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?”

“Because” is not a good enough answer. If you ever have conversed with an inquisitive child, you might have had a conversation similar to this one:

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Because the air around the earth scatters the light from the sun like a prism, and the blue light gets scattered the most, so that’s what we see.”

“Why does blue light get scattered the most?”

“Because it travels as shorter waves than any of the other colors of the rainbow, and the gases in our atmosphere can scatter those short waves.”

“Why does it have a shorter wave? And what’s a wave? Like the ocean waves? And what gases? And why are there gases in the atmosphere? And what’s the atmosphere?”

And so goes the conversation, with every answer leading to another “why?” and several other questions until you realize that you don’t know why. Either you fess up to your ignorance or you give up and say “Look, it just is.”

The best scientists fess up and try to answer the “why?”

I fear the tendency of most adults (including this writer on occasion) is the latter, but we can learn so much about our world if we say, “I don’t know, let’s see if we can figure it out.”

You can get a Magic School Bus optics kit and learn something. At the very least, you can get a dictionary and look up the definition of “atmosphere.”

There are so many things to learn. You can figure out why we can’t see sound and why balloons make a loud noise when you pop them with a needle. You can learn why the plastic ware comes out wet from the dishwasher, when everything else is dry.

So I would modify Mr. Lenz’s definition of science: it’s the art of asking questions that lead to hypotheses you can test because you are constantly observing the world around you and asking “why”.

© 2014 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

One thought on “The Art of Asking Questions

  1. Michele this is a timely post as most children complain of being bored in summer, when all they have to do is get outdoors and explore and investigate.

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