Citizen Science Musings: The Art of the Perpetual Question

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By Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.

One of our cats is a scientist. Explanations follow.

Sophia contemplates her next experiment in falling bodies. Photo by Denise Greaves.

About three years ago we rescued two tiny kittens, a boy and a girl between two and three weeks old from a situation where they would almost certainly have starved to death without intervention. After a couple of months of bottle feedings every two to three hours, it was clear to our relief that Sophia and Demosthenes would survive. As they’ve grown up, their respective personalities manifested themselves. Both are very affectionate, very good-natured, very gentle--no doubt due to being handled and fed by humans from such a young age. They also have each their measure of mischief. One of Sophie’s favorite activities was knocking things off shelves and watching them plummet. Fortunately previous cats weeded out the breakables from among the knick-knacks on the shelves, so no harm was really done.

But then we noticed a change in her behavior. She started being much more deliberate, almost clinical about her interest in the falling bodies problem. A few months ago I visited the Kennecott open pit copper mine. The one memento I brought back aside from some pictures was a piece of what I assume is the low-grade ore they mine there.  It sits atop a small bookshelf next to my desk.  From time to time, Sophie will jump up on the bookcase and sit next to the rock. Then she very slowly, very carefully starts to nudge it towards the edge. This isn’t a casual sweep of the paw to push it off, but a series of slight nudges that get more and more careful and deliberate the closer she gets to the balance point, with frequent inspections of all sides before the next nudge. I can almost see the wheels turning in her head as she does this, as if she is trying to find the point at which gravity has its way and the rock falls.

Questions and curiosity are innately part of us and, I would argue, other species. The ability to ask questions is a survival skill, one that is too often discouraged. One of my favorite stories about the value of cultivating the perpetual question comes from this quote by Isidor Isaac Rabi:

“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to.  Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, "So?  Did you learn anything today?"  But not my mother.  "Izzy," she would say, "did you ask a good question today?"  That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist.”

We are born with the burning desire to ask questions. Just ask the parent of any four year-old. The sad thing is that they seem to take a positive delight in asking about everything under the sun, and soon their questions, if answered honestly, extend beyond the ability of the adult to answer or the mind of the child to comprehend. Questions become inconvenient or even impolite, and the needs of social integration supersede our natural curiosity.

But it need not stay this way. Years ago, someone taught me that injecting a stream of questions into the everyday mind has positive effects in developing a scientist’s instinct both for good questions and good answers. It works something like this. As you go about your day, don’t just let your eye pass over things. Look for things that invite questions: “Why was that built or designed the way it is?” “How does that trait of an animal make it better able to survive?” “Why is that person behaving the way they are?” As you continue to do this, you will discover that sometimes answers just kind of pop up out of nowhere, or sometimes minutes or even hours after the fact. Once I got myself to the point where I did this more or less automatically, I discovered that it had a profound effect on my thinking. Asking questions is fairly easy. Asking good questions, and recognizing good answers, takes practice.  One thing I’ve learned is that as you do this, answers (not always correct, but answers all the same) come faster and better. You also discover that certain trains of logic and thinking can be applied beyond where you might expect.

This ongoing exercise is also a good confidence-booster, which I think is one of the larger barriers to people getting involved with science on their own. One discovers that you can figure out more than you thought was possible, and even if the answers don’t turn out to be totally correct, they are still good exercises for the mind.

I’ve tried to continue this habit, especially when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings. I’ve also had more than my share of questions I can’t answer. You will too. Don’t sweat it. Persistence pays off. Remember the wise words of Albert Einstein:

“As one grows older, one sees the impossibility of imposing your will on the chaos with brute force. But if you are patient, there may come that moment when, while eating an apple, the solution presents itself politely and says, ‘Here I am!’”

Hey, if a house cat can do it...

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