John Lienhard

In Praise of Frivolous Questions

Years ago, I would argue with friends in an army mess hall: “How should we best keep our coffee warm until we get around to drinking it? Should we put the cream in right away? Or should we wait?” Well, let’s see what happens when we play with that question.

Perhaps the cream is just out of the refrigerator. Then it will warm while the coffee cools. Or maybe it’s already at room temperature. Do we stir the cream in, or just pour it? Maybe creamy liquid changes the convective cooling. The closer we look, the more tangled it all gets – the further we are from an answer. (Go online today: People are still debating it.) Maybe it’s no surprise that, after the army, I went off to do a Ph.D. in thermal science. That might be a stretch; but seemingly silly questions really do open doors.

Now I turn pages in a neat little book: Rainbows, Curve Balls and other Wonders of the Natural World … by Ira Flatow. It takes me back to those idly frivolous conversations. Flatow asks us to question the ever-fascinating, commonplace world around us. He takes us to familiar places – the kitchen, the beach, the concert hall, the ballpark … He invites us to join him in questioning what we see. He poses the questions that you and I might ask if we let our curiosity run freely through our everyday world.

We walk through a kitchen: So many questions if we just think to ask them! What’s with those air bubbles lining the water glass we left standing. Why does it seem that watched pots don’t boil? In fact, the processes on our kitchen stove reflect those in a modern power plant. The mind that questions the little things around us is the same mind that builds the world we live in. Lessons lurk in questions about cooking eggs, baking bread, and freezing perishable groceries.

Go to the beach and ask why waves break, why the sky is blue, what the real color of water is, why rainbows are arcs of a circle. At the ballpark, we might wonder how pitchers can throw curve balls or why bats have a sweet spot. Why don’t we dimple baseballs the way we do golf balls? Where should we sit in a concert hall to get the best sound from an orchestra?

Questions like these shaped you and me as engineers. Questions that seem trivial make our sons and daughters into engineers and artists – into mechanics and chemists. They remind us that, to master complexity, we first need to find the simplicity that underlies complexity. And, speaking of simplicity, think about this riddle:

A tiger walks at 4 mph toward a sleeping doe. One hour before the tiger reaches the doe, a bee leaves the doe, flying 15 mph. It flies to the tiger, then back to the doe, back to the tiger, and so on. How far will the bee fly (back and forth) before the tiger reaches the doe?

That sounds complicated. We let each leg of the bee’s flight draw us in – calculating it, then integrating the sum. If we soldier on, we do finally get the right answer: 15 milesBut wait a minute … why did we bother! The bee flies for an hour at 15 mph. It obviously goes 15 miles. What’s to calculate?

And we’re back to the importance of finding simplicity within seeming complexity. We can hone that ability by constantly questioning the commonplace. That’s where we can find the manageable simplicity behind all the complication that we engineers have to deal with. That’s where we can learn how to seek out the essential simplicity within our complex world.

So what about our coffee cup? All that talk led us to the obvious fact that no two coffee and cream configurations are the same. The simple thing we learned from all that haggling was a reminder that a simple question need not have one simple answer.

Flatow, I., RAINBOWS, CURVE BALLS, and Other Wonders of the Natural World Explained. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988.