When we hear about science in our textbooks or on the news, we usually only hear about the big moments: discovering DNA, studying gravity, or understanding plate tectonics. But it is important to remember that science is about asking questions, and it is not only about asking big questions. Most of the time, those big questions break down into many, many smaller ones.
Quite often, scientists are asking questions that you have probably wondered about yourself. How do birds know where to fly in the winter? Why do earthquakes happen in some places but not others? Why don’t I have a twin?
But the amazing thing about small questions is that they stubbornly refuse to stay small. The moment you ask about why beaches have sand, then you start to wonder where sand comes from. What is it actually? Do all beaches have sand? Why is there sand in deserts too? Is this the same kind of sand?
With each step you learn a little more and wonder a little deeper and eventually you reach a question that no one has figured out yet. Being a scientist means trying to figure out that next step.
For many years scientists have studied geckos – the little lizards with the ability to climb almost anything – because they have asked the question we were all wondering too: how do they do that?
Most recently, a group of scientists wanted to know if sticking to the wall was something that the gecko's foot was doing, or if the geckos were making their feet do something special. In other words, would gecko feet be able to stick to the wall so strongly if the gecko wasn’t telling them to do it.
To ask this question, the researchers needed to measure how difficult it is to separate the foot of a gecko from a surface once it is stuck on. Then they had to find a way to compare that with a foot that a gecko wasn’t in control of anymore – the foot of a dead gecko.
These researchers found that the foot of the dead gecko stuck to the wall just as strongly as the geckos that were alive. (Imagine the conversation at the dinner table: “Oh what did you do today?” “Oh, you know, stuck some dead gecko feet to a wall for science.”)
They asked the seemingly small question – how do geckos stick to the wall like that – and now they have another piece of what is turning out to be a very big answer.
Another group of scientists wanted to know about the bugs in New York City and wondered something that has probably been wondered many times: How much those bugs actually eat?
Because no one knew the answer, the scientists had to find a way to measure how much the bugs could eat and how much other animals eat before the bugs get a chance.
To do this, the researchers placed food in tiny cages so that other animals wouldn’t be able to eat it and measured how much of a potato chip, a cookie, and 1/10th of a hot dog was actually eaten in 24 hours. They compared this to the amount that was eaten when the same food was put out without a cage. (Again, imagine the dinner conversation, “What did you do today?” “Oh you know, I put small pieces of hot dog into tiny cages and put them in the grass for science.”)
This small question also turned out to have a surprisingly big answer. Bugs and spiders could easily be eating thousands of cookies, chips, and hot dogs all over New York City every day. Now the question is how much food would there be in the streets if these bugs weren't eating so much? It turns out that asking this simple bug question has opened a whole new can of worms.
The next time you find yourself wondering about how rainbows form or why orange juice tastes terrible after brushing your teeth, don’t tell yourself that this is a small or silly question. Look it up. Try to figure it out. See how many small questions you can ask before you find one that doesn’t yet have an answer.
Arnold, C. (2014, December 2). Bugs, Spiders Keep NYC Clean by Eating Garbage. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com
Wilkinson, A. (2014, December 2). Big Apple's Insects Eat Streets Clean.[Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamnerican.com
University of California - Riverside. "Geckos are sticky without the effort: Death has no impact on strength geckos use to adhere to surfaces." ScienceDaily, 3 December 2014.