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Looking for answers? Ask the right questions

Looking for answers? Ask the right questions

by Coralie Young, Communications Manager at the British Science Association.

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It was French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss who once said “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.”

And he was right. Asking the right questions is the essence of good science. Insightful questions can challenge accepted models, and turn the way we think about a concept, on its head. Of course, you still need a curious, enquiring mind to come up with the right answers – but some of the most exciting science discoveries would never have happened, without that initial spark of inspiration from someone asking a really, really good question. The sort of question that makes everyone stop, and think ‘wow, that’s a really good point!’

One of my favourite examples must be the engineer Martin (Marty) Cooper. Born in 1928 in Chicago, USA, Marty worked for a number of communications companies, eventually finding himself leading a project for Motorola in the 1970s – where he was tasked with developing the next generation of car phones.

Something occurred to Marty, however – and he began to ask himself, and his team – why it was taken as fact, that when we want to call and talk to a person, we have to call a particular place. That question changed the way we think about personal communication.

In 1973, Motorola, with Marty’s help – became the first company to launch a mobile phone – and he is cited as being the first person in history to make a phone call on a mobile phone, from a public place.

But how do scientists set about asking these insightful, poignant questions? Part of the inspiration will often come as a result of realising that the old questions being asked are no longer working – or, as Cooper did, from standing at the very edge of scientific knowledge, and looking in to the potential for the future. It’s been proven time and time again, that accepted beliefs and conventions are changeable, in science. What we believe to be true now could easily be disproved in 100 years, 50 years, or tomorrow. The future of science depends on young people asking probing questions, and challenging accepted wisdom.

What if?

What if Newton hadn’t asked himself how the apple came to fall to Earth?

What if CERN weren’t asking what an absence of results could show – in their hunt for the Higgs Boson?

Questions are important. A huge part of what we at the British Science Association, want to do, is inspire young people to start thinking scientifically, and asking the right questions, from a young age. Take Fred Turner, as an example. Fred entered our National Science + Engineering Competition in 2012, when he was 17, and ended up being awarded the title of UK Young Engineer of the Year. He’d built a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine in his garage. PCR machines are used in hospitals and labs, as part of the genetic testing process, and typically cost thousands of pounds. Fred was inspired to build his own machine, at a fraction of the normal cost, after asking himself one, important question: 

"Why is my brother so ginger?"

Since his win, Fred has been named amongst the top 100 working scientists by the Science Council. Although Fred is obviously a gifted young man, who I’ve no doubt will go on to great things – there’s no doubt that without his natural inclination to question the world around him, he wouldn’t have been inspired to start his project. His continued ability to ask important questions – including how he could do genetic experiments when PCR technology was so expensive to buy – meant that he broke a complex problem down in to simple stages, and eventually reached an innovative solution. And that’s something that everyone can do – even if they’re new or inexperienced when it comes to science experiments. Einstein himself claimed “I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.”

Our programmes such as the National Science + Engineering Competition and CREST Awards, encourage exactly this kind of skill, giving young people the freedom to devise and carry out investigative science projects. The finals of the Competition are held every year at the Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, giving the competitors the chance to show off their projects to over 60,000 members of the public, and science specialist judges. Both schemes aim to give enough of a framework to provide a starting point, and help guide the process of creating an amazing project – whilst still giving the scope to be inquisitive, and question the world around them.

Our ‘Ask the Experts’ video illustrates some of the weird, wonderful questions that kids come up with – and the amazing answers we challenged our experts, such as Professor Robert Winston, to come up with. You can watch the video above or on the National Science + Engineering Competition YouTube channel.

Whether that’s “what happens when something reaches a black hole*”, or “why are nose bleeds much more common than eye bleeds?” – we saw that young people had an amazing array of questions they wanted to know the answer to.

We hope that from this, and our other programmes, kids will feel inspired to take on new challenges, and explore the unknown, by asking questions.

To quote Prof Brian Cox – “I think if you’re not comfortable with the unknown, then it’s difficult to be a scientist… I don’t need an answer. I don’t need answers to everything. I want to have answers to find.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, Brian.

*The gravitational pull acting on you, exerts more force on the part of your body closest to the black hole – stretching you out in a process that’s charmingly been dubbed ‘spaghettification’, in case you were wondering!

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