Oct 13, 2011

What do scientists mean when they write that something is "interesting"?

As a descriptor of an experiment or theory, interesting resides more or less comfortably between beautiful and strange.
Interest falls off as novelty fades. We get bored with that simple melody. Even our teenage children eventually (albeit too slowly for us) move on to the next hit.
 “Understand me if you can” . . . [the phenomenon in question calls].
[A]n interesting thing is new and unusual, but not so new that one cannot describe it.
[S]cientific interest springs from stimuli that are novel but understandable.  
[I]nterest derives from an “evaluation of an event’s novelty-complexity” and its “comprehensibility.”
The late Daniel Berlyne, who was a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, singled out novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict as the qualities appraised in a judgment of interest.
That expectant interest is different from the feeling of mental arousal spurred by the atypical. Also different is a kind of interest that borders on obsessive. It happens to all of us.
The interest that puts us on the path to discovery is something else. It breaks a spell and feeds on mental arousal.
I think that the exciting kind of interest is intimately connected to the beginning of understanding, and it is in this way that the psychological intertwines with the epistemological.
But I believe that, for the most part, the judgment (“now this is interesting”) is made in solitude, or perhaps in the setting of a small research group.
Faced with a puzzle, and excited by it, I do try to understand the anomaly before me. My failure to find a ready explanation, and my feeling that the phenomenon is nonetheless understandable—these are both motivating psychological actions. In time, if I am fortunate, my thinking brings me to an explanation that makes sense not only to me, but to the community of chemists. I wouldn’t have gotten there without thinking, “That molecule is really interesting.”
The whole article is really good. It is written by a chemist but its main insights apply also to the social sciences, or they should. (HT @bookbench).

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