Somewhere in George Johnson’s excellent scientific biography, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics, there’s this poignant line about Gell-Mann’s son Nick
He had absorbed so much just from basking in his father’s curiosity.
The sentence came floating back into my mind, some time back, as I sat listening* to music. It’s poignant, because Nick had, for long, been estranged from his father and because Gell-Mann’s was no ordinary curiosity. Johnson writes, in the prologue
He had long been interested in almost everything – classical history, archeology, linguistics, wildlife ecology, ornithology, numismatics, French and Chinese cuisine…
And in the epilogue
Jerry Lyons…told me that after a few hours of listening to Murray’s seamless disquisitions on every subject under the sun, he almost expected the world to come with annotations attached. Life seemed emptier when Murray left and the narrative suddenly ended.
I experienced a rush of excitement and enthusiasm as I reread those lines; memories of the first time I read the book and of those heady days when I first became truly passionate about my interests came flooding back. Simultaneously, a train of thought that had lain dormant for a long time was rekindled. Being as unquenchably curious as Gell-Mann himself, but possessed of neither his magic memory nor his extraordinary mind, I’ve often wondered if there is any limit to how curious one can be. Maybe there is not, but should we put limits on our curiosity so as to draw the most out of it while still making effective use of the limited resources (time, energy, memory et cetera) at our disposal? My personal belief is that one need not be a Murray Gell-Mann to be infinitely curious about infinitely many things and still get away with it. However, I also believe that it is truly inspiring to bask in the curiosity of all those extraordinary people who annotate the world with their insights. Without them the world would be an emptier place and the narrative of life uninteresting. The world does not come with annotations attached, but it comes with annotators and that is truly inspiring!