Why is it hotter in summer than in winter?

That was one of four science-ish questions that Jonathan Drori put to TED in February 2007. As it happens I knew the answer to that one and to the other three. Drori said that it was surprising how few people, including -- gasp -- MIT students, knew the answers to all four. People in the audience were suitably abashed at their own ignorance and surprised at the ignorance of smart students.

Drori, of course, knew the answers. But what he didn’t tell the TEDsters was why that matters. Aside from granting me a fleeting moment of self-satisfaction, what good does it do me, as a citizen, to know that you can indeed light a small lamp with a battery and a single wire? 1

I used to think that a better informed citizenry would make for a better society. Indeed, in my youth I expended considerable energy in attempting to give them the stuff they needed to inform themselves. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more and more cynical. Not only do most people not care, they don’t care that they don’t care. And as for informed political decision, forget it.

One of Drori’s subsequent questions that I couldn’t answer is germane. He asked whether we could explain what gives an airplane wing lift, and to be sure that our explanation would work to keep the airplane flying when upside down. I think I understand Bernoulli’s Principle and how that generates lift. And thinking about it, I guessed that maybe it was smaller control surfaces that keep the nose pointed “up”. But I wasn’t totally convinced. So I Googled around a bit, and came up with an explanation that makes great sense, and is probably true.2 It is all to do with angle of attack, nothing to do with a longer curve on the top of the wing.

Great. So now I have a better understanding of how a wing creates lift, thanks to Jonathan Drori. But does it make any difference to my willingness to fly in a plane? Not a bit. Would an incurious person have bothered to find out? Probably not.

Drori called his talk “Why we don't understand as much as we think we do”. I'd like to ask some supplementary questions.

  • Why does it matter that we don't understand as much as we think we do?
  • How do we nurture curiosity and a thirst to know and understand for its own sake?
  • Can we arrange matters to make learning, knowing and understanding actually rewarding rather than (at best) neutral or (more commonly) downright negative?

Answers on a postcard, please.

  1. Which I know because, as a child, I played with lamps and batteries and wires, unlike MIT students who, Drori implied, play only with computers and circuit diagrams. Certainly his point about shiny museum exhibits of brushed titanium teaching far less than a couple pieces of string and some sealing wax was well made.  

  2. You could do the same. Or you could go here, but you’ll probably need to start at the top of that page. See, I can’t help it. I have to help you try to understand.  

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