Thursday: Mario Livio: “Why? What Makes Us Curious”

July 13

The astrophysicist Mario Livio is brilliant and readable and has earned his science-popularization stripes, so there is no reason not to go meet him. His new book “Why?” is a series of case studies, profiles of really smart people talking about their curiosity. Among them: the astrophysicist Richard Feynman and Queen guitarist Brian May—also an accomplished astrophysicist. OK, curious: Why are astrophysicists celebrated as polymath explainers-of-all-things? Livio has written books on art history and design, philosophy and error, among others. He’s a TED talker and, like Feynman, Steve Hsu, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (and Albert Einstein, in his day), is considered a spokesman for sweet reason itself. Want to know about morality? Listen to an astrophysicist. Brain science? Epistemology? Well, actually, astrophysics can’t address it, but this astrophysicist is clever and jokey and super down-to-earth; check him out! It’s an enduring puzzle. Livio says there is a compelling case for the beginning of cooking as the turning-point in human brain development and the explosion of curiosity it engendered. A fun theory to fidget-spin, as recent experiments (by biologists—who ever heard of them?) have linked the state of the gut biome to an animal’s ability to learn new things. So, from cooking we get to new gut bugs to explosion in human brain capacity to (eventually) astrophysics. Livio notes that curiosity would have been a prerequisite for cooking though, so who knows? But curiosity is the antidote to despotism! “Whether by religious orthodoxy or oppressive rulers, guardians of the status quo have historically discouraged curiosity to keep their subjects inferior in knowledge,” he writes. OK, but then what killed Schrodinger’s cat? 7 p.m., The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road, (410) 377-2966,, free. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

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