Asking why: A key to physics

Vasanthi Padmanabhan


Sometimes I am a little unkind to all my many friends in education … by saying that from the time it learns to talk, every child makes a dreadful nuisance of itself by asking ‘Why?’ To stop this nuisance, society has invented a marvellous system called education, which for the majority of people, brings to an end their desire to ask that question. The few failures of this system are known as scientists.
– Sir Hermann Bondi
‘The Making of a Scientist’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, June 1983, 403.

Children, as this quote suggests, are born “scientists” – illustrated best by their keen observations and the questions they constantly ask. Teaching school children ought to, ideally speaking, keep that curiosity alive, although practically it is a stupendous task.

To a large extent, teaching science in general (and physics in particular) offers an avenue to retain this curiosity. An essential part of science is to observe everything around us and ask key questions, which, in turn, leads to experimentation in which more observations are made, which then leads to more questions till we finally get satisfactory answers based on verifiable laws. Physics is about observing nature, from elementary particles to the entire universe, and wondering why and how things work. The most common question that physicists ask is “Why?”

The world is full of technological devices based on the principles of physics – from everyday health care (diagnostic tools like x-rays, CT scans, MRI, etc.) to telecommunication to the aviation industry to space exploration. In short, learning physics is relevant in whatever choice of career one may make. So you can have careers in physics or physics in careers!

The author is a freelance researcher. She can be reached at vasanthipadmanabhan[email protected].

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