What’s in a question?

Ambika Kamath | Updated on January 08, 2018

Leaves it be: Chlorophyll isn’t the only pigment in a leaf; — yellow-orange carotenoids andred-purple anthocyanins are part of the mix too. And it’s the season that decides when the non-green pigments will shine through Image: Shutterstock

Ambika Kamath   -  BUSINESS LINE

The power to shake scientists into new ways of thinking, and to keep the others invested in knowing more about the world around us

One consequence of being a biologist is to find yourself fielding questions from friends and family about the natural world. “Why is the sea salty?” “Do animals have consciousness?” “Why do insects die once they’ve stung?” “Why do cockroaches die on the back?” These inquiries were delivered to me in the form of WhatsApp messages from my friend Vinaya; the last was prefaced with the words “urgent question”.

Despite being a biologist, I do not have immediate answers to these questions. Tackling them with any seriousness would require that I look up facts, distinguish the well-established ones from reasoned conjectures, and integrate the two to build the most plausible response. The answer to any scientific question is therefore, in a manner of speaking, alive — it could change and grow as we discover new facts, it could take on a new shape if someone comes up with a better conjecture. My first reply to a question from Vinaya is almost always a guess. She often pokes logical holes at this guess, and I’ll eventually look up some published research, leading us to a revised and hopefully more accurate response. We rarely reach an entirely satisfying answer, leaving room for more learning (“I like unanswered questions,” she once said, leaving me relieved that I wasn’t letting her down).

This process that we engage in is the process of scientific thinking, and the main difference between us — a scientist and a non-scientist — is simply how much practice we’ve had in thinking this way. It’s an easy process to practise, as can be illustrated by beginning to tackle another of Vinaya’s questions: “Why are leaves different shades of green?” Thinking about pigments proves to be a useful starting point. Chlorophyll, the pigment that allows leaves to produce food from carbon dioxide and sunlight, and also happens to make them green, comes in different forms. These forms are present to varying degrees in different plants, algae, and bacteria, and each absorbs or reflects light differently, rendering each type of chlorophyll a different colour. And chlorophyll isn’t the only pigment in a leaf; yellow-orange carotenoids and red-purple anthocyanins are part of the mix too.

From this initial knowledge about pigments, we can pursue several lines of conjecture. Why might the different pigments absorb and reflect light differently? We could also ask why the amount or type of pigment varies across leaves, which pushes us further into biology. Do different pigments serve different purposes? Yes, some deter herbivores by making leaves taste bad or difficult to digest. Are some pigments costlier to produce than others under different conditions? They are, explaining why some leaves change colour as the seasons shift — the cold isn’t conducive to food production, so leaves stop making chlorophyll as summer turns to winter, and the carotenoids and anthocyanins shine through instead. And not everything indicates a plant behaving optimally. Diseased leaves can be a different colour than healthy ones.

My years of practice with scientific thinking have led me not only to answer but also to ask questions in a certain way, and each WhatsApp message from Vinaya jolts me out of my comfort zone. To understand if this kind of disconnect extends beyond us, to scientists and non-scientists more generally, I turned to David Steen, a biologist with more experience than me in answering non-scientists’ questions about the natural world. Steen is an expert on reptiles and amphibians, who has taken it upon himself to change minds about venomous snakes, and more generally to “encourage an appreciation for…wild creatures” by using Twitter to answer questions.

Steen believes that most people can be captivated by the animals around them. “Sometimes that manifests in a real appreciation and interest, sometimes that manifests in fear and loathing, but they’re all interested and fascinated by these creatures.” And he concurs that the questions he gets are not the sort whose answers are readily found in a scientific paper. People want to know how big a rattlesnake can get, where frogs spend the winter, how many turtles live in their local pond, and whether water snakes launch themselves into boats intentionally. While it’s possible to build a well-reasoned, plausible response to each of these questions on the basis of scientific literature, that response will almost never be simple.

So what do we do with this disconnect, between how scientists and non-scientists frame their curiosity about the natural world? Steen has an idea — involve the public in deciding what research gets funded. Not all research, “because we do know that scientists are best equipped to figure out what’s cutting-edge research, what is best to fund to advance human knowledge. But it doesn’t always relate directly to what the public is interested in.” Steen adds, “What if there was some process (by which) the public got to vote on some (research) proposals, or worked with scientists to talk about what they’re interested in, or what they would want to fund?”

I like this idea. It would periodically shake scientists into new ways of thinking, and keep non-scientists involved and invested in creating knowledge about the world around us. Until we get that organised, though, email me your burning questions about nature. I’ll do my best — no simple answers guaranteed!

Ambika Kamath is a behavioural ecologist, currently based at the University of California, Santa Barbara; ambikamath@gmail.com

Published on October 06, 2017

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