Sunday, September 19, 2010
The Science of Why?
Everyone has experienced the tiny toddler pestering a well-meaning parent with incessant questions of the sort “why is the sky blue?” Assuming the parent even knows the answer, it can be a bit frustrating to continually field these questions. But I look at it a bit differently. I have great respect for a child’s innate curiosity, a tireless pursuit of finding out how things work. Sadly, although most of us start off life that way, it is through years of institutionalized education, and socialization that our desire to know how things work gets beaten down, we stop wondering why and just take the wonders of nature for granted.
But I digress in my preface to my main point – why so few young people go into fields like physics in college? These days many university physics departments are stagnant in their size. Students often carry a negative perception about the utility of physics in seeking jobs so they opt for degrees in other science disciplines like biology and chemistry. Why is this?
One recent poll of current and past students in physics identified what initially got them excited about physics. Nearly every student indicated that, while other majors told them what various things are, physics could answer the “why.” Why is the sky blue? Why are some materials conductors and others insulators? Why is the universe expanding? Most of the polled students said they were in physics to pursue the why. Physics is a tool kit that teaches students how to think and how to pursue the “why” in whatever they do. Answering the why is a powerful talent to possess and can be applied to problem solving in just about every other discipline.
But getting back to my original point, something in these students brought out and reinforced the innate curiosity we’re all born with. Maybe it really is still in all of us. Maybe we just need to figure out how to bring it out again. Should we try to think like kids again, with pristine wonder about the world around us? One university, University of Texas Austin, reaches out to prospective physics majors with a signature phrase – “Does the ‘Why’ keep you up at night?” Exactly!