S1E4 The Name

Okay, let’s talk about the name.

The defining of words can be tricky business. The swirl of associations I have with a word might be very different from the next person. You might have a particular conception of what the word “curiosity” means. So do I. The trick is getting my conception of the word to transfer to you, so that we might have the same understanding.

Curiosity is one of those words on which we think we have a firm grasp, and perhaps we do, but the definition of curiosity has always seemed to me rather elusive—like Peter Pan’s shadow—it’s always there but when you try to look at it directly, it hides. That’s where a manifold comes in handy, but we’ll get to that here in a bit.

Sometimes in attempting to define a word, it’s helpful to identify other words we associate with it, and for “curiosity” that word might be “wonder.” That’s wonder with an “o”, not wander with an “a,” by the way. When we wonder, we either do so because we have insufficient knowledge about a thing, or we understand the workings of a thing to such a degree, that we are left wondering at its brilliance and design.

For instance, we know quite a lot about how the human body works, yet still wonder at its magnificence. Or the universe, which we know some things about, but really very little. It seems more or less a mystery, which is another related word, mystery—a necessary ingredient that inspires or gives rise to wonder. Of course, we can also be “amazed” by something like the human body or the universe, a sort-of byproduct of wonder, but now we’ve strayed rather far from our original word “curiosity.” Perhaps curiosity is simply wonder-in-action.

What does seem to be sure is that we greatly value the trait. Everyone from Einstein, who said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious,” to Samual Johnson, the great British lexicographer, who said, “Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”

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Either way, we see it as a desirable trait, and quite often we associate it with children. In fact, we envy a child’s ability to be curious about the world they don’t yet fully know, or at least know in the particular that way adults do. We lament our lost innocence while over-romanticizing their naivety. Of course, in reality, if adults drifted about with the curiosity of a five-year-old, I’m afraid not much would get done.

Despite this, a curious mind that wonders at the world is appealing. The world’s wisdom traditions are full of thought-provoking perspectives about how we should pay more attention to the world in which we live instead of spending time regretting the past and fretting over the future.

To be present is to be curious. While things seem to stay largely the same from day to day, the emperor philosopher Marcus Aurelius reminds us that existence is like a river that constantly flows past us and is, in many ways, far more mysterious, more curious, more formless than we give it credit—which is where a manifold comes into play.

While we might disagree about some specifics related to the word curiosity, people aren’t unfamiliar with the word or the concepts that surround it. Manifold, on the other hand, does not enjoy the same luxury. If you do happen to be acquainted with the word, it’s likely from it being used as a way to indicate “many” or “various.” For instance, you might say, “The amount of podcasts my friend listens to are manifold.”

There is also a mathematical usage of the word that goes something like this: “A manifold is a topological space that locally resembles Euclidean space near each point.”

I have no idea what that means.

My familiarity with the word comes from the days when I had very little money and in order to keep my vehicle running, I became a mechanic out of necessity. I used to own a 1970 Dodge Dart. It seems kind of comical now all these years later, but the car created more stories of woe and suffering than one could imagine. Something was always wrong with it, which might have had more to do with the fact that when I owned it, the car was 30 years past its manufacture date, than anything else.

I was not entirely lost, however. My dad had some knowledge of cars. When I say this, he and a friend once rebuilt the transmission of a 56 Chevy Bel Air. I don’t really know what that means, just like the Euclidean space thing, but it sounds very impressive. All to say, by the time I was in my mid-20s, slugging through college in a very non-traditional fashion, thanks to my dad, I knew my way around a car and a toolbox. Also helpful was that the 1970 Dodge Dart was so easy to work on—I got to the point where I could replace the starter in about five minutes, which indicates to some degree how many times I had to replace the starter, and alternator, and pretty much everything else.

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During one of the Dart’s many episodes, I noticed it was losing acceleration power. I checked some guides and early-days internet resources, and believed it to be something related to the carburetor/exhaust system. I fortunately lived in a town that was large enough to have all the things you wanted, but small enough that there were local garages where the mechanic would soon as shoot the breeze with you as opposed to fix cars. After explaining my particular problem, I was advised to replace the exhaust manifold.

An exhaust manifold is a fashioned piece of iron with many tubes that takes, as you might imagine, the emissions created by the car engine and directs it towards the exhaust pipe. In other words, it takes something as formless as exhaust, and helps give it shape and direction. Without the exhaust manifold, who knows where all that exhaust would end up?

Our existence is not too unlike exhaust from a car engine. It’s cloudy, a little smelly, and hard to make sense of sometimes. To solve this problem, we have throughout the centuries, done our best to give form to existence by way of institutions like government, economic systems, religion, education, and cultural norms. These institutions have served us very well throughout the centuries, but the very nature of them does kind of sap a certain amount of curiosity out of life. When everything is so structured, what’s left to wonder about?

In a way, curiosity and manifold are two sides of the same coin. Both are necessary to a life meaningfully lived. Without the manifold, curiosity has no form and existence becomes lost in abstraction—without curiosity, the manifold too forcefully imposes its structure on our lives. We need a balance between the two, and so that’s what I hope you draw from this and future episodes, a bit of wonder about the world in which we live and some structure with which to keep ourselves grounded.

Curiosity Manifold

A podcast where we attempt to notice easily overlooked aspects of human experience.

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