Why Do We Seek to Find Out More About the Universe?

Plunk, plunk, plunk.

As raindrops fell into my open palms, I curiously observed their forms while they broke apart and rejoined with their neighboring orbs. The observation immediately brought about a slew of questions: ­ What happens to raindrops when they fall, and how do they combine so easily with other droplets? What is their composition, and how are they created to begin with?

I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t asking questions about the world around me. Whether they were scientific in nature or purely philosophical, I’ve always examined my observations, trying to find out more about the hidden secrets that govern my external surroundings.

It’s fair to say that I’ve behaved this way since I was born — after all, infants are known for their prodding curiosity and tendency to taste and touch everything around them. Brought into a world filled with endless color and sensations, newborns naturally tend to utilize their senses to gain clues into their surroundings. Their innate curiosity drives them to explore their space in order to understand the rules that govern the world around them.

As we grow older and mature into adults, we become better acquainted with these laws, understanding that when we jump, we will always return to the ground, and that when we close our eyes, the world doesn’t disappear before us. As a result, it isn’t hard to see why scientists and thinkers of the past were puzzled by phenomena that broke these laws.

What the seafarers of the Age of Exploration discovered through their circumnavigation of the globe shattered expectations of a flat world, just as Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, opened outer space to human exploration. As the breadth of our scientific knowledge expands, we continually seek to learn more about the universe and the multitude of secrets that it holds just beyond our understanding.

Nonetheless, such curiosities provoke a profound inquiry: why are we so curious about our universe?

The way we view our world is shaped by the space we inhabit within it and the people and objects with which we interact. As French philosopher Jean­ Paul Sartre wrote in his famed play No Exit, “You are your life and nothing else.” Our understanding of the world is limited by the observations we are able to make over the course of our lives and the experiences we have had since birth.

Through years of human exploration, we have stretched and surpassed these innate boundaries, yet the answers to our questions are always seemingly at bay. The pragmatic explanation for our boundless curiosity is that exploration provides us a challenge. It forces us to contend with the limits of our knowledge, and to find new ways to overcome obstacles in order to progress in our work. While we may not always be successful, even small triumphs can bring about new technologies, insights, and understanding in fields such as medicine and space exploration.

In addition, discoveries about our universe’s past can bring about clues as to where we are headed in the future. According to NASA, studying the physical characteristics of asteroids within our solar system can reveal clues as to how to reduce the threat of future impact. Operations in translunar space can similarly uncover new ways to prevent the catastrophic effects of galactic cosmic radiation ­- one of the most threatening elements to humans exploring deep space. Even biological experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station can provide data on how our DNA reacts to a zero­-gravity environment, and how processes such as aging and reproduction can be manipulated in different physical settings.

For a different perspective, we can look towards our evolutionary past for a possible answer to the benefits of discovery and innovation. At the birth of humanity, when we lived as primal hunter-gatherers, forced to fend for ourselves against an unknown world, our sole means of survival was through trial and error — essentially, discovering the rules governing our universe on our own.

Our continuous contemplation may simply be a residual trait from this evolutionary necessity. After all, superior intelligence has enabled our species to overcome our physical limitations to essentially dominate the earth through technological advancements developed over millennia of curiosity and ingenuity. While finding a reason for our existence or a greater understanding of the laws of the universe may not immediately increase our chances of survival, they have led to groundbreaking technological achievements, which have in turn provided us with means of improving our standard of living on a global scale.

Even so, there is a stark distinction between applicable research and pure research. This can be seen best in the field of mathematics, where mathematicians are typically classified into two schools — those who perform applicable mathematical research, and those who operate in pure theory. Yet the near-equal personal satisfaction from the pursuit of either field demonstrates how our curiosity for theoretical matters is just as merited as our fascination for pragmatic ones. Our minds simply rely on stimulus, and once this need is met, the origin or purpose of the stimulus becomes less important than the stimulus itself.

Therein lies what may be the answer to our calling. Perhaps our curiosity exists simply because we are capable and willing to exhibit such curiosity in the first place. Such an assumption can certainly lead to the notion that we seek answers to satisfy our own curiosity, without regard to that of others. In that sense, we are indeed acting selfishly despite the potential positive consequences of our actions. What allows this concept to differ from that of pure egotism, however, is the fact that our curiosity also builds us individually, providing us a means of intellectual growth.

While it certainly is difficult to generalize this drive for exploration, it is possible that this aspect may have originated from a variety of circumstances, most importantly allowing us to seek challenges and stretch the limits of our curiosity and intellect. Perhaps we may not always be able to find a useful or justifiable cause for our constant inquiry, but the process of finding answers is enough to justify our constant drive to explore.

Looking back to my earliest explorations, I find truth in this belief. The musings of my past were conducted not out of desire for advancement in a field or even personal gain, but rather an urge to understand the unknown. By filling this void that we are unable to escape, perhaps we are developing our intelligence and allowing ourselves to continually evolve as our capacity to understand the world grows with every discovery we make. After all, in a universe far too vast for any individual to comprehend, the least we can do is celebrate every breakthrough within its bounds.

Sharon Lin is a senior at Stuyvesant High School and a self-proclaimed amateur philosopher. She practices Chan Buddhism and is often fascinated by interfaith discussion.