In February I was introduced to a man, a successful man by any standard, a man called Rupert (and naturally by “introduced,” I mean I heard him talk about himself on Radiolab for three minutes). Rupert is your average 71-year-old podcast guest, probably, except for one thing: He has gone almost his entire life knowing nothing about science. I mean it. I mean it as someone who failed earth science once and biology twice. (I never got around to failing chemistry but I’m confident I could, if given the opportunity.) Rupert could not fail science, because he never took a science class — and in my unscientific opinion, it may have been the best thing to ever happen to him.
Rupert is accomplished in his field: He spent time as a journalist and editor for the Economist, then as the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor; he’s published several books on economics. But until last year, Rupert had never heard of the periodic table. He didn’t know he was a mammal until his wife — a scientist, I shit you not — told him so. (“I thought she was [calling me ‘mammal’] as a term of abuse,” he recalls, jovially.) Rupert narrates his scientific discoveries like a kid with a card trick. Here’s something you’ve never seen before!, except most of us have — but have we, though? Have I?
What struck me about Rupert’s story was not that his Zimbabwean boarding school rewarded the “clever” kids with classes in Greek instead of science, and it’s not the irony that his wife probably knows more about the subject than two handfuls of average adults. It’s that, after studying science for the first time at 71 and realizing his affinity for it, Rupert doesn’t sit there crafting narratives about all the things he could’ve done with his life had he known sooner; he doesn’t bemoan the time wasted. He’s just happy to know now.
And of course, the time wasn’t wasted; he just spent it doing other things. Who knows who he would’ve become if he hadn’t? Another path might have produced a man with the inclination to simply stick to what he knows: the sort of man who, in his formative years, fashions an identity and constructs a lifestyle and proceeds to spend his mature years a prisoner to both. To exhibit curiosity — to try new…