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THE GREATEST DISCOVERY OF ALL

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By Yoav J. Tenembaum

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The Montréal Review, January 2017

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Félix Parra Hernández, "Galileo at the University of Padua Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories", 1873

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The greatest discovery of all is the question; the realization that our mind can leap forward from ignorance to curiosity, from appearance to doubt, from assumption to fact – and the consequent realization that in order to do that an intellectual bridge is needed in the form of a question.

Without the question, many other discoveries would not have taken place; many inventions would not have occurred; many historical findings would not have been revealed; many a philosophical insight would not have emerged.

Without the question, as explicitly raised or implicitly conveyed, life would have remained mostly stilled. Our mind would have directed its attention towards the horizon straight on turning neither left nor right. The intellectual prowess displayed by the individual would have been bereft of doubt. Certainty would have reigned supreme.

Knowledge would have been a mirror-image of what people already knew or accidently bumped into.

To be sure, there have been inventions, discoveries, findings and insights that were the corollary of unintended processes, of accidents and chance, but these usually emerged as a result of a question-mark, either previously or subsequently. This is not to belittle the role of accident or chance in this regard, only to put it in its right context.

For instance, Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon) discovered a hitherto unknown continent by chance after having raised a question as to whether there was no way of reaching Asia by sailing westward.

Alexander Fleming’s stumbled by chance into a powerful antibiotic, the penicillin, as he accidentally left a petri dish containing a staphylococcus culture on a lab bench and did not place it in the incubator as intended. This led him to pose several queries and other scientists to do likewise subsequently so as to render the finding into a widely-available medicine to fight infections.  

Even the apple that all of sudden fell at the presence of Isaac Newton by chance led him to ask himself, as one of his biographers, William Stukeley, relays to his readers, “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself..." Chance was followed by query, which ultimately led to theory.

Even when observations are made with a full point or an exclamation-mark at the end, more often than not these either follow an implicit question-mark or are followed by one.

Take for instance differences between objects, individuals, phenomena. On many an occasion, if the differences concerned are clear to see, one would make a statement to that effect. However, if one wishes to go beyond the obvious to know the precise nature, the cause or effect of the differences concerned, one would resort to the question-mark to elicit the required information.

For example, let us advance the following statement ‘The Japanese are physically different from the Sudanese.’ This is a statement of fact as perceived by the observer. It would be enough for the observer to have a superficial perception of reality and a discerning eye to be able to state that. However, in order to be able to go beyond this obvious statement of fact, it would be well-nigh impossible to eschew the question-mark. ‘In what way are Japanese physically different from the Sudanese?’ or ‘Why are they physically different from each other?’ Without the question, the human mind is transformed into a photographic camera.

To revert to the role of chance and accident, one should bear in mind that there are two alternative scenarios.

The first entails stumbling into something while searching for something else; and then subsequently to be posing the questions: What is this? What is this good for? What purpose does it serve?

In the second scenario one need not be looking actively for something else when stumbling into something. However, the subsequent queries would most probably still emerge.

The discovery of saccharin is a pertinent example of the latter case. The two scientists who are identified with it, Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, stumbled into it by chance as Fahlberg, who had been working in the laboratory, had forgotten to wash his hands before having a meal, which led him to notice a peculiar sweet flavour during his meal. This ignited the curiosity of both of them, which led them to pose some questions and to write about their findings together, though the patent is under Fahlberg’s name alone, something that caused an angry response by Remsen, who severed all contacts with his colleague.

Remsen and Fahlberg were not looking for anything in particular as they prepared to have their meal. Their finding was a result of a negligent Fahlberg who had not washed his hands and thus led to his tasting a sweet material, which in time became what is known to us as saccharin. 

The finding as such would have come to naught had it not been for their curious minds raising some questions about what had happened. The question, in a sense, made the difference between the accident and the finding. Without the question, these two scientists would have stumbled into something odd, rendering it a passing episode and no more.

It is the question that makes the difference between the depiction of reality and the understanding of reality. It is the question that distinguishes between appearance and potential, between what is perceived as a static fact and what is construed as an opportunity to create a new fact.

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Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the Diplomacy Studies Program, Political Science Department, Tel Aviv University.

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