The distinction of human curiosity
Do you ever get tired of being human? You know – the daily grind, the insatiable desires, the complex relationships and all of that to end in dust one day with absolute certainty. I guess we each deal with that kind of “cosmic depression” in our own way.
When the Nobel Laureate poet Pablo Neruda felt tired of being a man, he penned his exhaustion in a verse that when I read it, never fails to sink and float all of what I think makes me human, at the same time. Neruda always has power over me that way. But when Thomas Thwaites wanted a break from being human, he tried to be a goat for 3 days. Yes, you read right, he really did try to be a goat in terms of stance, diet, thoughts and even in terms of social life. That was the work that earned Thwaites the Ig Nobel for biology this year.
Thwaites is a self-confessed “speculative designer”. He thinks of a curious question related to science and technology and then figures out for himself how to answer that question and then actually designs and builds the answer to his question. His famous previous project involved making a toaster from scratch, which was published into a book. The toaster project was not simply about Googling the parts of the toaster and then going to the hardware to buy the parts and assembling them. He wanted to make a toaster from scratch – not ready-made parts.
So he bought a toaster, took it apart, realized that there were about 400 parts made of 100 different materials. He could not do a pre-industrialization search for each of those because he only had 9 months to do the project. So he chose 5 main materials that he was going to fashion from scratch. Those parts were: nickel, steel, mica, copper and plastic.
Nickel was the easiest to source. He just melted some coins. For the steel, he actually went to an iron mine and pounded iron to make his own steel. For mica, a kind of mineral, Thwaites had to hammer away at a silica rock in Scotland to get some of it. For the copper, he had to look for water rich in sulphuric acid that leached through rocks , dissolving some minerals, including copper. Then he had to extract the copper from that liquid. Plastic proved the most problematic since he needed an actual lab if he had to make plastic from scratch, i.e., from crude oil. He just did a shortcut and melted some plastics he found in the garbage dump.
The result was like some kind of radio, after a nuclear meltdown. It had a basic toaster dimension with slots, with the whole thing covered all over with a gooey cloak, with a rod sticking out and of course, a plug which was also covered in the same oozing material. It took in current for about 5 seconds before it exploded. The blasted toaster is now in an art gallery.
For his experience being a goat, he had to design the prosthetics that will make him assume the position of a goat grazing on a mountain with other goats. To know how to do this, he had to spend some time at the Royal Veterinary College homing in on the anatomical differences between him and a goat. It was not about looking like a goat but feeling like one, so the prosthetics had to be designed so he can graze and run uphill and downhill.
For his diet, he did contemplate giving himself the bacteria that will help him digest the grass that he was going to eat because of course, he was going to also eat like a goat. But the risk was diarrhea – for the rest of his very curious life so he had to settle on eating a disgusting but he claims. “delicious” stew made from the grass he spat and cooked in a pressure cooker.
For his thoughts, he went to the extent that I could not have predicted. He approached an animal behavioralist who told him that so far, we know that goats do not have a “sophisticated” kind of language we do that are born from memories of the past which we also project on our future. And since neuroscientists know, more or less, where this happens and that magnetic stimulation has a weird temporary effect on our brains, he had that part of his brain zapped. This temporarily shut him up.
He even had in his words, a “platonic” relationship with a goat with whom he connected and who seemed to have helped him ease his way to the rest of the herd.
Science is filled with stories that start out with the most peculiar and extreme curiosities. Not rarely do they get laughed at, ridiculed and criticized for being way too “off” or even having too much time on their hands. But what I admire the most about Thwaites is his motivation. For the toaster project, he said in an interview on NPR was struck by a line in the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy that had its main character arrive in another part of the universe where he has to build stuff from scratch. Yet, with all the ingenuity modern Earthlings have come to reap from its history, the character could not make a toaster from scratch (just a sandwich!)!
For the goat-man project, he wanted, among other things, time-out from being the human whose very successful toaster project put him in a status that was quite difficult to top, as special projects like his go. Being a goat was “crazy” – so far off, that only human curiosity is capable of fleshing it out that far to see what it’s like to be something else other than this creature that historian Will Durant aptly called the “marauding biped”.
The range of achievements in human civilization, from the perceived millimeter crawls to “quantum” strides and everything in between all had one kind of fuel – curiosity. Curiosity “willed “Thwaites’ goat as it did the history of science. And lucky for us all, it still does. – Rappler.com