Why vs How: What kinds of questions are the most important?
Heather Heying knows that a true understanding of the world comes not from the answers, but the questions as well.
Heather Heying is an evolutionary biologist and former Professor at Evergreen State College. She applies the tool kit of evolutionary theory to problems large and small, some seemingly intractable, some possibly trivial—what to eat, how to teach and parent and be an upstanding citizen, what to avoid, and what to seek.
Heather came to prominence after she and her husband, Bret Weinstein, stood up to supporters of an enforced “Day of Absence” for white staff and teachers at Evergreen State College.
Heather Heying: I started most of my programs, when I was teaching, with an exercise that I call 20 Questions, which I borrowed in part from the Organization for Tropical Studies, which does this exercise with graduate students who it’s got in Costa Rica or other tropical field sites.
It involves taking people out—you have to have access to nature, you have to have access to a fair bit of nature—Taking people out and asking them in advance to just take out pen and paper; no phone, water if they need it but no food. Promise them that they’re not going to die out there, and be true to your promise, make sure that you don’t abandon them.
You take people out and you drop them in some spot, and if you have a group of people you drop them out of sight of one another and you say, “Sit here for two hours. I will be back in two hours. But for these two hours just sit here and be, and let your senses start to tell you what you’re experiencing.”
For a while (and depending on how long it’s been since you’ve really spent time in nature), it’s just going to be your brain yammering at you telling you that you have things to do, this is a waste of your time, that you’re bored, that you wish you weren’t being told to do this.
At some point, two hours is usually long enough for that to fade away.
And so the instruction is let that all that wash over you, but try then to start watching and hearing, and smelling if you like, what it is that is going on around you.
And at whatever point you feel like it start writing down questions that you have about what you’re experiencing. The goal is to write down 20, but if you write down five that’s fine, if you write down 40 that’s fine too, and try to make the questions be about what’s going on external to your head as opposed to questions that your own brain is generating that has nothing to do with what you’re actually experiencing right now.
So, people spend two hours out in nature doing this and I’ve done this in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve done it in the San Juan Islands, in the high desert of Washington, in Ecuador, in Panama, in the Amazon, all sorts of places, and you get different results in each of these places, because the questions that people can ask when there are parrots around (versus mountains) are quite different.
But you pick them up you say “Okay you're free now.” And you're free “either for the rest of the day and we’ll come back together bring your questions tomorrow”, or “at least for a few hours, like you don't have to think about this but go just let this percolate.”
We come back together, say it’s in the afternoon of the same day, you break people up into groups four or five and say, “Okay give your questions to the person on your left and have them choose their favorite question from your list, and you choose your favorite question for the list.” And so in a group of five end up with ten questions that people really, really like that they had written down.
And now start to categorize them.
In the case of an educational environment that’s about discovering evolutionary truths I tend to ask them to categorize questions on the basis of, is this a factual question?
Is it a ‘what is’? “What was that bird?” “What is the name of that cloud formation?”
Is it a ‘how’-style question, a proximate question? Like “How does the bird find the flower?”
Or is it a ‘why’-style question, an adaptive question, an ultimate level question? “Why is that bird moving back-and-forth between those two flowers the entire time I was here?”
And so you have the students categorize, which begins to establish borders around types of questions. And you can begin to see that the “what” questions are the kinds of questions that with the right expert or the right search term you can pretty quickly answer, the kinds of questions that people who are newly spending time in nature are going to ask about, “what is that,” are probably answered already out there by someone and probably a lot of people know the answer to and it’s discoverable, and it doesn’t go very far very interestingly. “What is it?” We’ve got a name for it. There you go. Move on.
But the “how” and the “why” questions are where we can really start to explore how we know what’s true, how we make claims of truths. This is the basis of epistemology: how is it that we make claims of truth, and how would we begin to know if what we think is true is actually true?
And so this is the beginning of the scientific method. This is: begin with observation; pose a question; figure out what the hypothesis would be that would answer a particular question; and then figure out how we would begin to address that hypothesis. That is a scientific approach to questions that could just be addressed any number of ways.
