Why?

So, earlier in my high school career I’d done pretty well at chemistry and AP physics, so in the 12th grade I enrolled in the AP chemistry class. Well. I was out of my depth in a way I’ve seldom been since, and I transferred out of that class after the first week, and been generally humbled the memory of that week since.

I forget the teacher’s name, but there were two funny things that he’d say that have stuck with me. First, when someone got a correct answer, he’d tell them they probably made two mistakes. But even better was his rule that “we don’t answer questions that begin with the word ‘why.’”

Which after you think about it makes perfect sense in chemistry — atoms and molecules do what they do; to get into the reasons is to dive into a realm (particle physics) that is much more technical and difficult than chemistry when it’s understood at all, which often it is not.

But the truth is that “why?” is a funny question anytime. Contemporary psychology shows us that we rarely understand our own motivations for our actions, so even asking “why did you do that?” is an invitation to fabrication.

Well, earlier today Kottke posted Richard Feyman’s explanation for why trains stay on tracks (it ain’t what you think!), and I started clicking around watching all the other Feyman videos on YouTube, until I stumbled across one where the interviewer asks Feyman why magnets attract each other, sending him into a prodigious rant about why we don’t answer questions that begind with the word ‘why’!:

Posted: Tuesday July 7, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · · Comment feed for this post: RSS, atom

 

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