Knowing what not to ask

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The Independent Culture
I Do not believe in spirits but must confess to having a fantasy about a particular female spirit, Goofgoos - the Good Fairy Godmother of Science. Goofgoos knows all the answers and may be willing, if suitably approached, to reply to just one question. One and no more. Her reply will always be brief, preferring to give just a "yes" or a "no", though on occasion she might extend to 20 words or so. That is quite reasonable as important ideas in science can be expressed very briefly: evolution is due to selection of the fittest variants that are inherited; force produces acceleration; proteins are coded for by DNA; cells are the basic units of life; the length of the diagonal of a unit square is an irrational number ...

Every half-decent scientist should have their question ready just in case Goofgoos appears to them. Zoologist Peter Medawar coined a profound aphorism when he spoke of science as being the art of the soluble. Asking the right questions is at the very heart of great science and is probably more difficult than actually solving them. Claims that science can be done by computers always avoid the problem of how the problems themselves are posed. There is a story that Einstein chose not to become a mathematician because he thought that he did not have good skills in choosing the right problems. And in molecular biology Francis Crick and some of his colleagues decided that the important problem of protein folding was at the time just too difficult and they wisely moved around it. It could be that, at present, the problem of consciousness is just too difficult and that it is not clear how to pose questions that could explain it. Perhaps we must be patient.

So what should we ask Goofgoos? Everyone will have their own preferences. I, for example, would not waste my ques-tion on consciousness, there is a good chance that I might not understand the answer, nor would I want to ask about life elsewhere in the universe. I would not ask if there is a God and if I did she might just reply that it is a meaningless question.

So what would I ask? I would of course love to know how life originated and how the cell evolved, it is after all the true "miracle" of evolution; after that it was easy. But I do not know enough to ask a sensible question though others undoubtedly could. I remain mystified as to how memory is stored and the means by which we recall whole episodes intact. I am bewildered by our ability to control our muscles in those extraordinary complex patterns which, for example, skilled musicians can produce with such apparent ease. Then it would be very important to understand the nature of mental illnesses like depression. But in what terms could I sensibly pose the question? I would not be satisfied with either a chemical or a psychological answer in terms of current concepts. But I am tempted to ask if clinical depression is just the end of a continuum of mood that ranges from feeling low through being depressed but functional.

I would probably do much better by sticking to topics where my ignorance is less complete. There are important questions to be asked about how the growth of our organs is controlled, and why if we are malnourished in the womb and so do not grow properly, we have a high probability of having cardiovascular problems in middle age. I will probably stay close to my own research area and ask how our five fingers and toes are laid down during development. Or ask how our left/right asymmetry is controlled by our genes. How is it that our heart is normally on the left side but in rare cases is on the right? Is it, as I believe, specified by a molecule which is itself left-handed?

But given the opportunity of actually meeting Goofgoos I fear that my narcissism may dominate and I would probably ask if my ideas about development of the embryo are correct. It is only the fearful likelihood of a negative shake of her head that would stop me.

Lewis Wolpert lectures at University College, London