Writer’s Desk: Stay Curious About Everything

There are writers—some, but certainly not all—whose eyes will glaze over at the mere mention of topics like “science.” (See also: “401K,” “Retirement Planning,” “Job Security,” and “Deadlines” for other unpopular topics.) But stay with me with for this.

A couple weeks back, the great George Will turned away from deftly skewering members of his former party for bowing and scraping before the president and turned to the topic of curiosity. In “America is Sacrificing the Future,” Will talks about a 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner with the glorious title “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Will approvingly highlights Flexner’s thesis, which is that many of the greatest inventions sprang not from diligent and targeted effort, but rather the application of discoveries made in the process of research for research’s sake.

Will uses Flexner to buttress his central argument that the administration’s push to cut general research budgets is a phenomenally short-sighted endeavor, not uncommon in these STEM-obsessed times: “America is eating its seed corn.”

But the point goes beyond that. Per Will:

It has been said that the great moments in science occur not when a scientist exclaims ‘Eureka!’ but when he or she murmurs ‘That’s strange.’ Flexner thought the most fertile discoveries come from scientists ‘driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.’

Writing is not that different. Of course, when working on that novel about the blind detective from Johannesburg, you better make sure you figure out a few things first (what’s Afrikaans for “You’re under arrest”?).

But writers, like scientists, should never stop following the urge to satisfy their often random-seeming curiosities. You never know what you might come across.

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