Einstein has had a good month, all things considered. His century-old prediction, that the very fabric of space and time can support waves travelling at light-speed, was confirmed by the LIGO collaboration. More, the bizarre and horrifying consequences of his theory of gravity, the singularly-collapsed stars that came to be called ‘black holes’, have been directly detected for the first time. As is now widely known (but how could anyone actually conceptualise the monstrous event?), it was the mutual circling and merger of two black holes that set the gravitational ripples on their billion light-year journey across the ocean of space towards the shores of our solar system.
The events have reminded us of the powerful sense of inspiration that comes from contemplating any of Einstein’s scientific achievements. He showed how to interpret the ‘Brownian motion’ of particulate matter as a conceptual window into the molecular world, once it is understood as the random buffeting of tiny but visible particles from invisible molecules. He re-imagined light as a gas of massless particles, and in doing so opened up a path to the quantum world of the atom. He day-dreamed as a teenager about trying to catch a light-beam, a journey of the mind that led him to the universal constant of the speed of light, and to the mutual, relativistic, inter-conversion of space and time. And of course, he wondered if gravity might better be thought of, not as a force, but as a sort of curvature in the warp and weft of space and time.
What glories indeed! But surprisingly, he never thought of himself as particularly gifted. Rather he would attribute his success to the prioritisation of the question rather than the answer. ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning’ was a frequent admonition in one form or another. A long form of this urging of careful question-crafting attributed to him goes something like this:
‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.’
‘What would I see if I caught up with light?’
‘Why can’t I tell the difference between being accelerated and being pulled on by gravity?’
‘What is the source of the jiggling motion of tiny dust motes suspended in water?’
‘How can I think of light in the same way I think of matter?’
These are the questions that lead to the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century. The centrality of the creative question is true at any level of scientific endeavour. I find myself explaining to new PhD students that, although they have got to this point by proving themselves uncommonly adept and finding the right answers, this will be of little use to them now. They need to learn instead to craft the fruitful question. That is the central imaginative, creative act of science.
Perhaps that is why I have always been entranced by the ancient long-poem of Natural Wisdom found in the Biblical Book of Job. It is usually called ‘The Lord’s Answer’, for it is the long-awaited response of Yahweh to the angry Job’s railings that he is suffering unjustly, and that the world is consequently out of joint. But the use of the word ‘answer’ is in every other way an inappropriate description of the speech. It takes the form of a list of questions, posed to the hapless Job, but directed outwards into the manifold mysteries of the natural world. Here are just a few of the 160 questions or so:
Who cuts a channel for the torrent of rain, a path for the thunderbolt?
Where is the realm where heat is created, which the sirocco spreads across the earth?
Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose Orion’s belt?
Can you send lightning bolts on their way, and have them report to you, ‘Ready!’?
Is it by your understanding that the hawk takes flight, and spreads its wings toward the south?
A poem, with each verse a question, each trope probing its own domain of creation: the winds and weather, the sky and stars, the animal world. They are highly potent questions – the containment of flood and lightening is asking about the balance of chaos and order. The binding of the Pleiades (a tight star-cluster of associated young stars much closer than those of Orion) is motivated by curiosity, aroused by observation. There is indeed a reason that they are closely-grouped. The pattern of avian navigation holds puzzles for us still, although we know that birds also can register patterns in the stars. I have often suggested to scientist colleagues that they read through the Lords’ Answer to Job. Uniformly they respond with recognition that here lies a fundamental human motivation to look deeply into nature that we also share.
The fact that we would have been called ‘natural philosophers’ two centuries ago, rather than ‘scientists’, is a clue that the story of science begins in the ancient thought-world of ‘wisdom.’ Certainly one of its most luminous themes – the celebration of the creative question – has not dimmed. Einstein would have approved, but can we, in turn, succeed in passing on the love of the question, including the unanswered question, to our children?
Featured image credit: The Pleiades Star Cluster by WikiImages. Public Domain via Pixabay.