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"Silly questions" are the roots of discovery


[mk1] Young children are natural questioners. They have a natural curiosity about the world around them and constantly ask about it. Their endless barrage of questions often becomes frustrating to overworked parents. Sometimes parents must brush off the questions so they can get some work done.

At some point during development, a child learns to stop asking "silly" questions. They tend to make the parent angry and do not tend to get satisfactory answers. They also learn not to experiment on their own. For some reason, smashing a cookie jar in a clumsy attempt to find out what is inside is usually frowned upon by parents.

The attitude that I should not ask questions; they might be silly, and make me look like a fool accompanies many students to MIT. One might think that those who get into MIT would ask questions. But just watch everyone clam up when the professor asks, "any questions?" Listen to the class quietly castigate the person who does ask a "silly" question. Common though this attitude is, it is counterproductive. Einstein would never have developed his theory of relativity had he not dared to ask what might have been silly questions.

Actually, he probably did ask some silly questions. Scientists do not just sit down and say, "I think I will develop a theory today." They make plenty of abortive starts and ask plenty of silly questions. Numerous discoveries happen as accidents while someone is looking for something else, and I will bet that plenty of those "something elses" were rather silly.

Yes, but no one knew any better at the time. People who ask

silly questions in class ask about things which are well-known. I have two responses to this statement. First, the answer is not well-known to the person asking the question or he would not be asking, providing he is not just trying to get attention. So long as he does not know the answer, people should respect his desire to know it, simple and silly as it may be.

Second, just because the answer is well-known does not mean it is right. Newton's theories were well-known. Many were also wrong. Sometimes a "silly" question is asked not because the person has trouble understanding the answer, but because he has trouble accepting the answer. Somehow it feels wrong to him.

MIT offers many opportunities to ask questions. A lecture hall full of 500 freshmen is not, perhaps, the best place to ask them, but classes of that size tend to have recitations, which are great places to get problems of understanding straightened out. Professors and recitation instructors often have open office hours or will arrange special office hours to help students on a one-to-one basis. Many humanities classes are big question and answer sessions.

For those who have trouble accepting certain aspects of a theory, laboratory exercises offer a chance to try the ideas out for yourself. If you are still not convinced, you can talk to a professor and perhaps arrange a research project. Who knows what you might find? Professors are not the only ones who come up with brilliant new discoveries. A new outlook is often more valuable than several decades of experience.