This is going to be a rather soft question, I am not completely sure it is appropriate for this place. But still.

In your opinion, how important is the presence of strong curiosity (passion for research) in a researcher for him/her to become very successful in science? Here I mean really big success (like getting top awards and/or reshaping a research area significantly) and really in science (not including management achievements, or high numbers of supervised successful PhDs or things alike).

There are many people doing research who consider (or start to consider after a while) their research-related activity as "just a job" like, say, an engineering or a carpenter one, just with a different range of required activities. So these people are not driven by a strong feeling of curiosity. Sometimes they are very hardworking and get a lot of important results, but I am not sure they get to the top (in fact, I just do not have enough data to judge).

So a second part of my question (and partly a clarification of the first one) is: do you know

  1. examples of people who got to the top and did not have curiosity?
  2. examples of people who are very curious, stay in research for a long time, but did not get to the top? (better if such person is somewhat known so that his/her biography could be found)
  • 7
    I think this is unanswerable: is there a single example of a research-active person (at a "top" or not) that openly admits of having no curiosity? Such an admission is not likely to be beneficial to the individual making it.
    – Boris Bukh
    Sep 25, 2015 at 23:37
  • It might be clear from a person's biography, for example.
    – demitau
    Sep 25, 2015 at 23:40
  • @BorisBukh people may not admit it publicly, but could admit it personally. Alternatively if you work with someone closely you can usually tell if this person is curious about what they are working on.
    – Bitwise
    Sep 26, 2015 at 2:36
  • @Bitwise: Sure, but then it’s, well, personal. Do you really expect anybody here to answer: “I happen to closely know Nobel laureate X, and he once admitted that he does not care about acquiring knowledge, but is only in it for the fame, money and groupies.”
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 26, 2015 at 8:54
  • @Wrzlprmft I do, but I don't expect people to give names. Still I don't see why people feel it is wrong to do science for the challenge or competition rather than for the knowledge.
    – Bitwise
    Sep 26, 2015 at 17:29

2 Answers 2


I am not 100% sure I understand exactly what you mean by curiosity, but I will answer assuming you mean someone who wants to figure out how something works just because they find it interesting and intriguing.

I do not think that such curiosity is required for being a top award-winning scientist.

In fact I personally know both kinds of scientists that you mention: I know very successful scientists whose main driving factors are not curiosity, bot other things such as strong competitiveness or desire for fame. I don't think there is something wrong with this - people do science for different reasons.

Examples of the other way around are even easier to find: you can be super-curious but lazy or unable to communicate your ideas - and you will get nowhere. There are several important factors you need to be a top award-winning scientist - curiosity is just one (and not absolutely essential for some).

  • Sure, what I meant I difficult to formalize, I hoped that those who want to comment will use their understanding, as you did. Concerning the other way round: surely one can find lazy curious people but I don't know anyone of those who did research for a long time (this requirement was a part of the question).
    – demitau
    Sep 26, 2015 at 12:25
  • The last paragraph is actually insulting. Not caring about fame or competition is not the same being lazy or uncommunicative.
    – JeffE
    Sep 26, 2015 at 16:17
  • @demitau I didn't see the requirement you mention, but I think my answer still holds (though lazy may be too strong of a word). I tried to clarify - the point is that there are many things you need to get to the top and curiosity is just one.
    – Bitwise
    Sep 26, 2015 at 17:22
  • @JeffE I think you misunderstood - the two paragraphs are unrelated. OP asked if there are examples of top scientists that are not very curious - and I answered yes. Separately, OP asked if there are examples of scientists that are very curious but do not become top scientists - again I answered yes because there are many different factors that are required.
    – Bitwise
    Sep 26, 2015 at 17:25

A non-answer: curiosity is not the same as "passion for research", if the latter refers to the contemporary commodified version of "research". Exactly as in the question, some clever people see that their "diddlings" could get funding from some funding agency, and "go for it", without really sincerely caring about the issue they pretend to address. Srsly.

"Academe" is a sort of game that is in fact not so wildly different from "business", although its conceits and minor dynamics are different. The major dynamics are self-confidence, ... and bluffing, up to a point. "Bluster", for sure.

I do think that the individuals who bluff-and-bluster in academe are sometimes less sociopathic than "business people", if, or when, they stay well back from wrecking the pension plans of millions of people. Faint praise, yes.

More directly, I have observed that many people find that their naive, early-life perceptions of any given thing was naive... Special case: academe.

Pro-tip [sic], lotta people who know what they're doing are "not noisy"... that is, do not violently broadcast nonsense.

I do also seriously think that the question is not "can one be a success in academe without buying into the myth of endless curiosity" (which is the best possible myth), but "will I be able to pay a modest mortgage and have health insurance for my family...?" This is a tougher question, and depends on local social politics.

Fairy tale: once upon a time, I thought I'd just live till I keeled over at the blackboard... but then there were kids, aging parents, aging spouses, kids-again, ...

"Wait, what was the question?" :)

  • Indeed this is not an answer. I don't understand what makes you put mortages in the context of curiosity. I have observed people who changed their mind about their early-life perceptions many times.
    – demitau
    Sep 26, 2015 at 0:29

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