Tag Archive | "Thomas Edison"

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.” 

Your Happy Place

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Recently, I spotted an article listing the happiest States in which to live.  The article referred to States of the Union, not states of mind … although the two do seem inextricably intertwined.   Guess what?  According to that article, good old New Jersey was very close to the bottom of the list!

As you may have guessed, Florida and Hawaii headed the list of happiest places to live.  One of the reasons is no doubt the warm and mostly sunny weather. The Garden State, by contrast, attracts weather patterns that are largely unpredictable.  We’ve had winters with some 60-degree-plus days and as I write this, we’re gearing up for another dump by Mother Nature to the tune of 18 inches of snow … on top of the 8 we had in Central Jersey four days ago and the one that has left the poor residents of Cape May without power for three full days!  One point in our favor is that we do experience all four of the seasons … something that friends of mine in San Francisco with their year-round 62 to 67 degree weather think they’re missing out on.  Me, I’ll take Frisco any day over this Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Jersey weather!

If you were not aware of this, Jersey’s state tree is the red oak, symbolic of the people who live here.  You have to be sturdy and strong enough to survive in the State with the densest population and the highest property taxes.

Back to that so-called happy place (please).  Another requisite to being happy, as per that oh so savvy article, is having a comfortable and affordable home.   Well, Jersey loses again in that quarter, as our housing costs are extremely high!  It used to be the American dream to own one’s home, but for some of us, that dream’s become a nightmare.

Here’s hoping that our new Governor Christie can make a difference and clean up some of the mess with the property taxes … and why am I now humming the old Who tune whose ending goes, “Meet the new boss: same as the old boss”? I must say, though, that I was a little stunned when our new Governor only threw a pizza party to celebrate his inauguration.  The pizza in this State is, at the risk of making a horrible pun, from hunger!  If pizza makes you happy, New York is the crown king, and I don’t mean upstate New York, either.  But hope springs eternal with Mr. Christie now at our helm.  Maybe he can shake some of the rats out of State government, the ones that have been poisoning it for decades.

For sure, he can do nothing about the horrendous traffic.  The roads are so ridiculous here normally, that when it snows heavily, exits on major and secondary roads are closed and you are left to wander aimlessly, like the Lord’s people in the desert before He took mercy upon them.   Even owning a car here can be quite costly, since the Garden State has some of the highest insurance rates in the nation.  On the plus side, while we’re wandering aimlessly looking for an exit within shouting distance of our destinations, we’ll never go hungry or run out of gas.  How can we?  Strip mall after strip mall after strip mall adorns our highways and byways.

As an antidote to the bland mediocrity of strip malls, Jersey boasts more than 600 roadside diners, some of which have even survived the Great Depression.  They include the White Rose, the White Diamond, the White Tower, and the White Manna.  I can’t understand the propensity for all of this white, unless the names do homage to the white bread on which sandwiches before my time were invariably made.

The diners began as abandoned trolleys, electric streetcars, and railroad dining cars that were refurbished and transported to busy neighborhoods.  You know the old saying about diners, don’t you?  “A diner is a place where you can always get a good breakfast and never get a great dinner.”   Many diners serve the hungry masses 24 hours a day with cheap and hearty American fare, such as hamburgers with Jersey tomatoes, freedom fries, and fresh Jersey eggs for breakfast.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have enjoyed the BLT’s at the Summit Diner in Summit, but maybe it was the key lime pies that called him down to the Florida Keys.

Traversing the Jersey Turnpike can be a little lesson in history.  The names of the rest areas recall famous New Jerseyans or Americans who have made noted contributions to our citizenry.  The names include:

  • Thomas Edison, the innovative inventor who needs no further introduction,
  • Clara Barton, the teacher who instituted the State’s first free school and later was instrumental in founding The Red Cross,
  • John Fenwick, who established the first Quaker settlement,
  • Richard Stockton, one of the men who’d signed our Declaration of Independence,
  • Alexander Hamilton, a noted military figure who fought in the strategic Battle of Trenton,
  • Woodrow Wilson, our 28th President, who received his education at Princeton University,
  • Grover Cleveland, who served as our 22nd and 24th President,
  • Molly Pitcher, the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth, who followed her husband into that battle to give water to the thirsty soldiers, and
  • The literary contingent encompassing but not limited to the great poets Walt Whitman and Joyce Kilmer, as well as James Fennimore Cooper, one of the authors of the “Leather Stocking Tales” genre of early American literature. 