So I have people spend an hour, and hour and a half sometimes doing this in small groups, and then we share and then they write these down on posters, and then we go around and talk about some of the best ones from each group. And it’s amazing. It is high energy.
So in a class of 25 or 50—in a group of 25 or 50 people it’s too much really, it would be better in a group of 10 or 15 probably—But still it would be high energy because everyone is vested.
Everyone has a question that they really think is theirs and they also interestingly almost always have an answer they think is right, whether or not they have any basis to think it’s right. They haven’t done the science, they haven’t actually gone out and tested the hypothesis, they’ve done the first parts of the science (they’ve made an observation, they asked a question, they posited an explanation, which is a hypothesis that might answer that question, but they haven’t yet gone out and tried to figure it out), but they are really sure.
And so to watch the sureness in the room come face-to-face with other people who haven’t yet considered the question who on the spur of the moment come up with alternate explanations is both an exercise in how science is done and how we come to understand what things are true and what things aren’t, but also an exercise in watching human dynamics about how someone—who yesterday didn’t care about this thing at all—now is so sure and is so intricately tied their identity to this thing being true, whether or not it is, that they can end up yelling at someone who is just saying, “Maybe it’s this instead.”
And so you actually begin to get real group cohesion out of the chaos of people disagreeing sometimes stridently, sometimes angrily with one another, because all it takes is a step back to say “Okay, how would we know? Why do you care so much? Why is this about emotion right now, as opposed to ‘let’s figure out how we would actually come to know’?”
Heather Heying knows that a true understanding of the world comes not from the answers alone. Sure, they help, but the questions are of equal importance. And the right questions can make science that much more appealing and three-dimensional. You can follow Heather on Twitter here.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Matthew Yglesias and moderator Charles Duhigg explore the idea on Big Think Live.
Is immigration key to bolstering the American economy? Could having one billion Americans secure the US's position as the global superpower?
Researchers detect a large lake and several ponds deep under the ice of the Martian South Pole.
- Italian scientists release findings of a large underground lake and three ponds below the South Pole of Mars.
- The lake might contain water, with salt preventing them from freezing.
- The presence of water may indicate the existence of microbial and other life forms on the planet.
Mars colony: Humanity's greatest quest | Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, & more | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa931ba0f8c1152a7c32c5e09c55d138"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KfKr5Jll88o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
- The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
Is the Magnetic Field Reversing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e3e0b16dac3b05dab808a4ddf04d198b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/51usJ74pPP8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Techshot's 3D BioFabrication Facility successfully printed human heart tissue aboard the International Space Station.
All that's fit to bioprint<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MTc4OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjUyMTkxN30.c02tUlYJLxdekTGR5ExOagL2Sh-5rmWN6pYkqger920/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C210%2C0%2C2&height=700" id="c20c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="681571f2317ce5f65b105b6fb5aabd51" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Dr. Eugene Boland" />
Dr. Eugene Boland, Techshot's chief scientist, presents the 3D BioFabrication Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida
A heart from your new BFF<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1fa24e6ada521bcdac46de275c37f2da"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/p_hauPqouH8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>In partnership with <a href="https://www.nscrypt.com/about-us/" target="_blank">nScrypt</a>, Techshot developed the BFF to manufacture human tissue in space. In July 2019, they launched the bioprinter aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo mission to be delivered to the International Space Station. There, it was loaded up with nerve, muscle, and vascular bioinks. As the BFF pinned the cells together in a culturing cassette, generating layers several times thinner than a human hair, the microgravity environment ensured the low-viscosity structure kept together. That's courtesy of the same surface tension property that allows for those <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_qPWZbxFl8" target="_blank">moving water spheres astronauts love to play with</a>.</p><p>"So, now you can have a vascular cell where you want a blood vessel to be, the nerve cell where you want the nerve to pass through, and muscle cells where you need a muscle bundle to be," Boland said. "All of those will stay where you put them in three-dimensions and then grow and mature where you want them."