Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Questions Themselves

I published a paper last week with two co-authors, Patrizio Tressoldi at University of Padova in Italy and Jessica Utts at University of California at Irvine. It's gained a lot of media attention because the results suggest that our bodies can anticipate upcoming emotional events without any external clues. Of course there must be an explanation for this phenomenon, but my co-authors and I don't know what it is; it's possible that there is a rather un-interesting explanation, but we rule out those explanations in the analysis, at least as far as we can tell. I go into details about the possible un-interesting explanations in my paper (visit this page to download it), so I don't want to discuss them here. The remaining explanations are all fairly interesting -- such as quantum biological processes and retrocausal effects. However, the upshot is that we found a highly significant effect that is very mysterious, given the everyday assumption that causes precede their effects.

As a scientist, it's pretty rare to get media attention. It feels good that ABC 20/20 and the Wall Street Journal seem to care about my work, or at least the results of my work. But this morning, as I watched the paper climb to the top of the heap in terms of media mentions for the particular journal in which it is published (Frontiers in Perception Science), I realized that I feel a completeness I've never felt before in my work, and it is only partly the short-term high of media attention.

I feel like if I die now, I know I have changed the world for the better. It's not that my research is so amazing that it changes the world for the better in itself. It is that in this paper we present a mysterious finding that seems very robust, yet it is still mysterious. We don't have a good handle on how to explain it. It's remarkable to see such acclaim and publicity around a question, not an answer. That momentary celebration of not knowing is a big gift to myself and others, and a good reminder of all we don't know.

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves," Rilke wrote. Loving the questions is the secret beauty in the scientific process. It's secret because the way science is taught suggests that scientists love answers, not questions. But anyone who actually becomes a scientist does so because that person is driven by a question that they love. The feeling is mutual; it seems that the question clings tenaciously as well, throughout your life. For me, the question is, "what is the nature of time?"

I want to freeze this moment, before answers are given to address this particular mystery. I want to appreciate this public celebration of wonder and strangeness, without answers. My completeness comes from knowing I made the point that I most enjoy making -- mystery is real, it is awesome, and when questions are loved well, they will eventually, if they like, yield answers.

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