The Joy of Asking 'Why'

The Joy of Asking 'Why'

Just why is 'why?' so valuable? Editor Martijn Pellegrom dives into the question of questions.

How long has it been since you last googled something? A day? An hour? I think that the average, especially among young people, tends towards the latter. It might sound like much, but I think that’s not surprising at all. All of human knowledge on all topics ever lies at your fingertips. Within just a couple of seconds, you can have any question answered with millions of articles and pages. All you need to do is ask.

There are people who devote their lives to asking - and, luckily, answering - hard questions: scientists. They share a constant desire to expand our collective knowledge. Armed with an open mind, a critical stance and an arsenal full of nasty questions, they venture into the world, and they won’t be satisfied with that’s-just-how-it-is for an answer. Often, their beautiful questions have equally satisfying answers. That’s why it’s interesting to take a closer look at these questions.

Imagine that you’re in ancient Greece, and you’re walking along the surf of a beach. You see a sailboat gradually disappear behind the horizon: what question pops up in your mind? For the Greeks, this was: ‘what shape does the Earth have?’. Why does the sail remain visible, while the hull itself has disappeared already? Another observation is that the ship can travel beyond the horizon in all directions, so something spherical seems logical. But how do you prove that? It’s a nice example of an old, inspiring scientific question. The answer is surprisingly simple: use two wells that are distant from one another, one of which is situated directly below the sun. You can then see, from how both shadows are projected at different angles into either well, how round the Earth is! It was a great achievement at that time. But scientists always have more questions.

Logical follow-up questions are ‘can we find more proof for this?’, ‘what lies on the other side of the world?’ and my personal favorite: 'why is the world round?’ One conclusion can lead to countless new insights and questions which on their turn lead to thousands more. The trick, of course, is not to lose your way in this web of questions, but to go about it in a rigorous way. That’s why the ‘why’-question has a special place in my heart. It always asks for fundamental theories: the reason that the Earth is round is because gravity pulls all matter inwards. This is an amazing theory that leads to extremely useful applications.

Young children, who just begin to realise that there is an astoundingly interesting world around them, ask many questions too. They know what they can see, but they would like to know why the sky is blue and why they should go to school. I share such childlike curiosity: I have pressing ‘why’-questions about the universe, which is why I, along with fellow enthusiasts, enrolled in the bachelor of astronomy here in Leiden.

In life, we need to overcome obstacle after obstacle and sometimes this tends to overshadow the beautiful, colorful and amazing world we live in. It’s only after we find out why things are the way that they are, that we can see the meaning of it all. That doesn’t only hold for potential personal problems, but also for science. This thought does me a lot of good. If I get stuck on something or forget why I want it in the first place, I try to find that childlike passion again and ask the ‘why’-question to attempt to see things from a new and illuminating perspective. That’s why I think we can all improve on both a personal and a scientific level if we would ask more ‘why’-questions.


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