</p><p>A non-cellular ink was added to the mix to provide a bit of framework and prevent cells from sliding around during the printing process. But because Earth's gravity had less pull, this framework didn't need to be as ridged as terrestrial scaffolding. This non-cellular ink was water-soluble, meaning it could be washed away after the printing was complete. The end result, a more natural fabrication of human tissue.</p><p>Once 25 percent of the cells needed for the mature tissue were in place, the cell-culturing cassette was moved to another payload, the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP). There, the cells lived and grew as they would naturally. Fully differentiated cells signaled to the adult stems cells that they should be heart cells. The stem cells grew and multiplied, supported by the nutrients provided in the ink. A few weeks later and the cassette was home to human heart tissue.</p><p>This January, <a href="https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/success-3d-bioprinter-in-space-prints-with-human-heart-cells-300982759.html" target="_blank">Techshot announced</a> the BFF had cultured successful test prints aboard the ISS. These heart prints measured 30 mm long by 20 mm wide by 12.6mm high. In a follow-up experiment, the BFF also manufactured <a href="https://techshot.com/techshot-successfully-completes-knee-cartilage-test-prints-in-space/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">test prints of a partial human knee meniscus</a>, the soft cartilage that acts as a shock absorber between your shinbone and thighbone.</p>
The future of medicine is in space?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MTc5MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjQwODUxOH0.VAg1FIZkGz_IOCaGUAHxylX1h44qA2-tk-9odXPoLT0/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C118%2C0%2C94&height=700" id="2176b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="932d3caca0897797883d941a6255885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir prepares Techshot's cell-culturing cassettes for their return trip to Earth.
Credit: NASA Johnson/Flickr<p>For its next run, Techshot wants to improve the cell-culturing cassette, refining conditions and more effectively flushing out trapped air. Its researchers are also looking into making cells in orbit. Then there is the process of scaling up from test prints to functioning tissue pieces (say, heart patches) to fully operational organs. Then there are the challenges of space flight and <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/3d-printing-body-parts" target="_self">the long road of regulation</a>.</p><p>"We're dedicated to the long haul here," Boiling said during our interview. "We have agreements with NASA that permit us to iterate and fly-and-try to continue and improve. We brought the BFF and ADSEP back from the space station late summer to make those improvements based on what we have learned so we can send it back up."</p><p>Yet, the windfall goes well beyond shoring up our stock of donor organs. Bioprinting has the potential to dramatically advance the field of personalized medicine. For example, one danger of transplants is rejection by the host body. This happens when a recipient's immune system views the life-saving tissue as a foreign invader and attacks it. <a href="https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2010/09/researchers-find-faster-less-intrusive-way-to-identify-transplant-recipients-organ-rejection.html#:~:text=If%20organ%20function%20drops%2C%20doctors,the%20first%20year%20after%20transplant." target="_blank">About 40 percent of heart recipients</a> experience acute rejection in the first year, requiring doctors to prescribe immunosuppressant drugs.</p><p>Crafting an organ from a patient's personal stem-cell stock has the potential to reduce this risk. Replacement parts, such as heart patches, could also be patient-specific. Test prints could be constructed to analyze how a patient's system responds to specific drugs and treatments, taking <em>in vitro</em> experiments out of the Petri dish and into a microenvironment more representative of the natural human body.</p><p>"Instead of the trial-and-error medicine of the 20th century, you'll have the personalized medicine that has always been just around the corner. [This technology] may be an answer to that," Boland said.</p><p>And we could take bioprinting farther into space. Boiling foresees a future where the technology could <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/artemisprogram" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">travel with us to the Moon</a> or beyond. There it could serve personalized pharmaceutical needs for stationed astronauts, or if paired with a Cell Factory, it could print meats made from bovine or pig cells. Ethical, yet potentially indistinguishable from its farm-raised counterpart.</p><p>We've come a long way since the 1950s. Many people are alive today thanks to what that first kidney transplant showed medical science. True, Techshot's test prints are small compared to an entire human organ, with its complex and interconnected network of epithelial, connective, muscle, and nervous tissue. But if printing an organ is equivalent to urban planning a cellular city, then Techshot's accomplishment is certainly the first of many skyscrapers toward that goal. That goal could be the proof on concept that saves many more.</p>