– The Featured Image is a Depiction of Newton and the Famous Apple Tree
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” – Albert Einstein
I don’t think there is any other thing that has served as the main means of advancing science like questioning. Some individuals, like Albert Einstein, considered it as a gift that is borne out of the natural curiosity for how the universe works and that we should always preserve and nurture it.
I have decided to write this great article so as to discuss scientific advancement and its connection with the art of questioning by making reference to how at three major points in scientific history questioning has served for the advancement of science.
Some may not consider questioning as an art, but I think that it is. It is an art in the sense that it is specific and not just an arbitrary exercise, and it must be so for the advancement of science.
Science advances whenever scientists ask the right questions about the universe or about an unknown phenomenon. When such a question is resolved, it usually leads to a new, groundbreaking understanding of the universe which we did not have before.
But as I have said, questioning is not just simple; it is about knowing which question to ask. Questioning is not just about anything arbitrary. It may begin as such, but as one understands the problem better, one focuses all of the problem around a pivotal question.
This is how the heroes of science arrived at most of their revolutionary ideas. The art of questioning is so important that Einstein wished that we never lose it. And till today, we still have many scientists who are asking central and important questions about their different fields of endeavour.
For science, questioning must be particular and we must pay particular attention to it like an art. Every problem in science raises deep questions about the universe, and it is becoming my firm belief that if we can identify the right question a problem poses, then it becomes possible to resolve it.
This is how the great scientists of the past resolved some of the great problems of science, by making them revolve around a particular question. One of the first instances, where questioning resulted in scientific advancement, is in the famous story of Newton and the falling apple.
The story goes that Isaac Newton discovered his famous theory of gravitation when he observed an apple fall. Some say that the apple fell on his head, while others think that the more realistic story would be that the apple fell to the ground. I am also tempted to consider that it is the latter.
Newton was born in 1642 near Grantham, England and he was admitted in the University of Cambridge in 1661. However, due to the outbreak of the bubonic plague, the school had to close down in 1665 and this made Newton to move back to his childhood home in Woolsthorpe Manor.
It was during his stay in Woolsthorpe in 1666 and in the orchard tree that he witnessed an apple fall. This observation led him to ask a question that may have gone in this sort: “Why does an apple fall perpendicularly to the ground, rather than sideways or upward?”
This question and the resolution of it led him to conceive of the universal law of gravitation which states that every body is attracted to another body in the universe by a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart.
This gravitational law would become a part of Newton’s Principia published in 1687 and which also contained his three revolutionary physical laws of motion.
So we have a case where the art of questioning led to the culmination of the first scientific revolution which began with Copernicus’s discovery of the heliocentric model of the Solar System.
Newton came to understand that it is the same force that causes the apple to fall to the ground that moves the Moon around the Earth and also the Earth around the Sun: it was really a beautiful unification of terrestrial and celestial mechanics as many scientists agree.
But would all these discoveries that Newton presented in the Principia have followed without his observation of an apple fall to the ground and which aroused his curiosity and made him wonder why it had happened?
Observing the apple fall to the ground and questioning the observation made him see in a flash the profound unity of terrestrial and celestial motions and this was at a time when many did not consider them to have any relationship.
Newton’s apple story has been repeatedly said to be true as Newton himself said on several occasions that it had led him to his theory of gravitation. In a biography of Newton entitled Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written by William Stukeley and published in 1752, that is 25 years after Newton’s death, he gave the account, which Newton himself presented as such:
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees…he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”
So, we have a case in history where the great mind, Isaac Newton, had inquired by observation why an apple falls to the ground and through this seemingly naive but profound question was able to derive for us the greatest masterpiece of physical science which showed us the connection between gravity and the inverse square law, among other discoveries.
Newton and the apple tree is the first historically marked connection between the art of questioning and the advancement of science. It would be about 200 years later before another came along and exemplified this connection between questioning and scientific advancement. This man was Albert Einstein.
One thing about Einstein which I think every scientists and biographer would agree on is his nature to question things. Einstein had such a huge curiosity for the universe and for fundamental science and his habit for questioning drove him against the already established scientific notions of his time.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, and in 1905, he published four seminal papers that revolutionalized physics and one of these papers was “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”.
One of the greatest questions Einstein had about the universe was about the nature of light. Einstein, according to historians, would walk around pondering on the question: “what is light?”
And Einstein, in 1946 and in his Autobiographical Notes, recounted a thought experiment which he conducted when “he was a 16-year-old student in 1896 that marked his first steps towards special relativity.” This account goes thus:
“…a paradox upon which I had already hit at the age of sixteen:
If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.
There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations.
From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest.
For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion?
One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.”
