People were fundametally curious of life forms and dumb struck seeing it's variety. Time and again intelligent design was invoked as it is counterintuitive to believe chance created life. But fossil evidence and understanding of mutation and genes has given us a failry reliable theory of evolution.
  • Exponents - Concepts of exponents are counter intuitive. Keep a grain of rice on a square of chess board. Keep 2 in the next. Keep 4 in the next and so on. By the time you reach 64th, the grains of rice will be more than the annual production of rice of the entire world.

Our brains are trained to think linearly. But a lot of things are exponential. An example is Moore's law and accelerated technological growth. It took 2000 years to reach telephonic communication from smoke signals. But it took mearly 150 yrs for india to have more mobile phones than toilets.These understandings will help students to build better models of the surroundings and future too.

“Curiosity killed the cat, but the satisfaction brought it back”

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