How the Curiosity Project Works


John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications, is the man behind the Curiosity Project.
John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications, is the man behind the Curiosity Project.
Experius

If you're an average teenager or adult, you may have woken up some morning within the last week and remembered one of the dreams you had while you slept the night before. Maybe you were being chased by a shadowy person whose face you couldn't quite see or dreamed that you were flying. Or perhaps you had a tea party with a small bear, a large rabbit and a rambling man in a top hat who prattled at length about arcane information he said you would need at work tomorrow.

When you wake up from a particularly weird dream, it's reasonable to ask, "What did that mean?" Our dreams can haunt or enlighten, terrify or uplift us. It's difficult not to pick them apart in an attempt to cull their deeper meaning to us. However, if you've ever wondered not just why you had a particular dream, but why you dream at all, you're well on your way to becoming a devotee of the Curiosity Project.

In January 2011, Discovery Channel will launch its most ambitious effort to date. That's really saying something, considering the groundbreaking scope of the "Planet Earth" series and the new "Life" series. In The Curiosity Project, Discovery Channel is pushing the boundaries of the limitations of television, the Internet and real life by combining them to create an interactive experience that leaves no stone unturned or no corner unexplored. For 60 Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. over five years, The Curiosity Project will seek to answer the great questions of life, including "Why do we dream?"

Because of the sweeping nature of the series -- one episode explores why we go to war while another delves into what makes water unique -- it comes as little surprise that the mind behind the series and at its helm is John Hendricks, the man who created Discovery Channel itself.

The Origin of the Curiosity Project

John Hendricks' questions as a child about the moon planted the seeds of his lifelong curiosity and eventually led to The Curiosity Project.
John Hendricks' questions as a child about the moon planted the seeds of his lifelong curiosity and eventually led to The Curiosity Project.
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

In a way, The Curiosity Project has been in the pipeline since the 1950s. Back in 1957, a young John Hendricks came upon a book he says that kicked the whole thing off.

"I do what I do because of this lifelong curiosity," says Hendricks. "I stumbled upon a Golden Book in 1957 when I was 5 years old about a trip to the moon, and I became totally obsessed with the question of whether humans could go to the moon."

Hendricks credits that book for planting the seeds of his love of learning new things for the sole sake of learning them -- the very definition of curiosity. Those seeds -- how did the moon get there, how do we get to the moon, will we ever live on the moon, will the moon always be around? -- largely form the framework of The Curiosity Project. It exists because there are unanswered questions out there.

This, too, is the basis of curiosity. Appropriately, science can't fully explain what's called trait curiosity, the lifelong desire to learn about a number of new things or dedicate oneself to a deep understanding of a narrow topic [source: Lowenstein]. In many cases, there's no immediate benefit to the person seeking out this new information; a person who learns a foreign language may never travel to a country where it's spoken and a kid who learns to play the piano may never aspire to become professional concert pianist. Yet many of us still experience an urge to learn more, and all of us may benefit when someone embarks on a period of exploration.

"Curiosity is what drives our progress," Hendricks says. "It's so important but people don't know how to define it and science isn't sure how to approach it. Is it genetic? Does it come from outside stimuli or is it internally created? How does it work?"

In securing partnerships with experts in academia, Hendricks found that the inherent lack of understanding of the nature of curiosity kept coming up during meetings. As the issue was raised consistently at MIT, Yale and other institutions, it became clear that "What is curiosity?" warranted its own hour-long investigation.

"It will be one of the first episodes," says Hendricks.

When viewers tune into The Curiosity Project, they can rest assured their curiosity will be piqued.

The Curiosity Project on TV

Hendricks sees television and the quest to satiate curiosity as the perfect marriage.
Hendricks sees television and the quest to satiate curiosity as the perfect marriage.
Chris Stein/Getty Images

"We have to surprise the viewer," John Hendricks says of his plans for The Curiosity Project. "When they tune in we're going to have something right up front that challenges them or that they didn't know. So we'll draw them into a topic with something that's unexpected."

Not that the topics won't be able to draw viewers in on their own. In addition to "Why do we dream?" and "What is curiosity?" planned episodes cover everything from "How are memories stored and retrieved?" to "Can we live forever?" to "When did humans develop a sense of humor?" The topics that the episodes will fit into are equally broad: anthropology, robotics, bioethics, nanotechnology, gender and astronomy are among the 30 or so categories the series' producers plan to include.

