“Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.” (Rilke, 1898)
Rainer Maria Rilke was a writer who dealt with the ineffable. Trying to use words to describe the indescribable he left a body of work that, for many, is hauntingly beautiful. These lines, however, were written not for the public, but for Rilke’s married lover. We were never meant to share them. They were for her eyes and were meant to stir her senses, not ours. But, here they are before us and between us, hanging in the air and only barely revealing their meaning. I begin with this quotation, because I do not know what these words mean, what they really mean, but somehow, as with much of Rilke’s work, I think I feel what is meant.
The expectation of tomorrow is filled with the future, while the past is something safer and surer and easier to live, and relive, than to move forward. However, discovery lies ahead and it is only by moving forward, reaching into tomorrow, that we can grasp what is new.
In the world of scientific research our business is finding answers to new questions. Where do these questions come from? Many, who view science from the outside, believe that scientific questions are obvious and arise spontaneously in the minds of the researcher. But, the questions a scientist must ask should have characteristics that ensure they are answerable. The way that a scientist sets out to answer these questions and what is done with these answers make up what has become known as the scientific method. This method may be thought of as a cycle composed of several steps.
Begin with wonder. Why does the sun move? What makes a firefly glow? How does the brain work?
Learn more about the question. Here we have to gather what information we can about the topic that has caught our attention. This may be reading about the subject or making further preliminary observations.
Make an educated guess. This is a statement, often of cause and effect that is referred to as the hypothesis. Hypotheses should be constructed in such a way that they can be tested. The Sun moves because it is falling, fireflies glow because of trapped moonbeams, the brain works by clockwork. All these statements are hypotheses, not very convincing ones, but hypotheses nonetheless. An hypothesis is not formulated as a question, but as a statement that is thrown down as a gauntlet challenging the experimenter to prove it wrong.
Experiment. The hypothesis must be tested by conducting experiments designed to answer the question. Hypotheses can usually only be tested by a series of related experiments, where a single variable is altered each time and where the experiments are conducted multiple times to eliminate the confounding effects of variability.
Put it together. By analysing the data you collect you may draw conclusions and confirm whether your hypothesis is true or false. If you have conducted your experiments well, either way you will have an answer. If you find that your hypothesis is supported by your results you may have found the cause of your observed effect; if it is not you have found at least one thing that cannot be the cause of your effect. The latter path leads you back to where you began, with revised wonder and the need for the development of a new hypothesis.
Spread the word. The research process is only complete and the circle escaped when you have successfully communicated your findings to your peers and, if appropriate, the wider public. Only then is your job done, at least until the next question presents itself.
The scientific method, as described, exists in a number of related forms and has been with us for a long time ― some say from antiquity. Its application has, however, been patchy often because of variable approaches to the rigours of experimentation.
Experimental design is important, but it is our questions that are the beginning of the scientific method and it is important to ponder these further. May we conclude that only those who question the world may be effective researchers? Without questions there can be no research, but many researchers spend their professional lives in the pursuit of answers to questions that they did not formulate themselves. Such second-hand questions are just as valid to work on, and some of the greatest discoveries have been made in this way. Watson and Crick, for example, did not invent the notion of DNA and nor were they the first to ask the question: what is its structure? They were, however, the ones to provide the startling answer of the double helix, a model that immediately allowed for self-replication, and opened up a new science of molecular genetics.
Some questions are age-old, but require refinement and readjustment so that they may be amenable to scientific enquiry. They may need to be broken down into smaller questions or ones that are numerical, or quantitative, rather than qualitative. This business of asking the “right question” is at the very heart of science. The right question is one that can be answered. “How does the brain work?” may represent a moment of profound wonder, but it does not come close to being a viable scientific question. In scale, it is simply too big, too vague, with no way in. Beginning with this as an aim, however, we may, through study and observation, begin to refine our questions, resulting in not one but many smaller, more accessible lines of enquiry.
Thus, finding the right question is the most important first step in scientific research, and one that takes time and energy.
A few year after his love letter, with which we began, Rilke wrote another letter, this time to an aspiring poet:
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
For poets, good advice; for scientists, it is hard to imagine how we may simply live our way into the answers, but we must, without doubt, as part of the scientific method, “Live the questions now.”
© Allan Gaw 2012
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