The secret to life: curiosity

Childcraft
Childcraft Encyclopaedia set (Source: Tejas Nair via Wikipedia)

One day, I was watching a movie, possibly Batman Begins, which has a scene where a private jet flies across the world, sunlight glinting on its round-edged windows. I thought, ‘How fast would the jet plane have to travel to keep the Sun in the same spot in the sky?’ This is how I discovered the polar night (also called the midnight sun).

Let me explain how I got there. Here are the thoughts I had, roughly:

  1. It’s the Earth and not the Sun that is moving. So the plane would need to travel in the opposite direction of the rotation of the Earth in order to remain, from the Sun’s point of view, on the same spot on Earth.
  2. Okay. So then how fast must the plane fly to stay in that spot and therefore to keep the Sun in the same spot in the sky? Forget the destination and limited fuel.
  3. How much distance you travel around the world depends on where you are on the planet.
  4. What if you are at the equator? The required speed would be X km/h.
  5. Higher or lower than the equator? Less than X. Ah, so for any direction away from the equator, the required speed is less.
  6. Arbitrarily, the higher you go up, the less distance covered and therefore less speed required.
  7. Finally, what is the required speed at the North Pole? Zero! The sun is always up, day or night! And you don’t need to travel to keep it that way.
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Video showing midnight sun on YouTube channel Cool Travel Videos

That is not entirely true—the midnight sun occurs during the summer solstice, not year-round.

Nevertheless, I felt very proud of myself for having unwittingly arrived at a fact of nature from a thought experiment. This—forgive me the lack of seemingly modesty, to quote Dumbledore—is one of the most amazing experiences scientists have, specifically theoretical physicists, Lawrence Krauss might add, as he is one himself. One of my favourite science popularisers, he marvels at the fact that scribbled notes can spring out from the page and express a real working of nature.

I related my thought experiment as my ‘Eureka!’ moment to a group of high school students during a science talk at the Mae Jemison Science Reading Room, an American Space, in 2014. It fell under one of the three sections, ‘Asking the right questions’. The others were ‘Credulity is not impossibility’ and ‘Advice in high school’. I wanted to get the message across to the students that curiosity is almost everything in science, and that it matters to ask questions in the first and know how to ask them. It is a life-long journey, one I am certainly not near concluding.

Ever since I was a child I was fascinated by nature. My favourite book in the Childcraft Encyclopaedia set was the third volume, About Animals. A close second was The Universe. In the former, I was dazzled by the colour and variety of animals. In the latter, my mind was blown by the sheer sizes and distances. Reading those books was like reading an edition of the Guinness Book of World Records: at some point you are so awed you can no longer fathom the amazing facts; your brain breaks. I wrote the following paragraph describing my experience at a Soweto primary school where my co-workers and I revamped the library and donated books.

I am honoured to have participated in reinvigorating the library at Shukumani Primary School. I hope those books will do for them what the Goosebumps series and Harry Potter did for me: soften the landing on Planet Life, whether against the turbulence of gay bullying or witnessing my mother going through domestic abuse, and introduce me to other worlds beyond my imagination.

One of my other favourite book collections growing up was the Childcraft Encyclopaedia set, some of which books I spotted among the many others we sorted. In it I discovered the world of animals and the Universe, whereupon my love affair with nature began. The distances between and sizes of celestial objects, and the incredible variation in appearance and modes of survival in nature astounded me, and I have never lost my curiosity since.

Curiosity is the engine of agency and seat of hope. It is what you use to gain proper purchase on education, and it is the force that propels you out of a dusty, apathetic township in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, and into a room with a US president. Thank you for inviting me.

I cast my wide-eyed gaze beyond science as well. After ringing up my cousin, a candidate attorney, to riff off on a court case in the news, whether it’s the Constitutional Court ruling against the president or the Oscar Pistorius verdict, she often encourages me to study law. After I share my wonder of the Soviet Communist experiment and ask questions about different types of government, a co-worker of mine encouraged me to study politics. I thought I had figured out the secret to life during a heady few months earlier this year where I vacillated between absorbing the nuclear arms race and being amused by the US 2016 election coverage: be interested in enough things to keep you stimulated at all times.

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Me listening to US diplomat Nick von Mertens at the Es’kia Mphahlele Community Library in Pretoria in May 2016

The very same co-worker, and another, has derided me for always being shocked at the things I find on the Internet even though I am one of its religious residents. Though my face might not betray it, my capacity for wonder, I think, keeps me young at heart. The transcendent—the emotions that beauty in art and nature inspires in us all—seems to be the only element that gives colour to this ultimate means to an end we call life. It separates us from the animals and the machines, and I think those who have it are most alive.

Featured image by Tejas Nair (CC BY-SA 3.0) as posted on Wikipedia.

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