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Q & A this Friday: Good Questions?

August 29, 2008 on 7:25 pm | In Q & A, cosmology |

So someone finally asked me a question on my facebook page, and it’s actually pretty interesting. Natasa writes in, and asks the following:

I always considered that it is more important to ask the right question rather than finding answers to stupid ones. So, I wish to know, what is the major thought (if there is any) that leads you to ask your questions about science and the Universe?

This is a really philosophical question, and it’s a fair one to ask. After all, I have very different interests than most of the other scientists and science writers out there.

There are some that inherently love a single subject, like astronomy, biology, or geology. And I can’t fault them for that, because they are inherently interesting, and I love learning about how things work. But that’s not what really drives me.

There are others that find joy in working on one particular problem. For some it’s very general, like figuring out how galaxies form, and for some, it’s very specific (and sometimes esoteric), like investigating what the best way to grow long and sturdy carbon nanotubes is.

And for still others, it’s like being a newscaster (or an unscrupulous lawyer). Things happen all the time, and so they try to figure out what people will be the most interested in, and go after that.

I don’t feel like I fit neatly into any one of these categories. So let’s cut to the chase: how do I come up with the questions I ask about science and the Universe? The physical Universe, to me, is the most complicated puzzle ever devised. There aren’t just billions and billions of particles that make it up, there are about 1090 of them, if you count every electron, quark, neutrino, and photon. And yet somehow, the same few things keep happening. Stars form everywhere there’s enough matter; they formed billions of years ago, they’re forming now, and they’ll still be forming billions of years from now. Planets form around them, and molecules organize themselves in the same familiar patterns. The same phases of ice form everywhere, the same organic molecules spontaneously arise, even in space.

And then we have the Earth. Overflowing with life, all of it in competition for the resources that allow it to continue, thrive, and replicate in its surroundings. And somehow, we exist. With our minds, with our self awareness, with all the things we can do and think.

Well, this awareness is where I get my questions from. What kind of place is this? How does the Universe, which started out as just a super-high-energy soup of plasmas and radiation, wind up as this ordered, structured place that not only allows us to live in it, but gives us clues that allow us to understand how it got to be that way? What are the rules that it follows? And what are the questions that we still don’t have a complete explanation for?

Natasa, when I come across something like this, that’s what I consider a good question. That’s the type of thing that I can think about for days on end: what binds galaxies together, what makes the Universe expand, what started the big bang, the creation of matter in the Universe, how gravity works, and what the fate of the Universe is. I hope you and all my other readers continue to ask me good questions about topics like this and whatever else you’re interested in, and I’ll continue to do my best to bring you the best answers I can find.

And also, of course, to make it entertaining…


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  1. are we gonna die tomorow?

    Comment by kee — September 9, 2008 #

  2. Kee,

    Some of us will. No more than usual, though.

    Comment by ethan — September 9, 2008 #

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