Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future by Helga Nowotny

Review by Elizabeth Quill

Translated by Mitch Cohen

Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future by Helga Nowotny

The only way is forward, so be bold, Nowotny tells those who fear the uncertainty of the future. Vice President of the European Research Council, Nowotny has researched and written extensively on the intersections of science, technology and society. In this meditation, she makes a reasoned argument for embracing scientific progress despite its sometimes unsettling consequences.

Nowotny’s mind moves quickly, meandering from point to point without returning to recap or summarize. She goes to great lengths to distinguish science from technology, and curiosity from innovation. She touches on barriers to creativity, the role of failure in discovery, science’s declining reputation and the need to communicate its progress.

Nowotny returns to curiosity again and again. “Curiosity, insatiable as it is, thereby drives us forward,” she writes. It seeks new paths, takes risks, subverts limits. “It poses questions that are not permitted, and unwise as it is, it presses for action even where it should draw back.”

With more success, there is more curiosity, but also more at stake, Nowotny argues. While biomedical advances have brought health, long life and new reproductive possibilities, such advances have also brought doubts about the definition of self and the value of life. But, she continues, humanity will always push on because “standing still is tantamount to falling back.” 

Ambivalence—uncertainty about which path to follow in any aspect of life—arises from a wealth not a lack of knowledge, she concludes, and ambivalence is also a cultural resource destined to promote progress.

MIT, 2008, 179 p., $30