Can I Ask, Why?: The Science of Curiosity
By Manuel Ruiz | 12/02/2014
In July 2012, at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, scientists detected one of the most exciting discoveries in decades with the observation of what was believed to be the ever-elusive Higgs Boson particle. Not only that, just recently, the theory of *quantum entanglement may have been proven to exist. You may be wondering, why the hell should I care? Well, my fellow human, to answer this, we are curious. All of us...from the astronaut sitting in the international space station (probably pissed about his/her supplies incinerating seconds after leaving the launch pad), to the guy standing outside your window at night, watching you melt your Barbie's face off. We are just a curious species. We need to know why; why can't NASA shoot toilet paper to space anymore? Why is an 18-35 year-old male burning a Barbie doll? Why does he have a doll? Why doesn't he just LARP like the rest of the well-adjusted 30 year old males?
Chances are, you've already subconsciously asked yourself "why should I care about stupid physics" thousands of times since you started reading this.
If we were able to dig deep into the memory banks of our cerebral cortex and into the depths of our young and developing brains, many of us would find that some of our first thoughts and questions as children are “how” and “why”? The world is such a big place, and although in our early stages of development, we are only exposed to the world on a micro-scale, we cannot escape the fascination of everyday life and its very fundamental questions.
For argument’s sake, I will refrain from breaching philosophical or existential fundamental questions and instead, I’ll focus on the questions that stem from our captivation of the outside world. Why is the sky blue? How does a car work? Why do things fall downward?
The beauty of physics is that it provides us with the ability to answer many of these questions and fully understand the physical laws that govern life in our universe. While Plato and Aristotle were among the first to become enamored with observation of physical phenomena, we largely regard Sir Isaac Newton to be one of the most influential and revered scientists in all of history. In early elementary school, many of us were taught an old wives’ tale that Newton was sitting underneath an apple tree and was struck by a falling apple. This event was alleged to have been his motivation for his discovery of the inverse square law for gravity.
The controversy over whether this version of the story is true or not is a debate that may continue to happen for centuries to come. However, the true relevance in this story (and the point that I’m trying to make) comes from the actual thought process that was involved. In his everyday life, he saw an event occur (the apple falling in this case) and he asked himself the ever-important question in physics…“why”? Surely, Newton wasn't the first person in the history of mankind to ask this question, however, his approach to the solution and his contributions to physics changed the landscape of the physical sciences for centuries.
I don’t claim to be Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, but I too have a desire to ask the question “why” and a passion to learn how the universe works, and how exactly our world came to be known in its present form. Many people limit their "whys" to the parameters of personal safety (why can't I shoot Roman candles at the gas station?), we will call them Darwins.
Darwins are completely contempt at why-ing whether or not such activities will kill them violently. They use their cell phones, watch television, and use their computers to surf the web, yet they have no desire or aspiration to know how it works. For all they know, the devices that we use everyday “magically” produce a desired outcome. It’s as if to say that our TVs turn on because we push a button, our cars run because we put gas in them and turn the key, and our computers send data magically via an electronic superhighway. Using these inventions and blindly accepting that they work simply because they do, does not do justice to the physical processes that are occurring, nor the physics that lives inside each device. A physicist has trouble with such blind acceptance; it is in our nature to not only understand these processes but also to try to find ways to improve them and make them operate much more efficiently. After all, without the more actively- curious people in the world (physicists), we'd still be forced to call people's "home phones", fax, and think the Earth was flat, etc.
Some of the most common questions that people who study physics get asked are: "Why study physics? What does it have to do with anything? Why is it even important? What can you even do with a degree in physics?" To me, the answer is simple. Just about everything on Earth can be described by the laws of physics and the fundamental forces involved...
The many great minds of our past often described physics as the language of the universe. But often, it seems as though the image of an old man with crazy hair and a white lab coat locked in a basement trying to create impractical inventions portrays the stereotypical physicist.
While many physicists do work in labs, teach at universities, and conduct extensive research; today, physics is widely studied by individuals who love mathematics and have a desire to know how the world works. Physicists can be plant operators, technicians, engineers, financial analysts, actuaries, statisticians, patent lawyers, and advisors in many sectors of business. With a love for math and a desire to know “why”, the possibilities are endless (Okay, well not really….The possibilities are discrete and finite, but plentiful. You know what I meant!).
In summary, quit referring to math as the devil, stop limiting your "whys", and be more curious...it's what your DNA craves (that and sex...for reproduction purposes). So yea, maybe that guy watching you burn your Barbie's head off is a little creepy. But, Monday morning, in physics class, he will be teaching you about the wonders of our world. Peeping Tom's aren't always perverts, no need to call the cops. Maybe he just wants to explain to you why your doll's face falls off when you put a lighter to it; just ask him...
Well, I've got to go duct tape my battle-ax for the big throw down behind Walmart, but feel free to submit your physics questions to the editor at email@example.com. It's probably best this way, surely the social interaction would ruin our Barbie time.
* to learn more about quantum entaglement, please click here.
About the author:
Manuel Ruiz was born in Corpus Christi, TX, and currently lives in Baton Rouge, LA. In 2009, he earned his B.A. From Louisiana State University in Interdisciplinary Studies with Minors in Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering.
In 2012, he earned a B.S. in Physics, with a concentration in Medical Physics. He is currently awaiting acceptance into Graduate School of Business at LA Tech.He is also the sole-recipient of the prestigious, Warren's "Probably the Greatest Person Ever Born" Award.
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