Thursday, November 11, 2010

Science is...Childlike Questions

Heather, my wonderful sister and exemplar scientific thinker, has told me a story of discussing with her her grad school advisor about what good science is. He said that good science is good questions.

Good questions are...
  • Focused - neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • Valuable- after having answered the question will our lives be any more enriched? If not, scrap it.
  • Answerable - will you actually be able to answer the question?
  • Insightful - I view getting a bachelors in biology as studying for years to ask one really good graduate school thesis question. All that study for one question. It takes alot of knowledge to ask good questions.
  • Narrow in asking, broad in implication - Heather also spoke of her sage of an advisor stating that a good question is one that may be small, but answers a larger question. For example, a researcher doesn't study planaria reproduction because they want to only know more about planaria. They want to use that knowledge to know something about the whole tree of life, like how species evolve. One doesn't study aphids, one studies a branch in the ecological web as a whole. One doesn't study whale digestion, but how animals convert chemical energy into biological energy. Et cetera.
By implication, science is being curious. It's wanting to know how the world around you works, why it works and what we can do with that knowledge.  

It's wide eyed wonder about the truly ineffably amazing state of the universe around us.  It's mystery.  It's intrigue. It's the excitement of discovery. It's adventure.

Science is being unsettled. Unsettled by not knowing 'why', 'how'. It's not being okay with standard myths, theories, explanations.

Science is being hungry for answers. It's insatiability.

Science is argument. It's caring enough about reality to debate, to confront, to challenge.

Science is holding reality in reverence above all else - popular opinion, dogma, authority, tradition.

That's difficult business, though. Easier said than done. Life is distracting.  
How can we keep ourselves curious? Vested in the nature of reality?  

By staying childlike.
How do children think?
  • With New Eyes - Everyone remembers their first kiss. There is something impactful about doing something for the first time. Children experience that all the time. You've heard it many times (so much so that its lost its impact, haha, how ironic) that familiarity breeds contempt. The opposite can be just as true, new eyes breed wonder. How can you get new eyes again? One way is to study widely. I've learned the most about English by studying other languages. I've only realized my Americanness by traveling to China. Read fringe thinkers. Learn about other fields of inquiry. You may be surprised at the insights you'll gain.
  • Tabla Rasa - kids don't come with baggage. They have no expectations, no preconceptions. They aren't going to look for something a certain way, they just look.
  • Relating It Back to Yourself - I've read Richard Dawkins talk about how personally kids can sometimes answer science questions like, why are flowers pretty? "So I can enjoy them!" the child might respond. While that in and of itself isn't the most model scientific thinking, it does show how that kids naturally have a way of making it about themselves. That can be a good thing. It can be a powerful motivator. If we could empower that same young thinker's mind with knowledge she/he might say something more along the lines of, "Flowers are beautiful to attract insects to carry their pollen to reproduce and I can't help but enjoy how incredibly ingenious, creative, beautiful that mutualistic symbiosis is!!!"  Studying biology for me has been an unbelievable journey of self discovery. Every fossil I read about, every biological mechanism and processy I learn about tells me something about myself by teaching me how I work, where I came from or about the processes that made me. It's personal. And, that is powerfully motivating to keep learning.
  • They Get Dirty - Kids love gross. Why don't adults? Kids love mud. Why don't adults? Kids want to explore more than they want to be proper, to experience more than stay presentable, to satiate their curiosity over their desire to be accepted, adventure over safety. Bottom line, get dirty! You just might remember how good the cool embrace of mud can feel again!!

  • Kids Take Time to Do Absolutely Nothing - You should, too. Remember having summer off? Think about when you have your best thoughts: while driving, while showering, while running, while meditating, while praying, while quiet, while relaxed, while letting your thoughts wander, meander, explore - unguided, unimposed, borderless, unfettered, natural, freeflow thoughts and inquiries. Figure out a way to maximize your time doing those activities. Nothing may be the most important thing you do all day.
  • Kids Keep Asking and Asking and Asking... - I recently went to a presentation on butterflies. The local expert blew me away by how much he knew about species identification, diet, range, migration patterns, ecology, population threats, how to start a butterfly garden, etc. His knowledge was truly prodigious. I was taken aback by how easily he was stumped by the simplest of questions, though: why do butterfly wings have scales? I mean, the most obvious part of a butterfly is its wings and the most obvious part of their wings are the colored scales. So, why hadn't he thought of it? Well, I should be so hard on him. His interests were elsewhere. But, I did learn something that day from that question. Sometimes the best camouflage is obviousness. The most obvious place to look is often the last. One of the keys to exposing these cloaked blatants is to keep pushing the questions. Force yourself to question.  Don’t let it stop at the surface.  Keeping on pushing it and asking ‘why’ one more time and then one more time and then one more time...

This is my life's message. One of the major things that I want my life to represent right now is that it’s okay to question, to change your mind, to go a different direction, change your path. No, no, scratch that. It's essential to question. Questioning is a holy, sacred activity, integral to truly living, truly experiencing, truly seeing. We must not tell reality what she is, only listen by questioning.

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