The Question of Why

Philippe Petit Walks Over Jerusalem

NPR’s TED Radio Hour latest podcast was titled “To The Edge” where adventurers discussed, amongst other topics, why they did what they did. One wanted to escape the mundane life of a management consultant. Philippe Petit wanted it for the beauty. The most famous answer is the quintessential “because it is there.”

There are actually thousands of adventurers among us who make that aphorism their motto. They eat, drink, sleep at places we think cannot be the mark of a swashbuckler though, and scale great obstacles we cannot see. Those people are the researchers who teeter at the edge of human knowledge.

To do research is to literally step off the edge of what humanity knows, and try to expand that swath just a tiny bit so that someone can stand on where there use to be nothing. For most of them in science, they might see their work used by a doctor at some point, or become an intricate cog in the unifying proof of everything. Their goals might be similar to my own, in bettering the world to a visible extent.

On the other hand, those who toil in philosophy, history or language, I never can fully understand why do they do it? Maybe they do it simply for the beauty (though as a mathematician, I’m biased that mathematics is the most beautiful). The best reason reason that I have construed is simply “because it is there”; that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is innately useful.

And I find that beautiful too.