From the above account by Einstein himself, we can see how his curiosity to understand the nature of light and its connection to motion led him to relativity. He was convinced that light would maintain the same speed c for all observers whether they are at rest or in uniform motion.
This is because a violation of this electrodynamic principle would lead to an observer being able to distinguish between rest and uniform motion, which is considered impossible in physics.
Einstein curiosity for light led him to resolve the conflict between classical mechanics and Maxwell’s electrodynamics. And a close observation of Einstein history and scientific achievements shows that he was driven by the question, what is light?
Nothing fascinated Einstein more than the mystery of light. It even led him to set the foundation of quantum mechanics alongside Max Planck.
In the case of quantum mechanics, which he published in one of the four seminal papers titled “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”, he presented that light consists of tiny massless chunks of energy called the quanta.
This was in his effort to explain the photoelectric effect for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”
Even when he went further to extend the principle of relativity to accelerated frames, the nature of light played a central role in his description of gravity, such that gravity became a metric wave that propagates at the speed of light.
I would say that Einstein could not think of anything outside light; it was at the center of his questioning of the universe. He is even quoted to have said that:
“All these fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no nearer to the answer to the question, ‘What are light quanta?’ Nowadays every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he knows it, but he is mistaken.”
So he spent all his life trying to resolve the question: what is light? And because of this, he was able to present some radical ideas about the universe and to lay the foundation for modern physics, which has led now paved the way to the new era of post-modern physics.
And what would be greatly remembered as the most important result of Einstein’s brooding about the nature of light is his theory of special relativity with which he unified classical mechanics and Maxwell’s electrodynamics.
On the two accounts of questioning presented so far, you will see that it led to pivotal unifications in science. Right questioning led to Newton establishing the foundation of classical mechanics just as it would later lead Einstein to establish the foundation of modern physics.
This is why I have chosen to highlight or discuss them alongside the third account which has occurred and has established the foundation of post-modern physics. This realization of how the art of questioning has advanced science to establish the three eras of physics must be duly recognized.
In the post-modern era of physics, we encounter another instance where the art of questioning has produced the much-needed advancement in science and it is a question that goes thus: what are space and time?
My curiosity for the nature of space and time began when I came into contact with special relativity in 2008. I intuitively knew instantly that something was missing about the theory, that even though it tells us how space and time expand or contract due to motion, it missed an essential ingredient about what space and time really are.
This led me into contemplating the nature of space and time. I never knew how far this would lead me, but I was fascinated that I really wanted to know what space and time are. This is why The Treatise begins with the definition of these entities.
It is important to know that raising this profound question about the nature of space and time and resolving the question led me to unify micro and macro physics; it led me to lay the foundation of post-modern physics.
And besides what has been said about how the art of questioning led to the foundations of the three mentioned eras of physics, something else cannot go unobserved.
This something is that Newton’s questioning led to the exposition of gravity while Einstein questioning led to the exposition of light and now the third questioning has led to the first exposition of the gravi-electromagnetic wave which unifies the results of the two prior historical questions about gravity and light.
With the benefit of hindsight, I am realizing how deeply connected the nature of space and time is to the unification problem that plague physics in the modern era of physics. This is why the right question that sums the unification problem is the one that is concerned with what space and time are.
It was my encounter with special relativity that raised my curiosity about the nature of space and time and to ask myself what they are. And to give you the actual account, I did not set out to establish the foundation of post-modern physics or to write the Treatise with a prior understanding of space and time.
I started with the remarkable insight that the universe is a standing field and I proceeded to derive the implications of this. As I continued in this direction, the entire parts of the Treatise began to unravel and at what I will call a culminating point, I realized what space and time are.
All my theoretical investigation of the universe was to lead me to the actual nature of space and time, and by the time this journey became significant, I had laid down the foundation of post-modern physics and had unified microphysics and macrophysics which has been the grand aim of physics all this while.
The art of questioning will always remain a pivotal part of science and the scientific process. Without questioning we would not have the three eras of physics and especially the last era which is post-modern physics. What else proves the connection between scientific advancement and the art of questioning?
This last era of physics, which is post-modern physics, launches us into the metaphysical investigation of the universe. It is among the most important evidence of the connection between scientific advancement and the art of questioning.
In fact, it is my personal experience with post-modern physics that affirms my conviction about the central role of questioning in scientific advancement. It is not just questioning that brings about scientific advancement, but the right art of it, which must sum the confronting problem, without which we would be lost in the dark without any forthcoming resolution.
Until next time,
I will be here.
– M. V. Echa
– Addendum: Though only Newton and Einstein are mentioned for their historical role in establishing classical and modern physics respectively, I am also aware that their efforts were not the only pivotal ones. Other great scientists, though not mentioned, are duly remembered, whose efforts were also pivotal and could not also have been possible without the art of questioning.