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Suzanne Tobias: Let’s figure out mysteries of the universe together

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, April 10, 2013, at 7 p.m.

The voice asking the first question of Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene in a live-audience broadcast of NPR’s “Science Friday” was tiny and tentative, obviously a young boy:

“Why did you be- (gulp) … choose to become a scientist?”

“For me,” answered Greene, a theoretical physicist, “it was to get the girls.”

Laughter. Applause. But seriously, folks.

“When I was 12 or 13,” Greene continued, “I had the kinds of concerns I think every kid that age has: Why am I here? What’s it all about? That sort of stuff. And it just struck me that, look, there can’t be an answer, because otherwise everybody would already know it, and someone would have told me about it.”

I was driving but had reached my destination by this time, so I sat in my idling car to hear the rest of the story – a real Driveway Moment.

“So it must be the case that the best you can do is understand the question,” Greene said. “Not ‘why?’ but ‘how?’ How did the universe come here? How did the Earth form? How did life begin?

“And it struck me that if I could get close to the questions, that would be the best substitute for finding the answers. And that’s really what science is all about: getting close to the questions.”

I thought immediately about my 12-year-old son, Jack, the grand inquisitor, whose questions long ago exceeded my capacity for simple answers.

He asks about the makings of earthquakes and tsunamis, about whether yogurt is a liquid or a solid, about the ethics of capital punishment, about whether Xerneas or Yveltal is the better Pokemon. The questions are part science, part spirituality, part pure wonderment.

“Not everything’s been answered,” Krauss, a cosmologist, said as I continued to sit there, wasting gas and burning ozone.

“That’s really important for parents, too … when kids ask how something works, to sometimes say, ‘I don’t know. Hey, maybe we should think about it. Or maybe nobody knows. You could figure it out.’ ”

More noble, I suppose, than my standard answer lately, which is “Ask Mr. Jenney.” (Mr. Jenney being Jack’s seventh-grade science teacher and his knowledge and proximity being my lazy, scientific equivalent to “Ask your mother.”)

It’s hard to arrive at that point in parenthood when you’re constantly, frustratingly void of answers. Vexed. Befuddled. My shoulders are locked in a permanent shrug.

I prefer the kinds of questions my children used to ask – Where are my shoes? Can I go outside? Why do I have to eat vegetables? Who sings “Sunday Bloody Sunday”? – or at least I thought I did.

Now I realize we’re in this together, trying to comprehend the vast, mysterious universe and our place in it, and suddenly that journey seems even more fascinating, more beautiful, more precious.

My children’s quest to figure things out becomes my excuse to try again – and again and again and again. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand quantum mechanics or string theory, but the odyssey calls.

Usually from the passenger’s seat, and usually prefaced by Jack’s trademark, “I wonder …”

“The standard measure of how alive you are,” novelist Ian McEwan told that audience in Phoenix, “is the measure of your curiosity.”

I sat in my car, nodding, wondering and thankful.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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