To this list we can add William Halsey, who was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and was often referred to as “The Bull,” a moniker he picked up during WW II for his zest in fighting the Japanese.  Last but not least, we cannot fail to mention Vince Lombardi, who played football at St. Francis Preparatory School and later at St. Cecilia, a Catholic high school in Englewood.  Vince grew up to be a great football coach who led Jersey’s own Giants as well as the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins.

Lest you think all is rosy in the Garden State, nay!  We have our share of gangs in the urban areas as well as our own Devil, for whom our hockey team is named, and the reason why people keep looking over their shoulders in the Pine Barrens.  We are the fifth smallest state in the Union blessed with, at the risk of repeating myself, the largest population! Our geography is diverse, although much of it is swamp, and you can see this for yourself as you break the speed limit flying down the Garden State Parkway from Little Egg Harbor to all points south.  On more solid turf, our Kittatinny Mountains comprise the largest mountain range on the East Coast.  Along the Atlantic shore, there are miles and miles of resorts, while our farm land is shrinking (sorry, but Rutgers U’s educational farms on Cook Campus don’t count).  We are in close enough proximity to make a quick visit to New York or Pennsylvania, and I’d pick the Big Apple if I’d had my druthers.  I’m not sure how many of you know this, but Jersey’s topography was carved out by the Wisconsin Glacier 150,000 years ago.

Back to finding that so-called happy place in which to reside.  As you may have guessed, solid employment is a major consideration and in this respect, Jersey falls short of the mark.  We used to be a buzzing hub of manufacturing, particularly pharmaceuticals, but the second-world nations have taken over much of our manufacturing, thanks to the greed on all fronts.  Although jobs are still scarce, Lennox china has been made here since 1889 and has a discount retail outlet in Cranbury.  Maxwell House coffee got its start in Jersey, and the Campbell’s soup company originated in Camden.  UMDNJ is still our principal teaching hospital, and it remains engaged in the research of innovative medical treatments.  Bell Labs, now Alcatel, has headquarters in Murray Hill, Union, and Holmdel. 

This state also has lots of agriculture with its tomatoes, cranberries, peaches, Winesap apples, Jersey sweet corn, string beans, blueberries, pumpkins, strawberries, spinach, squash, asparagus, and melons.  Points just north of West Cape May boast at least six vineyards, because the climate and soil mimic that of Sicily, where some of the world’s tastiest wines are made.

Although we are a pretty small State and not, perhaps, the happiest place to live, it still has lots of exciting milestones:

  • The first radio signal was transmitted in Princeton in 1840
  • The first baseball game was played in Hoboken in 1846
  • The first Boardwalk was built in Atlantic City in 1847
  • Thomas Edison created the first phonograph in 1887
  • In 1921, the First Miss America Pageant was held in Atlantic City
  • In 1931, the George Washington Bridge opened
  • During 1941 to 1945, Fort Dix processed 1 million draftees for WWII
  • In 1951, the New Jersey Turnpike opened
  • The Meadowlands opened in 1976 as a sports/entertainment complex
  • Casino gambling was legalized and began attracting high and low rollers alike, in 1978
  • Christine Todd Whitman was the first woman to be elected Governor (1993)
  • The New Jersey Devils captured the 1995 NHLS Stanley Cup

Jersey has its faults, but many of us who reside here love it, a happenstance that puts me in mind of a quote of Abraham Lincoln’s.  It’s an interesting take on the state and States of our happiness:

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

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