Why, what, how, whom, when, the so called “interrogative” represents a crowning evolutionary achievement. To ponder, to wonder, to question and then seek to explain sets humans apart. Yet too often our assumptions fill in – when we believe we already know, fail to question, to confirm, and fail to dig deeper. But to question and to challenge is exhausting. It brings us into uncertainty and reveals our inadequacies. Yet it is the nature of our questions, rather than the body of our derived solutions, that distinguish the most remarkable amongst us.
Upon arriving as a young school boy in Cambridge, UK, Newton was quick to encounter the orbital propositions of Galileo that caused him to forever reject Aristotelian descriptions of the world, and set him on the path to build the basis of Newtonian physics; a physics that applied not just here on earth but across the universe.
The apple tree and mathematical descriptions of gravity are what tend to come first to mind when we reflect on Newton’s contributions. But the impact of his genius was driven more by the depth of his curiosity than his capacities to explain.
Descriptions of light and optics were another of Newton’s major contributions. But here, his so-called “crucial question” was much deeper than what is the nature of light. The question centered on the essence of space and existence itself. Namely was light something that we – in our eyes and bodies – had created or was it something that we had received and interpreted (or “sensed”) via our optic system?
To address this, in his early 20s young Isaac began experimenting on himself, which included inserting a stick “bodkin” into the back of his eye socket during which he was able to “witness” the relationship of eye structure to eye function, seeing colors shift as he distorted the shape of his eye by applying external pressure. Now confident that light was a substance, not simply a form of experience, this solidified Newton’s passion to define the properties of even grander natural forces.
In the world of innovators with their ever overflowing energy and boundless ideas, we see all too often “hammers looking for nails” – approaches that have jumped to suggest a solution without understanding the importance of starting with a central question. For a few, serendipity proves to be their salvation, but for most the pressures of the poorly asked or sadly overlooked question are at the core of their inevitable demise.
Why, for whom, and with what intent are questions that not only help define the importance but also begin to provide the context from which one can seek to build the appropriate evidence.
Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.
Beyond helping to define the path forward, the power of the crucial question is its ability to help secure the importance and build the passion from which we can endure the arduous work required to seek the answer. For if careful inspection of the question proves uninspiring, it is certainly the moment to “question the question.” From the power of the question we also find “purpose.”
Few of us, I hope, will be so compelled by our curiosity to put sticks into our eyes, but if we have not the time, nor energy nor the resolve to secure the importance of our questions, then we are certainly compromising on the potential impact of our lives.