Read of the day: Philosophy: Good science requires cultivating doubt and finding pleasure in mystery.
Physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi grew up in an immigrant family in New York City in the early 20th century. When he came home from school his mother would not ask him what he learned that day, as his friends’ mothers did. She would ask him, “Did you ask any good questions today?” Apparently Rabi asked many good questions. In 1944, at age 46, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing nuclear magnetic resonance, a technique for probing the atomic nucleus that was later developed into the medical diagnostic technology known as MRI, magnetic resonance imaging.
Questions, not answers, are how science makes progress. Science may appear to serve up answers in its huge textbooks, volumes of encyclopedias, and now online resources. (Is there anything Wikipedia doesn’t know?) And it may seem a pretty impressive collection. But it also makes science appear as a scary, insurmountable mountain of facts, rather than the playground of inquiry it actually is.
Questions, on the other hand, go places, take you down new avenues, generate curiosity and inspiration. They are the critical ingredients to new experiments. Of course, answers are important, but too often they are treated as an end. Think about the word “conclusion.” It is an answer drawn from data, but it can denote the end of the process, of the story, of the adventure. It is at once a determination and a termination. We may hear about the conclusive results in this or that study, or the conclusions to be drawn from this work, but the last thing a scientist wants is a conclusion in the sense of, “there ain’t no more to do.” For all the talk about drawing conclusions in scientific studies, there is relatively little in science that is conclusive.”