"The series was envisioned to surround fundamental questions of life, intriguing questions that keep us up at night," says Hendricks.

Discovery Channel is pulling all the stops for production. Hendricks says that The Curiosity Project will be the most expensive endeavor for the network to date. Each episode will cost around $1 million to produce. That's about half of what Discovery Channel spent on its sweeping "Planet Earth" series, but that series ran for 11 episodes. The Curiosity Project will include 60 episodes over five years.

"It will be the biggest programming endeavor we've ever undertaken," says Hendricks. "Certainly it will be the most expensive. No one has ever undertaken something this big in the documentary film space."

Each Sunday during the season, Curiosity Project viewers will explore topics in depth through expert interviews, a combination of high-quality footage and cutting-edge graphics and a rotating set of hosts.

Hendricks sees the application of television to the quest to satiate curiosity as a perfect marriage. "We're genetically wired to love a story; it's how we pass information on from one generation to another. And then the other powerful thing is curiosity. The Curiosity Project is taking advantage of our natural love of curiosity and our natural love of stories."

What makes The Curiosity Project a project rather than simply a series is how pervasive it will be. The project extends far beyond the confines of the television.

The Curiosity Project Online and in Life

Hendricks' retreat company, Experius, offers Curiosity Retreats in beautiful Gateway Canyons, Colo.
Hendricks' retreat company, Experius, offers Curiosity Retreats in beautiful Gateway Canyons, Colo.
Experius

The hour-long format afforded by television programming allows a show's producers to give viewers an in-depth look at a topic or present a detailed story. The scope of the burning questions posed in The Curiosity Project proved to be too large to be constrained entirely by television, however. The series has broken out of the box, so to speak, and will also live on the Internet and in real-life activities -- in addition to the hour-long shows each Sunday.

In fact, the show is actually intended in part to drive viewers online -- and into life. This makes The Curiosity Project unique, as most shows go the other direction, using the Web to drive viewership to its television programming.

The answers to the enormous questions investigated by The Curiosity Project are incredibly expansive in scope -- there isn't a cut-and-dried answer to the question, "What is reality?" for example. Hendricks saw the Internet as a natural place to plumb the questions even more deeply.

"The great strength of the Internet is that you can take the key line of inquiry and go to the depth that you want to go with it," Hendricks says. "You can really follow your curiosity of the moment. There have been so many times I've searched the Internet and ended up following it to places I've never imagined."

Online viewers whose curiosities have been set to overdrive by the hour-long program can find in-depth video interviews with experts, short segments from the show, articles related to episodes and blogs from writers dedicated to picking episode questions completely apart. The Curiosity Project will draw upon Discovery Channel's existing Web sites to continue the conversation. So viewers can visit Discovery Channel sites, like DiscoveryChannel.com, ScienceChannel.com and HowStuffWorks.com for a deeper understanding.

In addition to explorations online and on television, The Curiosity Project will also encompass real life as well. The project is also naturally geared toward serving as a teaching aid, and kids will have the opportunity to explore the questions posed in their classrooms. For adults, Hendricks' retreat company, Experius, will offer intelligent retreats in in Gateway, Colo., located in the red rock canyon region of the state, and around the world. Participants will be treated to twice-daily lectures in addition to other retreat fare like horseback riding and rafting.

The connection between television and actual life experience created by The Curiosity Project represents the culmination of years of thought for John Hendricks. "It's added another dimension to my career," he says. "More and more over the last decade, I've been exploring ways to better connect people with their world."

For more information on The Curiosity Project, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Discovery Channel. "Curiosity: the questions of life." Accessed March 5, 2010.
  • Discovery Channel. "The Curiosity Project series overview." Accessed March 5, 2010.
  • Hendricks, John. Personal interview. February 16, 2010.
  • Lowenstein, George. "The psychology of curiosity: a review and interpretation." Psychological Bulletin. 1994.http://sds.hss.cmu.edu/media/pdfs/loewenstein/PsychofCuriosity.pdf
  • University of California, Santa Cruz. "Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed March 5, 2010. http://psych.ucsc.edu/dreams/FAQ/index.html