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Living in the Questions

"and living in the wonder of it. The wonder of the question".

What are the upper limits to plant toxicity? How and when should plants defend themselves? How do symbiotic relationships restrict or expand the boundaries of plant defense chemistry?

The big questions that my work aims at tackling are constantly shifting around in my mind. I reshape these questions in an unending yearning to understand the bigger pattern that is shimmering before me, just below the surface.

I did not realize the spiritual nature of this yearning, this tension, until I heard Krista Tippett describe it in a recent On Being podcast:

I feel this palpable creative tension in expecting undiscovered patterns to explain the natural world but not yet being able to tangibly see those patterns or the underlying processes.

Sculpting questions that get at those big concepts is the creative work of scientists. I would even confidently say that forming questions and working with them makes science a creative process.

Science fundamentally relies on imagination. Forming interesting questions requires reimagining what might really be going on at a molecular level, or across many generations. If using imagination to rearrange the composition of known phenomena in nature and find gaps therein, is in fact, not art, then I do not know what art feels like.

And like the artist, this sacred, creative tension both fulfills something in my soul and tortures me in its unshakeable yearning. Even before I start collecting data to get at the first question, I my inspiration wanders to try to pin down the next most-important-question that will explain some corner of biology.

I wonder if Darwin felt this way too, even after asking a big question that continues to shape our biology lens today: how does natural selection lead to descent with modification? Was he content after identifying four postulates that underlie natural selection, the process driving the pattern of descent with modification (evolution)? Or did he continue to reshape the questions in his mind about how this phenomenon operates? His work is awe-worthy because most, if not all, of the interesting big questions today operate underneath the umbrella of natural selection that Darwin created from his question.

Seeking this level of big question completely overwhelms me, but simultaneously drives me. What other processes are constantly at work in nature, shimmering just out of reach?

-Adrienne L. Godschalx, January 19th, 2016

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