Every child goes through a phase of asking embarrassingly simple questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do we dream? Where did the Moon come from? Even the most educated adult can be stumped by such inquiries. But the curiosity behind them – and the urge to satisfy it – lies at the heart of science. Rainbows, too, were once a great mystery, until Isaac Newton split sunlight into the constituent colours of the spectrum.
Answering questions is what science is for; even though, in practice, it often throws up more questions than it answers. Those at the frontier of scientific knowledge well understand that the more they know about the Universe, the more there is to find out. Yet science has provided solutions to an extraordinary number of problems: some hugely important, some esoteric, and many less trivial than they at first appear.
This compendium of questions and answers is based on a weekly column first launched in the Independent more than 15 years ago un-der the rubric “Technoquest” and, in later years, “What on Earth?” Prepared with the support of Science Line (a helpline, now sadly defunct, that promoted public understanding of science), it was inspired by the realisation that many readers had scientific conundrums niggling away at the back of their minds and would welcome a service that answered them.
The Q&A technique is now a popular format in newspapers and magazines and has even formed the basis of bestselling books. But scientific knowledge is largely timeless, and the explanations in these pages remain as informative as ever.
Of course, not everything can be explained in a supposedly simple answer of a few sentences. Some questions are just too big. And often an answer is incomplete because of the difficulties of explaining something that requires a hinterland of knowledge. But the answers we publish here are as concise and as accurate as possible, and we hope that it will prove rewarding to read them.
John Keats once expressed his disappointment with Newton’s reductionist explanation of the rainbow: he felt that the poetry of this ecstatic vision was lost once it was reduced to its prismatic elements. But does knowing the real reasons why a rainbow forms really make the spectacle any less magnificent? Many would argue the opposite: that it becomes even more awe-inspiring once you understand it.
By providing us with answers, science does us a great service in more ways than one. Of course, answers can be practical and useful, but they can also make us realise that the world around us is even more mysterious and wonderful than our imaginations ever thought possible.
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