Posted on: December 2, 2020
When we last checked in, you were all about naming things. That’s going to continue throughout your class, of course, as you learn new systems and structures, but you’re now finally asking questions and getting answers. Hopefully, they are questions for which you can clearly see how someone might care about their answers: How do cells produce proteins? How far does the car travel before it stops after you’ve hit the brakes? How much energy is released when you burn that propane on the backyard grill? But the answers may not be what they seem. In fact, they may not even be true at all. Some of them are straight up lies. And your teacher is totally in on it.
But before we dive headlong into that answer conspiracy theory, let’s first talk about questions. Because questions are way more important than answers. Good scientists are good at finding answers to questions, but great scientists excel at asking new and interesting questions. One sad fact about high school science education is that it almost could not be more different from how science is actually done. In English class, you write — like writers do. In history class, you’re now likely answering document-based questions (the dreaded DBQs), which require you to analyze and contextualize multiple sources — like historians do. In math and science classes, though, you’re pretty much just memorizing facts, methods, and relationships. That’s not at all what scientists do. Scientists are curious. They aren’t afraid of not knowing an answer — that’s an opportunity to do some research and find a solution. The French philosopher Voltaire once advised us to judge a person by the quality of their questions and not of their answers, and that’s doubly true in science.
You used to be really good at this, by the way. All four year-olds are natural scientists. All they do is ask questions. And they do awesome experiments. They’ll knock something over and watch it fall. Then they’ll do it again. And again and again, until they understand what’s happening. That toddler has way more in common with a scientist than do most high school students, so do your best to preserve both the inquisitive nature and the dogged determination to find the answers that you had as a child. Because you’re no longer a child, you now have more avenues to pursue the answers you seek. You’ve got a teacher who you can — and should — push for answers to your questions. And you have the internet. You can find cool articles and videos about almost any scientific question you care to pose. So keep asking those questions and working to find the answers. That’s a much better preparation for a life in science than getting As in science class because you successfully memorized some terms and parroted a calculation.
And here’s one final thought on questions. Never start your questions with the word “why.” It’s almost an innate human tendency to do so, but science is actually quite poorly equipped to answer “why” questions. Science is much better at answering “what,” “how,” “when,” and “where.” If you want to know the “why” of something, find a philosopher or consult your personal spiritual advisor! Framing your questions without using “why” also makes them better questions, more connected to the experimental and hypothesis-testing foundation upon which science is built. For example, don’t ask, “Why do we need oxygen?”; ask, “How do our bodies use oxygen?” or “Where in our cells does the oxygen get used?” or “What ultimately happens to the oxygen that we breathe in?” Those are much better questions in that they’re more specific and answerable. When you ask questions like those, you’re getting closer to thinking like a scientist.
What about the answers you’re getting to your questions? As it turns out, they’re not exactly “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And that’s ok. Effective science instruction is all about crafting a series of less egregious lies for students to believe. What do I mean by that? Let’s look at a few examples:
You breathe harder when you exercise because you need more oxygen, right? Well, not really. How does your body “know” it needs oxygen? That’s an “Everybody not here raise your hand!” problem. Actually, you breathe harder when you exercise because your body builds up an excess of carbon dioxide that needs to be expelled. Does that make sense? Good. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Increasing carbon dioxide concentration resulting from a higher rate of cellular respiration is registered by conformational changes in chemoreceptors located in the aorta and carotid artery, causing a series of protein kinases to be activated resulting in a signaling cascade that releases neurotransmitters that cause an action potential in the glossopharyngeal nerve to be transmitted to your brainstem, which ultimately results in increased respiration rate, increased tidal volume, and production of more bicarbonate to buffer the blood and prevent acidosis. Got it?
Here’s an easy one from physics since biology gets so complicated so fast: A dropped ball falls to the ground. What causes that to happen? Well, gravity, of course! You might have recently learned that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s2, so you can even do things like calculate how long the ball takes to fall. Awesome. But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we? That number you learned truly applies only at sea level since the force of gravity between two objects (the ball and earth) is jointly proportional to the masses of the objects and inversely proportional to the square of their distance. And, oh, yeah, the ball also attracts the earth just as strongly as the earth attracts the ball! To understand how that gravitational force travels through space, you can turn to Einstein who theorized that particles with mass actually curve the spacetime around them, leading to the helpful metaphor of a ball rolling down a hill on a potential energy landscape. Even more current theories, however, posit the existence of massless particles called gravitons that are the true vehicles of the gravitational force and are present at increasing numbers closer to larger masses, which causes the potential energy landscape to exist in the first place.
The whole point here is that you need to learn to walk before you can run. Each of the above examples shows several layers of understanding. The first layer shows the point your teacher is trying to teach. Your body needs oxygen. The ball falls to the earth. The next level is more complicated, but you likely get the gist of it. Anything beyond that likely seems like magic or nonsense — you’re just not ready for it yet. So, if the answers you’re getting to the questions you’re asking aren’t totally satisfying to you, that’s largely because you’re likely only asking the first question and ready for the first answer. You’re just scratching the surface. But you still do need to understand the answers you’re getting — not just to do well in school, but to prepare yourself to ask the next question and peel back another layer of meaning from the onion of the universe. And whether you like the answers you’re getting or not, what’s most important is to keep asking those questions!