1000 Ways of Asking

1000 Ways of Asking

“If a group of humans were isolated in a room together, three things would happen: they would have sex, they would make music, and they would question and argue about the way things work.”

It might not be a testable hypothesis, but Cole Mathis, a PhD researcher in the lab, sums up the basic human activities thusly: reproducing, creating, and questioning.

It’s that last one I’m concerned with today. How does the Emergence lab ask questions? Or, really, how do they answer them? How do they, as Sara puts it, turn a philosophical question of “What is Life?” into a scientific one?

One trick is to get specific–to find a “motivating question.” Each researcher in the lab has a different way in. For instance, Sam Rochelle is testing the level of oxygen in the atmosphere as the earth was developing. Alyssa Adams uses computational models of life called Cellular Automata to try to discern how systems can create and retain complexity. Jake Hanson is testing group decision making by observing how ants move through their colonies. 

How to define life?

The question on the table: What is a quantitative definition of life? Commence argument.

Each of these researchers is creating a puzzle piece in order to form a more complete picture of the answer to “What is Life?”. The thing is, there’s no picture on the box. And the pieces might not fit together. And some pieces might be broken. But when you’re trying to answer a question that big, it takes creativity, hope, and a lot of rigor.

As a theatre artist, this kind of approach sounds familiar. Each area of design tells its own story, which, when brought together, forms a more complete whole.

As Catalyst works with these scientists, we have our own motivating question: “How do we tell this story?”. How might we create a show that encompasses a massive amount of research, from all different areas of study, some of which are intimidatingly mathematical and some of which are highly theoretical?

Big Ideas. Small Ideas. How do small pieces fit together into a bigger whole?

I’d like to think we’re building a puzzle piece as well. Our way of asking is making. We approach the research as fearless amateurs. This means that we get the chance to ask every childish question in search of the story of the work.

Why can’t we create life in a lab? What would happen if we find aliens? What makes a person different than an animal? What makes an animal different than a rock?

This is how to wield naivete as a tool. Beautiful science is built from difficult questions. Beautiful stories are built from simple questions. And great collaboration is built from the bravery to stand up and ask those questions out loud.