There’s nothing like a natural phenomenon to stir up the old curiosity. Yesterday, New England experienced a more complete solar eclipse than, I believe, the year that I turned 12 (which was a long time ago!). This offered lots of opportunities to practice curiosity.
First, there was the search for details, mainly when. Then came the search for instructions on how to make a pinhole camera. Then there were the camera assembly and testing phases. Then there was the waiting. I had made a mental note that the start, at least in New York City–was at 1:23 p.m. and the peak at 2:44. Imagining that I would be able to see the moment the moon entered the sun’s light I was outside with my pinhole camera at about 1:20.
First hurdle: I couldn’t see any difference to the sun the first ten minutes or so and got impatient. Mainly, I thought my camera wasn’t working or my eyes weren’t sensitive enough and I was going to miss the whole thing. Finally, I thought I saw a difference. Then I knew I saw a difference. From then on, I was hooked. I didn’t watch without a break, but I did keep coming back to see the progress.
Some things I noticed:
- It got noticeably cooler as the eclipse progressed to its peak.
- The blue of the sky seemed less intense.
- The shadows seemed less distinct.
- The clouds, which had been moving at quite a pace, seemed to slow down.
- It got very quiet. The wind died. The birds and the insects stopped chirping.
Somehow I had expected the moon to go across the face of the sun horizontally and was surprised that it started at the top righthand corner and moved diagonally down. (That was one reason it took me a while to recognize that something was changing. I was looking in the wrong place.)
I had also thought that the moment the peak had been reached I would go for a walk with my dog. Instead I found the second half of the eclipse just as enthralling as the first half, and my poor dog had to wait.
All in all, it took two and half hours from start to finish (you cannot rush a celestial event). I consider that an afternoon very well spent.
I saw this puzzle (link below) on Facebook and was curious 😉 enough the check it out. It is an image that looks as if it is nothing but rectangles and the viewer is asked to count the circles. I didn’t see how there could be circles but I decided to try. I focused my concentration on circles and all of a sudden, quite briefly, I saw them. It made me think about how we can see something if we really try, but we have to be open enough to trying to see beyond the obvious to succeed at that. It was fun.
When I say that my curiosity practice today was searching for a building by concentrating on the side streets rather than the house numbers, you will probably think this is a very small thing indeed. I wasn’t planning to count this, but it did actually feel quite different. It also meant that I was looking at other things as I went along, like architecture, so I decided it was all right to count it.
One simple and painless way for me to practice curiosity is to read a new book, especially when that book is on a topic I know next to nothing about. In this case, I bought J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for travel reading and to try to understand more about life in the U.S.A. That is, I feel quite in touch with my little corner of New England, but it’s a biiiiig country. In some ways I found the book an easy read because it was simply so interesting, a detailed and personal look at a world I could not have imagined. In other ways it was a test. Parts of it are very painful to someone like me had a very sheltered early life. All part of the curiosity quest, though.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the book, it is J.D. Vance’s memoirs of growing up in the Rust Belt in what he himself calls a hillbilly family, surviving a mother who is a drug addict and serial monogamist (at the end of the book he is helping her through divorce #6), where family members typically take law enforcement into their own hands, and where, but for the enduring support of his grandparents and a few others, he could have been lost. Instead he is a Yale Law School graduate, happily married man, human to two dogs he loves, and a principal at a investment firm.
I’m sure you can imagine that curiosity is an essential point for a scientist, and Jane Goodall tells a lovely story about herself in her book Reason for Hope.
“One story has been told many times because it shows how, even as a four-year-old, I had the makings of a true naturalist. Vanne [Goodall’s mother] had taken me to stay with my father’s mother, Mrs. Nutt …, at the family farm. One of my tasks was to collect the hens’ eggs. As the days passed, I became more and more puzzled. Where on a chicken was there an opening big enough for an egg to come out? Apparently no one explained this properly, so I must have decided to find out for myself. I followed a hen into one of the little wooden henhouses—but of course, as I crawled after her she gave horrified squawks and hurriedly left. My young brain must have then worked out that I would have to be there first. So I crawled into another henhouse and waited, hoping a hen would come in to lay. And there I remained, crouched silently in one corner, concealed in some straw, waiting. At last a hen came in, scratched about in the straw, and settled herself on her makeshift nest just in front of me. I must have kept very still or she would have been disturbed. Presently the hen half stood and I saw a round white object gradually protruding from the feathers between her legs. Suddenly with a plop, the egg landed on the straw. With clucks of pleasure the hen shook her feathers, nudged the egg with her beak, and left.”
When Goodall came out of the henhouse it was almost dark and it turned out she had been in there for almost four hours (patient curiosity!). No one had known where she was and her family had already called the police. Nonetheless, Goodall reports, when she went running up to her mother filled with incredible excitement about what she had seen and learned, her mother did not scold her but rather sat down and listened. How to keep curiosity alive in one’s child!
It seems someone else expects curiosity to lead to a richer life. 🙂 (And doesn’t that picture of the cow make a great start to the week?)
A friend shared this image and quotation from Bronnie Ware with me soon after I started writing this blog. It is from Bronnie Ware’s Facebook page and was posted 23 September 2016.
If you are curious 😉 about Bronnie Ware, author of the bestselling The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, you might want to explore her website.
Clearly, one kind of curiosity is “What kind of ____ is that?” For all that I have trouble with some kinds of curiosity (stuff for another post) I don’t have much trouble with this one. For example, yesterday I saw a dead snake at the side of the road (actually my dog saw it first and drew my attention to it). I had never seen a snake like it before and immediately noted various characteristics so that I could look it up in our nature guide when I got home: gray, with brown stripes, about two and a half feet long, a narrow not triangular head, an unusually tapering tail, and a particularly shiny skin. Something about it gave me the impression that it was a constrictor, and I almost wondered if it was someone’s pet boa escaped and come to an untimely end.
I couldn’t find an exact match in the family Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, but I am fairly sure that what we saw was some kind of king snake. Since this, apparently, is also one of the most common kinds of snake in the USA that makes real sense.
This kind of curiosity always tugs at me. I indulge in it mainly when I am on vacation because it can take a fair amount of time and miss it when I can’t. I find it very satisfying to know something at the end of the day that I didn’t at the beginning and the older I get the more I am thrilled by what I experience in nature.