The Art of Asking Questions

Playing with plasma and spectral glasses. Physics is fun!

Playing with plasma and spectral glasses. Physics is fun!

My daughter and I attended Jim Lenz’s Science Show at the public library. Mr. Lenz grabbed the children’s attention, allowed them to participate, laugh, shout out answers and get excited about what they were seeing.

And he asked them if they knew what science was.

None of them had a nice, short definition for science, and he defined science for them as “the art of asking questions.” As a scientist, I have been chewing on that definition for a little while. It’s a good definition, because that is what scientists do: we ask questions. But not just any questions. When a scientist wonders about something, the questions eventually get asked in a way that a prediction can be made (a hypothesis), and the hypothesis can be tested in a controlled manner. Asking the right question is, indeed, an art.

But even more important than asking the right question, is having a mind that is open and observant to the world around it. Many people have said that the greatest scientific discoveries are not marked by the exclamation “Eureka!” but rather by the puzzled expression, “Hmm, that’s funny…I wonder why…”

And that is, I think, the crux of science: the WHY. Scientists, like children, see something that just doesn’t quite make sense to them, and they ask “why?” Continue reading


IMG_0205Spring has sprung and with it so have the bubble wands. My daughter even put a jar of bubble juice and some bubble wands in her bike basket and toured around the neighborhood sharing her love of bubbles with her friends. Bubbles are indeed magical, and since the earliest age she has enjoyed chasing bubbles around the yard, catching them in the bathtub, and making giant bubbles using a homemade wand and homebrew bubble juice. And I have enjoyed having an excuse to play with bubbles myself.

At the Discovery Center in Rockford, our favorite exhibits are the giant bubble and the bubble window.

When you stop and think about it, bubbles are fascinating. Why do they form perfect spheres and not cubes or some other shape? How do they form the fascinating multicolored films that you see? Why can you only “catch” bubbles when your hands are wet and soapy?

It turns out there is a lot of science in those shimmering orbs that we chase around our yards on summer evenings. Continue reading

For the Girl with Rocks in Her Head

Finds for two rock hounds.

Finds for two rock hounds.

When I was a little girl, my big brother gave me a beautiful book about rocks, minerals and gemstones. He inscribed the inside of the book: “For the girl with rocks in her head.”

At that time I had a large rock collection. When I was growing up, we lived along a dirt road. The road cut on each side was deep, and almost anywhere you looked along the road you could find outcroppings of quartz or rose quartz. I was constantly bringing home new rocks—beautiful ones, shiny ones, rocks that had neat shapes. I even had my own rock tumbler, which leaked out all over the living room carpet and generated an interesting response from my mom to my “scientific” pursuits.

Apparently the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Our daughter has been captivated by a particular issue of National Geographic Kids magazine that featured gemstones. This has led to her adding a rock collection to her collection of precious pinecones. We have read the gemstone article in that magazine repeatedly.

For one of our day trips during Spring Break, we decided to explore Cave of the Mounds National Landmark. We took the tour through the cave and received many cave kisses along the way (water drips on our head from above)—we saw fossils, interesting cave formations, and underground rivers and ponds. Then we bought a bag of sand and stones and rinsed it in the sluice to see what gems we could recover. We found amethyst, pyrite, quartz, rose quartz and many other delights. After that we learned how to use a ratchet and cracked open a geode to reveal the crystals inside. We hiked the trails and saw some of the first flowers of spring, talked to one of the gardeners, and in general had an amazing time exploring and discovering all about the world around us.

I was reminded of a trip with my parents to a cave in Tennessee that had an underground lake—I have a vague recollection of lights on the lake and a boat trip on the underground lake.

The staff at Cave of the Mounds was terrific, spending time with the guests, doing a great job answering questions and helping people explore and learn. We have an amazing treasure in our backyard, and I highly recommend visiting.

Even on Easter my daughter was collecting pinecones and looking at rocks while on her Easter egg hunt—I think it’s wonderful that the natural world holds this kind of pull over candy for her.

I’m so glad that she has rocks in her head.

© 2014 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

Spring Time Renewal

This little fellow visited our pear tree a couple of weeks ago.

This little fellow visited our pear tree a couple of weeks ago.

Several weeks ago my daughter and I set out one evening. As we were about to get into the car, I stopped. “Sshh. Look.” I said.


“In the pear tree,” I pointed.

“Wow Mom—the first robin of spring.”

Earlier that morning we had spotted three red-winged black birds in the top of some trees (they are, and probably always will be, my favorites). Then in the evening a robin. Continue reading


Alfa_Romeo from Hot Who wouldn't want to make this car go.

Alfa_Romeo from Hot Who wouldn’t want to make this car go.

This weekend I pulled ten dollars out of my daughter’s piggy bank and told her we could go to the store where she could shop for something for herself. We walked up and down toy aisles repeatedly in search of the ten dollar miracle. My daughter quickly learned that ten dollars doesn’t go very far, and that if you want something special, you will need to save for it. However, saving wasn’t on the agenda, because the money was burning a hole in her pocket.

So she finally chose a 97-cent Hot Wheels car and a nine-dollar starter track. I had really expected something Monster High- or possibly Barbie-related, but she went for the Hot Wheels, and I am so glad. Because for the rest of the afternoon she spent her time sprawled out on the living room floor configuring and reconfiguring her track. Continue reading

Of Bakeries and Books

2014-03-15_13-31-01_967When I was a little girl, about 5 or 6 years old, my daddy had a machine shop in the Old Atlantic Ice House in Decatur, GA. Decatur is the city that didn’t become Atlanta because the rail yards weren’t located there, and because of that managed to hang on to its small town charm for a very long time. The Ice House was a decrepit old building of many floors (I remember 17, but I think that is a child’s memory), built like a stack of blocks with each floor getting progressively smaller as you ascended. Only once did I ever climb to the little bitty block at the top.

Mostly I played with the box collection that my daddy kept for me in the front offices, or I balanced on long pieces of steel I-beam that were laying on the floor waiting to become a frame for some new project. Occasionally I rooted around in the back, finding such treasures as old, rusted out horse shoes—which I still have. Continue reading