Helpful answers require good questions

Tuesday , June 19, 2018 - 12:00 AM1 comment

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Guest Columnist

Scientists ask questions. It’s what we do. It’s a hallmark of the scientific method.

I’m sure you remember those worksheets from junior high on the Scientific Method. Some had five steps, others eight, but the one I recall had four: 1) make an observation that describes a problem, 2) create a hypothesis, 3) test the hypothesis, and 4) draw conclusions and refine the hypothesis.

That’s great on paper, but hardly ever happens. Scientific exploration usually starts with a question. But then what? Do you make an observation? Do you perform a calculation to answer your question? Do you Google it to make sure someone hasn’t already found the answer? Once you decide to chase it down, you might perform an experiment with no idea what is going to happen. Or you could have a very good idea of what you think is going to happen, but hope to be wrong. Sometimes your question leads you on exciting and possibly deadly expeditions to far off places.

My friend Karen once wondered how cold must microbes be before they stopped moving. She set out to the Arctic, first by ice breaker and then by sledge, to sample sea ice. She sat in a cold room, covered in a hooded parka, looking at slabs of ice under a microscope, while she slowly lowered the temperature. As she wiped the frosty lenses amidst the plumes of her breath, she took video through the microscope, looking for telltale signs of motion. She eventually had her answer: microbes stop moving at about 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

A while back, a team of scientists wondered what the surface of Pluto looked like. So they planned an extraordinary mission to the farthest reaches of space to find out. Now we have high-resolution images of one of the most remarkable objects in our solar system.

Whether it’s an Arctic expedition or the culmination of 50 years of robotic exploration, answering a question can require a veritable army of scientists, technicians and other support. Often those providing essential skills, such as welding, carpentry, food service, logistics and just about everything else, outnumber the scientists 20 to one. A large team can number in the thousands. We spend billions of dollars on space missions, every penny going to pay for someone’s expertise, money they take home to help raise a family and stimulate their local economy.

But the questions? Those can be asked by a single person. And only in asking the questions can we get answers.

June 21 is the summer solstice, and it doesn’t take much to verify that from then on, days get shorter. To time the interval between sunup and sundown, take images with your phone each morning and evening as the sun rises and sets. If you compare these, you’ll find the length of the day corresponds to the sun’s motion. With a little thinking, you can work out the reason for these changes. You know the explanation from grade school: Earth orbits the Sun, and the tilt of the axis causes the days to shorten as we progress toward winter.

Proving that’s true requires taking the measurement repeatedly, everywhere on the planet, and comparing the results over time. It’s something we’ve now done for thousands of years. Every factoid you read on the internet, every number tabulated in a textbook, represents countless lives of humans who went about finding the answers.

All because someone asked a question.

But I wonder, who asks these questions? Technology is usually an answer to a pressing problem, but technology is based on a scientific understanding of processes and materials in nature, and we never know what knowledge we are going to need. So who chooses what questions to ask, and which ones get answered?

Scientists pursue what’s called “fundamental research” to try to answer as many questions in as many directions as we can. But that only works if we can engage everyone in asking questions. We need people from all walks of life, looking at the world from many perspectives to ask the questions that interest them and help explore the full extent of the universe around us. Even if you don’t have to time to find the answer yourself, asking the question can lead others to a discovery.

I’ve been asked to write a regular column on the local impact of scientific exploration, but I can’t do that if I don’t know what questions to ask. Have a question about science? Let me know. You can contact me at jcarmstrong@weber.edu, and I’ll explore the answer.

John Armstrong, Ph.D., is an associate professor of physics at Weber State University.

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