“I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught.” –Winston Churchill
My very first time leading a classroom — on my own — was back in June of 2000. I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and was teaching science in a middle school classroom. And I asked what I thought was an innocuous question, designed to pique their curiosity. I asked the class, “What are we — you, me, and all human beings — made of?”
I was expecting many possible answers common to all living things, ranging from “blood and guts” to cells, molecules, or atoms. From a scientific standpoint, there are many possible answers with different levels of sophistication, and I would have been happy with any one of them.
But that wasn’t the answer I got. I was very surprised when a girl in the front row raised her hand and said, “clay.”
This was one of those trial-by-fire moments that new teachers experience so frequently, that no amount of education can prepare them for. As the wheels raced in my head, I knew my response would be critical.
Clay, of course, was a reference to the biblical story that God created Adam out of clay, and I was keenly aware that the wrong response could cause me to lose the class. On the fly, I came up with the best response I could, which went something like this:
That’s one way of looking at it, but this is a science class. In science, if you want to figure something out, you need to admit that you don’t know the answer ahead of time, and come up with a way to test your ideas. So, if we wanted to figure out what we’re made out of, how would we do it?
This is the most important part of science: that you investigate ideas to determine whether they have validity or not. For a living thing, looking inside — whether with the naked eye, a microscope, or something more sophisticated — will teach you what we’re made of. But other questions are more difficult.
When you look at the night sky, you’ll notice that it appears to rotate about a particular point in the sky. This point changes dependent on your location on Earth, and the stars further away from this point appear to rotate faster.
Without knowing what the answer is in advance, there’s more than one reasonable explanation for this. For example, the Earth could be rotating once-per-day, and that’s what’s causing the stars to appear to rotate. Or, the heavens could actually be rotating, with the Earth stationary beneath our feet. With no further observations, either one of these explanations has an equal claim to being the correct one.
But they can’t both be correct; they’re mutually incompatible solutions to the problem. If you want to know which one (if either) is correct, you have to figure out a way to test both of these ideas against one another, and do an experiment that allows you to discern which one is the most valid explanation.
That’s what science is, and in a sense, that’s perhaps the only way, as a species, that we enable ourselves to learn about the Universe and move forward in our knowledge and understanding of it. Otherwise, you’re talking about untested (or, sometimes untestable) ideas, which can be fun to think about, but don’t help us understand the way things actually are.
The beauty of science is that, so long as you’re willing to revise your conception of the Universe based on new evidence that comes in, you’ll always be learning, and your perception of reality will become ever more closely aligned with the way thing actually are. (And you’ll be in very good company.)
There is no shame in being wrong before you’ve become informed; on the contrary, nobody knows the right answer before they’ve got the information to figure it out. But you must ask those questions, you must do those experiments, and — when it’s called for — you must revise your conception of the physical Universe to agree with what the Universe tells you about itself.
That’s all that science is: what we learn by asking the Universe about itself.
“When you make the finding yourself – even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light – you’ll never forget it.” –Carl Sagan
So ask your questions: about the Earth, the origin of humans, where matter comes from, even the Universe itself. Ask all of it. If you’re willing to listen, there’s a Universe of stuff out there for you to learn. All you have to do is ask it the right questions.