The Glory of Kings
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
This intriguing proverb came to mind recently during an encounter with some bright high school students who were on campus competing for significant academic scholarships. The particular topic of discussion was government funding of a space exploration project, and a significant portion of these bright, energetic future college students argued that exploring space was a poor use of government funds.
There are persuasive arguments to be made on every side of the issue, of course, and I’m not here to argue for one in particular. But I do want to consider here one argument put forward in that discussion: that activities that don’t have a clear near-term payoff are not worth spending money on. Or, perhaps more charitably, that any money that might be spent on research activities with no clear near-term payoff should instead be spent on something more practical, such as food for the hungry, infrastructure, paying down the debt, or materiel for a strong defense.
So, at the risk of getting distracted by the political particulars, this raises a question: Of what value is curiosity? And of what value are the pursuits curiosity motivates? An engineer and a wise steward would point out that the value is necessarily finite and, moreover, is surely not above all else (by the way, an engineer might describe this as “bounding the problem”). But curiosity is indeed on the list of real priorities for human persons -- whether or not it is government-funded.
But how high on the list of priorities? We live in a practical culture and in a practical age, so we might be inclined to argue for a high priority based on the potential payoff or “spinoffs” which we can’t foresee. This is a popular justification for basic scientific research. With regard to engineering, we might similarly argue that an engineer ought to cultivate curiosity, because it will result in better engineering solutions. And this is certainly true, and there are a multitude of illustrative examples. But is practical benefit the only justification for cultivating curiosity and expending resources to satisfy it? Proverbs 25:2 helps us here. It affirms that curiosity is simply glorious. Engineers invariably are curious -- that is part of why people who become engineers do so. So -- leaving aside public policy! – let us be curious because it is practical, but let us be curious even more so because it is glorious. Let us engage in the glory of kings.
Randal S. Schwindt, Ph.D., P.E.
Department of Engineering