I’ve been thinking a lot about how I present my work. When a family member or friend asks what I do, the interaction tends to look like this:
Them: “So, what do you do?”
Me, looking away and mumbling: “Research.”
A long pause, and then them: “Teacher?”
Wrong, but close enough. “Sure, in a way.”
But I’m a scientist, not just a teacher. Working on puzzles is what I do. So I want to take a crack at describing what I do, and what I don’t do.
What’s the most important part of the job?
In my eyes, it’s chasing the questions. Not the answers. It’s easy to pitch scientific research as a machine whose output is an answer to a question. Think of technology that evolves from scientific discoveries. But that’s not the only part of science. I believe the questions are often just as important (if not more) than the answers.
Questions inspire. They captivate us, and bring us on a journey. Does the shape of DNA reflect something special out of all possible configurations? Are there “critical” nodes in a network which will affect a large portion of the network if they were to go offline? How do snowflakes form? Why don’t trees grow forever? How long is the coast of Britain? (See Endnote)
These are all questions that prompt you to reflect. They make you think about energy landscapes, criticality, symmetry, forces, and measurement. Each one is an entry point in a rich mine, one that you can keep finding treasure.
The power of a good questions is threefold.
First, it provides a provocative framing which excites you about the question. This is of course subjective, but a good question makes you at least pause and ponder. It should be jarring, demanding attention and then sucking you in. The consequence of a good question is that it becomes the storyline pitch for your work. Sometimes, a great question even breaks through the scientific jargon of a field and becomes something anybody can understand. This is the mark of a great question: Simple, yet hiding great depths.
Second, a good question opens up a line of inquiry that might not be obvious, but makes sense as soon as you reflect on it. What is the time required for a quantum measurement? For anyone who has taken a quantum theory course, you know that measuring a quantum system collapses its superposition in that basis to a definitive state. But how quickly does this happen? Is a quantum measurement instantaneous? Once you start reflecting on these questions, you realize they are thornier than they appear at first glance.
Third, a good question frames the issue in its most stark form. A good question might not capture all the subtleties of an issue, but it does highlight the main issue. Why is it sometimes difficult to count the solutions to easy questions? This question gets at the heart of computational complexity, the difference between decision problems and counting problems, and the algorithms humans come up with for tackling them. All from a question which stems from an observation.
Finding good questions is challenging. They need to be aspirational, while still offering direction. At this point in my PhD, I’m spending more time thinking about questions which provoke me, which force me to pause and ponder.
Having friends to bounce ideas off is a great way to generate more good questions. Look at how the questions excite others. This offers a great litmus test for what strikes a chord for people.
The unfortunate reality is that, a year into my PhD, I haven’t seen much evidence in people forcing me to work on asking good questions. It’s something that apparently you need to do on your own.
But asking good questions is a skill. Yes, you might stumble upon a question with a lot of rich results by accident. But can you do this on average? Working on that skill, of knowing where your lack of understanding is and asking sharp, illuminating questions, is something we should value as scientists.
I’ve begun keeping a list of questions that fascinate me. Some are simple, some are more complex, but I keep this list to remind myself about what draws me into science. I’m not here to dig into one subfield and stay there my whole life. Instead, I’m here to think about the possible questions that are out there, and make my own contributions.
I want to chase the questions. And I argue that you should, too.