The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves some of the greatest men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigators. What animates a great pathologist? Is it the desire to cure disease, to save life? Surely not, save perhaps as an afterthought. He is too intelligent, deep down in his soul, to see anything praiseworthy in such a desire. He knows by life-long observation that his discoveries will do quite as much harm as good, that a thousand scoundrels will profit to every honest man, that the folks who most deserve to be saved will probably be the last to be saved. No man of self-respect could devote himself to pathology on such terms. What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity–his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.
Scientists have one thing in common with children: curiosity. To be a good scientist you must have kept this trait of childhood, and perhaps it is not easy to retain just one trait. A scientist has to be curious like a child; perhaps one can understand that there are other childish features he hasn't grown out of.
Where did the primal seed of the big bang come from? How did life begin? How did monarch butterflies evolve the ability to navigate to their winter home? God did it, says the believer. I don't know, says the agnostic. The two statements have exactly the same explanatory value. Zero.
Why then opt for one rather than the other? The first provides an illusion of understanding, and reinforces the ancient belief in a personal divinity who attends to our individual lives. The second is a goad to curiosity, and leaves open the possibility of greater future understanding. Which path we pick may reflect an innate preference for security or risk.
All children are curious and I wonder by what process this trait becomes developed in some and suppressed in others. I suspect again that schools and colleges help in the suppression insofar as they meet curiosity by giving the answers, rather than by some method that leads from narrower questions to broader questions. It is hard to satisfy the curiosity of a child, and even harder to satisfy the curiosity of a scientist, and methods that meet curiosity with satisfaction are thus not apt to foster the development of the child into the scientist. I don't advocate turning all children into professional scientists, although I think there would be advantages if all adults retained something of the questioning attitude, if their curiosity were less easily satisfied by dogma, of whatever variety.
I like to remember the distinguished Swedish oceanographer, Otto Pettersson, who died a few years ago at the age of ninety-three, in full possession of his keen mental powers. His son has related in a recent book how intensely his father enjoyed every new experience, every new discovery concerning the world about him.
"He was an incurable romantic," the son wrote, "intensely in love with life and with the mysteries of the universe." When he realized he had not much longer to enjoy the earthly scene, Otto Pettersson said to his son: "What will sustain me in my last moments is an infinite curiosity as to what is to follow."
The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for such scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.