Good Scientific Questions Can Be Answered With Empirical Experiments: “In Science, Reality Rules”

(p. A17) . . . I hit it off with the legendary Columbia University physics professor and Nobel Prize winner I.I. Rabi, who discovered the basis for magnetic resonance imaging, among other techniques through which we access and harness the quantum world.

. . .

Naturally, our conversations often wandered across physics. I was full of theoretical ideas and quasi-philosophical speculations. Rabi pressed me—gently, with a twinkle in his eye, yet relentlessly—to describe their concrete meaning. In the process we often discovered that there wasn’t any!

But not always—and the questions that survived those dialogues were leaner and stronger. I internalized this experience, and since then my inner Rabi (he died in 1988) has been a wise, inspiring companion.

. . .

Fully worked-out answers to good scientific questions should include solid experimental prospects.

That is a surprisingly controversial view today, as some prominent philosophers of science promote a “post-empirical physics” that doesn’t require proof, or evidence. And there’s no doubt that physically inspired mathematics, or for that matter pure mathematics, can bring people great joy. But I lean toward Rabi’s attitude: In science, reality rules.

. . .

Another characteristic of most good questions is that the answer is just a little bit out of reach. It should not be too obvious, but it should not be utterly inaccessible either.

. . .

The foolproof way to find good questions is to come up with a lot of them and then throw out the ones that are too vague, too easy, too hard or too inconsequential.

For the full commentary, see:

Frank Wilczek. “WILCZEK’S UNIVERSE; Sifting for the Right Questions in Science.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 29, 2023): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 28, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

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