Several times today, I asked my wife and kids random question. I am training my curiosity, you see. What is the nutritional value of cabbage? Can swans eat crisp bread? Do spiders eat the minuscule insects we brought in with the christmas tree? How do you say “My hoovercraft is full of eels” in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian? Who is you best friend in kindergarten? How many minutes should these potatoes boil? Do you remember what we did last summer? How can I make you forgot my puny gifts this christmas? (The last one for my wife who, to top it off, has her birthday on the 26th. She didn’t get much that day either.)
I was curiosity personified. But when I got the answers (the answer to the last question was more or less equivalent to “Never”), I was at a loss. Spiders won’t eat the minuscule insects on the tree, or so we suppose, precisely because they are too small. But so what? What possible use could that have for me? Just one more random fact to clutter my brain? I might at most bring it up at christmas parties, “You know, aunt Turid, spiders won’t help you get rid of those bugs which you never knew existed anyway” — but why should she care? If she knows or doesn’t know, it doesn’t matter. My curiosity leads me to facts no-one gives the foggiest about. Perhaps curiosity isn’t a main virtue after all.
In one episode of QI, Alan Davies says more or less the same thing. Why should we know this, he says, or why should we learn this, or why does this matter. That made Stephen Fry irate. I can’t remember his exact words, but he defended curiosity and love of learning for its own sake, ending with the punchline about ending up as cab drivers if you don’t.
I can’t find the clip. But it doesn’t matter: based on my vague recollection of it, Stephen Fry most definitely is a hero. If I hadn’t tried to be curious, I wouldn’t have know the nutritional value of cabbage. If I hadn’t known that, I wouldn’t have had anything to respond to my brother-in-law when he mocked my eating a raw cabbage. If I wouldn’t have had anything to respond to him, he would have continued mocking me for days, perhaps even made it into a lasting nickname for me: the cabbage-eater.
You never know what kind of facts turn into something useful. Therefore, you remain curious and hoard facts.
And once you start hoarding, once you reach a certain level of knowledge in a given field, you realise how much satisfaction one can get from knowing stuff: knowledge is also its own reward.
Remain as curious as possible. Love of learning is a wonderful thing. If you stray from this path, you will feel Stephen Fry’s wrath.
OK, aunt Turid, prepare for a lecture next christmas.