“Grandpa, I have a question.”
The early morning light is peeking through the windows in my parents’ living room. And since it’s a Sunday morning, the smell of waffles is also wafting through the air. I can hear the sizzle of bacon too. I love Sundays.
My grandfather settles into a rocking chair in the corner. I plop down on the carpeted floor. It’s the mid-1980s, so if you were around then, you can probably imagine what this room looks like. And if not, watch an episode of Stranger Things and then come right back here. I’ll wait.
“What’s on your mind, Michael?”
It's funny how much meaning can be found in the words we use. There are only two people who have ever called me Michael on a consistent basis: Both of my grandfathers. Everyone else calls me Mike.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about outer space. About how big it is.”
My grandfather leans back in the rocking chair and gives one of those warm smiles that is often found in those who have spent a great deal of time caring for others.
“Ah, I see,” he replies. “Well, you and I were talking about the space shuttle the other day. So, it sounds like you’ve been thinking about it a bit since then.”
He pauses and his eyes twinkle. “What’s your question?”
I wrap my arms around my knees and tuck them into my chest, resting my chin on top.
“Well, I was wondering…what would happen if you sent a spaceship all the way to the end of space? What would happen when it reached the end? What would the astronauts see when they get there?”
My grandfather nods sagely. “Yes, that is a great question, Michael. And I should point out that it would take a long, long time for astronauts to leave our solar system. And even longer to leave our galaxy.”
“How long would it take?” I ask.
He continues rocking. “Well, if I was an astronaut, and went on this trip when I was a little boy, both your mother, and then later you, would have been born during the voyage. In fact, you would likely be a great-great grandfather before the ship even made a fraction of the journey into deep space.”
It takes a few seconds for that to sink in. 8-year-olds haven’t experienced enough time to wrap their minds around concepts like centuries or light-years. So the comparison helps.
“That’s a long time,” I say.
“Agreed. But I want to return to your original question for a second. You asked what would happen when you reached the end of space.” He pauses rocking for a beat. “What makes you think there is an end to space?”
I think about this conversation a lot. Which is unusual for an exchange that occurred over 30 years ago. But it holds a lot of meaning for me, partly because it is one of my formative memories of my grandfather, who has since passed.
And also because it informs my understanding of curiosity.
Did you notice how my grandfather acknowledged my question, but did not answer it directly? How he used it as a chance to connect with a previous conversation we’d had, and then added context?
And notice the way he phrased his final question: “What makes you think there is an end to space?” He was asking me to explain my thoughts and assumptions, encouraging me to continue thinking deeper about my question.
In short, he was cultivating my curiosity.
I don’t remember the rest of our conversation that morning. The details get fuzzy, possibly lost in a plate of waffles and bacon. (As I said, I love Sundays.)
But I do remember, vividly, the picture in my brain of what the “end of space” looked like when I sat down to chat with my grandfather that morning. And how that picture changed after the conversation, and again when we studied space in junior high school.
My curiosity was piqued.
Later, when I went to college, I took an elective course that explored the Big Bang Theory, which further challenged my understanding of what the concepts of space and time even mean. And to this day, I still geek out when astrophysicists make a space-related discovery, such as an updated age of the universe, or the concept of a multiverse (if the term multiverse is unfamiliar to you, go watch some Marvel films and then come right back here).
Why Curiosity Matters
Where does curiosity come from? It is highly likely that everyone is curious about something. And some folks are curious about many things (maybe everything). If you want to learn more about what makes people curious, and how to feed that desire to learn, you can check out Curious: The Desire to Know and Why your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie. Here's a book club idea for it.
But just as important as how we cultivate it, I think it is important that we recognize why curiosity matters.
The spark of curiosity can alter career trajectories with questions like, “What’s next?”
It can transform products and industries with questions like, “What if?”
Heck, it can even change the world with questions like, “Why not?”