08/07/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

Curiosity: The Driving Force of Exploration

If you haven't heard by now that the Mars rover Curiosity landed successfully on the surface of the red planet, you must have been hiding in a cave. Touch down early Monday morning followed one of the most breathtaking sets of maneuvers ever attempted. The fact that the rover is named "Curiosity" is no accident. This Mini Cooper-sized vehicle will attempt to answer the age-old question: Did Mars ever host life?

While I have no doubt that most people are extremely curious to know the answer to this potentially world-changing inquiry, I became curious about the concept of curiosity itself. What are people curious about in their everyday lives? I decided to conduct a small -- rather non-scientific -- poll among my scientist and administrative colleagues, by asking them what piques their curiosity most, outside of their professional interests. I added that I was asking about subjects on which they are spending time exploring through reading, conversations, watching TV programs, etc.

I found the results quite fascinating in that out of 16 people, no two named the same topic! Here is the eclectic list: One person is curious about "nature vs. nurture" as the main factor affecting human character and behavior. The only two topics that were somewhat related to this, although rather loosely, were: One person is curious about the process through which children learn. The other would like to know whether there are true differences in the operation of the brain between people who define themselves as "open-minded," and those one would call "rigid" in their views. Two people are curious about some aspects of sports (unrelated, they insisted, to the fact that the London Olympics are ongoing). One would like to know the true picture of doping in sports (and interestingly, also how that compares to the use of drugs by creative musicians), and the other is fascinated by the science behind sports. Two are curious about topics related to the Earth; one is interested in the geological history of the Earth, and the other in the largely unexplored world at the bottom of the ocean. Two subjects involved human history; one's curiosity is specifically focused on World War II, and the other's on how we got to where we are now, since the industrial revolution. Two topics had to do with environments and objects that surround us in our everyday life: one person is curious about everything that has to do with antiques, the other about the colors, shapes and textures that make up the ingredients of interior design. Each one of the remaining five colleagues has his or her own unique object of curiosity. One is fascinated by wines, another by data characterizing people's lives, such as how many hours they sleep, exercise, and so on. One wants to know everything there is to know about the operation of airlines, in particular, how they deal with the complexities of moving masses of people around. One's curiosity was piqued by the recent phenomenon of colony collapse disorder which caused entire colonies of honey bees to disappear. The last person I interviewed is interested in no less than the chronicle of achievements of prominent social activists. Isn't it amazing that the human mind has the capacity of being curious about such diverse things?

What are you curious about?