Tag Archive | "Benjamin Franklin"

The Curious Case of Curiosity

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“Curiosity killed the cat” is a time-honored proverb meant as a warning that, if you investigate things too often or too deeply, you could very well wind up in harm’s way.  One of the earliest forms of this adage dates back to William Shakespeare’s performance in Every Man in His Humor, a play written by Ben Johnson.  Shakespeare’s line was, “Helter skelter, hang sorrow. Care will kill a cat, uptails all, and a pox on the hangman!”   The Bard is also attributed with a similar quote via his 1599 play, Much Ado About Nothing:  “What, courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”

Through courage or just plain nosiness, curiosity is central to the human condition.  Inquisitiveness allows our minds to create new, critical thinking pathways as we seek the answers to the myriad things that keep us scratching our heads and striving for greatness.  Often, the search for answers is itself an adventure that takes us down new roads.   It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.”

If you don’t believe Emerson, think about life’s little mysteries that you have encountered and solved.  For instance, how many times has your boredom with the same old dinner menu prompted you to add new ingredients to a tried and true favorite to create a new recipe?  Do you remember how you approached a project for the school science fair when you were a child? Weren’t you excited to experiment until you produced something new, or at least, dramatic — like that flowing volcano concocted from liquid dishwashing soap, baking soda, and vinegar?  And how about that long-awaited first kiss?  Didn’t you ponder whether it would be a small, sweet surrender or just plain yucky, and didn’t your curiosity get the better of you?  Well, you kissed him or her, didn’t you?

Like that first kiss, the fear factor often dissipates once we move past the first layer of curiosity that reveals an answer, or at least, part of it.

There are times, admittedly, when a display of curiosity can be downright morbid, an ugly reflection of how the human psyche works.   When crowds gather around a person threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, something may trigger the masses to egg on the potential suicide.  Consider how often you have cussed the clog of traffic ahead of you, only to find that the drivers have slowed down to eyeball the gory results of a nasty highway accident.  And how many times have you slowed down to get a good look as you passed the aftermath of an accident that horrific?

Led in another direction, curiosity has proven to be a key factor in the evolution of man.  Envision, if you will, the wonder that cavemen felt when they were given fire by way of a bolt of lightning hitting a tree.  Then picture their despair when the original fire died out and they were left once again in a dark, cold, frightening world.  Curious as to how to create fire instead of waiting for nature to hand it to them, prehistoric tribes recreated the lightning-striking process, experimenting with different materials until they found that two rocks rubbed quickly together made sparks.

It was a long way from primitive Cro-Magnon Man to the quintessential Renaissance Man, but the road was paved with human curiosity and the advances born of that inquisitiveness.  By the time Leonardo da Vinci had entered the world, humanity had progressed to the point where it sought to glorify God and His handiworks through the arts, particularly in Renaissance Italy.  At the age of 14, young Leonardo was apprenticed as a painter.  He went on to craft works known far and wide centuries after his death, particularly The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.   Had da Vinci not been sidetracked by his burning curiosity, he may have finished a good many more works of art.

In addition to painting, he was also a sculptor, an inventor, an architect, an anatomist, a botanist, an engineer, and a geologist.  He did more in his lifetime than most of us can only dream about. His accomplishments included conceptualizing the designs for the world’s first helicopter, solar power tank, and calculator.  While these inventions were not completed during his lifetime, Leonardo left behind him many notebooks and drawings illustrating the fruits of his curious, creative mind.  To this day, his research and postulations astound modern science with their precision and inventiveness for a man who lived in the fifteenth century.  He did, however, devise an automated bobbin winder and a machine that tested the tensile strength of wire.

Da Vinci’s mind must have been on overload at times.  With all of the ideas zinging through his fertile brain, it must have comprised the fifteenth century equivalent of flipping through 300 TV channels and wanting to watch everything at once!  The great Leonardo da Vinci was succeeded by many other great historical thinkers, movers, and shakers. These included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Madam Curie, and Doctor Christiaan Barnard, whose sense of wonder and curiosity enabled them to bring into being major advances, from electricity to heart transplants.

Human beings are born curious; just watch a baby exploring its surroundings.  So what causes one person’s curiosity to hover in the range of normality and another’s, to expand light years beyond it?  Are highly creative people born with a special gene, or just willing to push the envelope of their curiosity?

Creative people allow their inquisitiveness to, in the words of Captain James T. Kirk, “Go where no man has gone before.”  Such individuals do not permit their minds to be hemmed in by prior knowledge or other people’s failures; they see the possible in what others have deemed impossible.   These are the people who seek new life forms at the bottom of our oceans and cures for diseases under the lenses of their microscopes; these are the people who gaze up at the night sky and wonder, “How can I travel to another star?”  These are the people who confront their fears and dream big because their minds will not rest, turning over and over with questions of things left unexplored.

