Curiosity may have killed the cat - but it can save us all

From combatting cholera to tackling coronavirus, history shows inquisitiveness is a vital trait to foster in students
13th March 2020, 12:05am
Curiosity May Have Killed The Cat – But It Can Save Us

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Curiosity may have killed the cat - but it can save us all

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/curiosity-may-have-killed-cat-it-can-save-us-all

In 1854, in the heart of London’s Soho slums, in the midst of the third global cholera pandemic, John Snow - a physician who had grown up in grinding 19th-century poverty - made a breakthrough that still leaves scientists in awe. Using a map with bars to represent cases, and no doubt a generous dose of curiosity, Snow traced the local source of the outbreak of the killer disease to the Broad Street water pump, which was promptly shut down.

In so doing, he not only saved thousands of lives but also defeated the voodoo theory that cholera was carried on “bad air” and made a giant step towards the foundation of the discipline of epidemiology.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, epidemiology - the study of the distribution, patterns and determinants of diseases - has now become a matter of public discourse following the spread of Covid-19 (better known as coronavirus).

What Snow achieved eventually led to a revolution in public health. But he wasn’t born to this life. The son of a labourer and the firstborn of nine children, he grew up in a house often flooded by the fetid River Ouse in York. And yet, in an era hardly known for social mobility, his intelligence and talent for maths shone through, and he secured an apprenticeship (yes, an apprenticeship) to a Newcastle surgeon. The rest, as they say, is history.

What is clear is that had Snow’s talent, and surely his curiosity, not been spotted and fostered, then the fight against cholera would have been set back years, with many thousands more casualties.

All of which brings us bang up to 2020, and the fascinating and frightening predicament in which the world finds itself. In all corners of the globe, many thousands of scientists, doctors and public health officials are using their every waking hour to battle the coronavirus outbreak.

It will be these scientists, their curiosity and their spirit of academic inquiry, not the politicians and their posturing, that will defeat Covid-19 - whether it’s in a couple of months or a couple of years.

But sadly, that will not be the end of the story. All the signs are that there will be more such epidemics as the world warms, populations explode, and globalisation allows diseases to spread faster than ever before.

And so there will be an increasingly urgent need for the education system to keep producing scientists, researchers and doctors to take their places on the frontline of the battle to contain, delay, research and mitigate these outbreaks.

They will, of course, need deep knowledge, but we must also depend on them to be profoundly curious if they are to root out these viruses before they take hold and shut down not just schools and communities but whole countries.

And so, we should be fascinated - possibly even relieved - to learn that there are teams of researchers around the world who are bringing their curiosity to bear on the very subject of curiosity: they are studying what it is, how it manifests and, yes, whether schools can do anything to foster it.

One such academic, Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind: the origins of curiosity in childhood, puts it like this: “Teachers … have to show how delightful it is to not know things and to find them out.

“One of the great things about curiosity is, if you see something crawling out under the rock, and you’re given a chance to go pick up the rock and look closely at whatever crawled out, it feels really good. It’s very satisfying.”

Whether schools can proactively teach such behaviour remains unproven, but I feel certain that Snow must have spent much of his youth picking up detritus on the banks of the Ouse and having a look underneath.

The world needs more stone-turners.

@Ed_Dorrell

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “Far from killing the cat, curiosity may be the thing that saves us all”

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