Where did our sense of curiosity come from?

The pump of curiosity in I-M

My recent article for I-M on solar eclipses and the Fermi paradox is now available online.

As Daniel C Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, has observed, searching for explanations is a central feature of our species. Where does our sense of curiosity come from? As an exercise in fun speculation, I propose it could have been influenced by two rare-earth factors.

The (extremely tentative) idea is that solar eclipses may have acted as a ‘pump of curiosity’ for early humans.

We can safely say that eclipses are not rare in the universe. But the perfect solar eclipses we experience on earth, where the moon and sun combine in spectacular fashion every couple of centuries or so, may be exceptionally rare. Even if these eclipses are one among many factors that led to the development of curiosity, it means that a key human trait is partly a consequence of two things that are nothing more than coincidences: the ratio of the moon’s and the sun’s diameters is the same as the ratio of their distances, and the moon’s orbit is tilted.

I’m currently working on a paper about the pump of curiosity, which I’m hoping to present at the International Astronomical Union Symposium 367 later this year. As part of my research, I’m grateful to a number of people who have generously shared their knowledge and expertise with me, including Cecilia Lazzoni, who might have found our first exomoon; Tetsuro Matsuzawa, who studies chimpanzees and the evolutionary origins of human behaviour; and Jay Pasachoff, author of many fascinating papers and books on how eclipses and astronomy have inspired human culture.

Published by Graham Jones

Astrophysicist and language teacher