Imagine the thrill and fear that the first astronauts must have faced to board a strange-looking craft and shoot through the sky toward unexplored space, not knowing what was out there or if they would be able to return home safely.  But if not for curiosity such as this, we would never have ventured forth beyond the openings in the caves that we first called “home.”  The human mind needs to be exercised and challenged; if not, it simply lies fallow, like an unplowed field.

I found Marie Curie’s take on this entire topic extremely interesting.  She’d advised, “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”  That is advice that we really should take to heart.  We get all caught up in celebrity gossip and forget that there are more important things in life.   If we can’t generate new thoughts on our own, the very least that we can do is support those whose curiosity compels them to create a better world in which to live.  As it has throughout the history of life on this planet, our future lies in the ability to create the greatness that we envision.

Therefore, we need to encourage our children, in particular, to be free thinkers.  Admittedly, this is a challenge in an age when the media is skewed completely in one direction and our school system and in fact, our lawmakers, give lip service to the beauty of Diversity even as it works to stamp out those important differences between us.  Who is to say what lies inside the mind of your curious children?  With the proper encouragement, perhaps you will raise the next great artist who will lift many hearts or a scientist who will provide us with the blueprint we need to save our environment. For as the American psychologist, Smiley Blanton, stated, “A sense of curiosity is nature’s original school of education.” 

A Penny for Your Thoughts

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How many times have you walked through a mall or a supermarket lot and spied a penny waiting to be picked up by a superstitious or thrifty individual?  Benjamin Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned” and rightly so, because those who turned up their noses at this noble coin did not understand its historic worth, or its potential monetary value.

Just as new religions incorporate some customs of existing faiths before giving the old ones the boot, so did we newly minted Americans, fresh from the War of Independence, embrace many elements of British culture.  The word “penny” has its roots in the British Empire; their coin of the realm, equal to that of the American cent, was termed “pence”.  The U.S. Treasury’s official name for the penny is “the cent piece”, equating to one one-hundredth of one dollar in monetary value.  The first cent, whose symbol is ¢, was minted in copper from 1793 through 1857, and has gone though many changes during since.

In 1909, on the obverse or “heads” side, the penny featured the profile of Abraham Lincoln in celebration of the centennial of his birth.  From 1959 throuigh 2008, the reverse (“tails”) side featured the Lincoln Memorial to honor the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.  In 2009, four different reverse designs were introduced to commemorate our 16th President’s 200th birthday, and in 2010, a permanent reverse design was created.

Why President Lincoln’s is the featured profile for this coin is somewhat of a mystery.  Maybe because he was thought of as a common man, he was portrayed on a common coin?   I really don’t know!

A little history of the coin’s composition follows:

YEAR                                       MATERIAL

1793 to 1857                             Copper

1857 to 1864                             89% Copper, 11% Nickel

1864 to 1942                             Bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and zinc)

1943                                         Zinc- coated Steel (AKA – the “steel penny”)

1944 to 1946                             Brass (95% copper, 5% zinc)

1946 to 1962                             Bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and zinc)

1962 to 1982                             Brass (95% copper, 5% zinc and titanium)

1982 to Present                          97.5% zinc core, 2.5% copper plating 

As you can see from this graph, the one-cent piece has changed with the price of copper and the need to use it during the war years.  The sole exception, in the early 1970’s, occurred when the price of copper rose to the point where it cost the government more than a penny per coin to stamp it.  The U.S. Mint tried other metals, including aluminum.  More than 1.5 million “tin foil” pennies were minted before being rejected for future pressings as the metal caused malfunctions with vending machines and harried doctors complained that they did not show up in the X-rays of inventive little tykes and bored college students.  One aluminum penny was donated to the Smithsonian Institute, to serve a part of an historic display.

Growing up during the Great Depression, I remember how a penny could buy two soft pretzels with mustard, two cigarettes with two matches, or a small ice cream cone served by a vendor.  Even the numbers runners took penny bets!  When my friends and I found a penny lying heads up, we chanted, “Penny, penny, bring me luck, for I’m the one who picked you up.”

I also remember this story about a guard who was employed in a factory in Camden, New Jersey.  He’d made a deal with the person assigned to collect the coins from the newspaper vending machine outside the plant.  In exchange for a single dollar bill, this guard was given all of the pennies in the machine.  This transaction occurred time and again for many years.  When the guard finally retired, he was in possession of more than 1,000,000 pennies all wrapped up for depositing into his bank account, which thus expanded it by $10,000.00!

The true value of the American cent, in accordance with the date stamped upon it, can be one of the hidden treasures that exist in our country today.  From the time of this coin’s inception, rare one-cent pieces can still be found in the attics, bureau drawers, cupboards, tin cans, and the piggy banks of our aged or deceased loved ones.  If you believe, as did Ben Franklin, that a penny saved is a penny earned, you may be the recipient of a rare and valuable find!

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