Ask Better Questions

“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.” - Isidor Rabi, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist

Curiosity is the first and most important quality of a Rocket Girl. Curious people want to find out “Why.” Rocket Girls, like all good scientists, never stop asking questions.

In fact, they build their entire professional lives around it.

Andrew Maynard, Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University and Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, described his childhood curiosity to me:

“There already was that propensity to be interested in how things work. But what I found was fairly early on, I was just fascinated by how things operated, how things worked, whether it was electrical stuff, whether it was stuff out in nature, I was just interested in it. I spent a lot of time before I did any serious science at school, just learning about the natural world, and I was one of these kids that you could go out for a walk and I could tell you the name for every plant you saw, or every sort of insect ... I was fascinated by it, I pored over books and I then tried to connect what I read in books to what I found outside. So I think there was probably that inherent curiosity there. Just wanted to know stuff.”

What do you want to know? Questions are as important as answers; and at times, even more so. After all, the best questions command the best answers. In this era of high-stakes testing in the public schools, we have become so focused on students supplying the “right” answers, at the expense of teaching them to ask better questions.

David Stork, Research Scientist and Research Director at Rambus Labs, has talked about the crucial role asking questions played in the success of Bell Labs in New Jersey – the birthplace of the laser, microchips and the transistor, and one of the shining stars of science long before anyone had ever heard of Silicon Valley. When Bell Labs’ leaders tried to analyze the company’s success, they explored what their best people had in common, according to Stork.

“Did they all go to the best schools, did they all study one field versus another? There was no commonality among these.” What they did find out was that their highest producing scientists and engineers regularly had lunch with electronics engineer Harry Nyquist. “So what did Harry Nyquist do for these top producing scientists?” asks Stork. “He didn't give them answers. Or great ideas. Rather, he asked good questions. And his good questions got them thinking." Stork’s advice: "If you want to think the unthinkable, ask a good question. Questions are the best way of going from what we know to what we don't know."

In his book Originals, Adam Grant questions the trusted leadership adage, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” He argues that a culture requiring every problem to be prematurely outfitted with a solution, dampens the inquiry process. Not every question has an answer… yet. And sometimes, the cost of rushing in with answers is too dear.

It was too dear for the seven crew members of the Columbia Shuttle, which disintegrated upon re-entry to earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003. Organizational psychologist David Hofmann, tasked with assessing NASA’s safety culture, believes that if the ground crew asked more questions about the mysterious piece of foam that fell from the shuttle during take-off, they may have been able to diagnose the hole in its left wing in time to repair it and the shuttle and its crew may have been saved. Rather, NASA, by brushing it off as something minor they had seen before, squelched the inquiry process before it even began.

As a teacher, I don’t show up with answers. Just more questions. If we need to find answers, we will figure them out together. Problem identification comes first; problem solving second.

Leonard Susskind, Stanford physicist known as the “Father of String Theory” tells us that

“The object of a scientist is to follow his curiosity and figure out how and why things work, how and why the world works whether it's physics or biology.”

Children are born curious. Though many of us lose touch with our curiosity while still young, scientists manage to retain their curiosity even as they grow older.

What do you want to know? Go out and find the answers. If you’re lucky, the answers will bring with them many more questions.

Watch the video above for the full lesson.

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