Day 347. When to stop asking ‘why?’

In July 2013 on July 24, 2013 at 9:55 am


In science, hypotheses are explored under controlled conditions and using groups of experimental subjects: the higher the number of subjects (referred to as ‘N”) the better.

It’s an approach which is clean, reproducible and reliable, and helps scientists feel confident in their ability to draw reasonable conclusions from their experiments.

Entirely the opposite experience to having a baby. My sister Anna explores this question in her guest post below, which she created as part of her participation in the recent Social Media for Scientists course.

N.B. post may also be relevant to the current experiences of Duchess Kate and Prince William, if someone could please let them know

I read James’ guest post on Science for Life. 365 about how ‘his people’ – including his 4-year-old son – are scientists and continually ask ‘why’ at the world.

Well my people are scientists too. With my husband, I have recently added to my people: a daughter, who is nearly 6 months old.

In my professional life, I ask why relating to the neural control of the respiratory muscles. And – consistent with the theme of this blog – I also ask why at all sorts of everyday things. However, in relation to my daughter and her sleep habits, I am wondering if it is time to stop asking why.

Why did she wake up only 30 minutes into her usual 10 hour long sleep?

Was it because she was hungry?

Was it because she needed a burp?

Was it because she hit her foot on the cot?

Was it because she was over tired? (This paradox relating to babies kills me BTW!)

These questions and more run through my head every time my baby does something out of the ordinary or doesn’t stick to the ‘ideal’ plan for the day/night that I have in my head.

I think this is because I tend to think about her and her sleep like a science experiment. One of the first things we scientists learn is that you have to control your variables. And in a controlled setting, we make observations and draw conclusions from a group of cells, animals or human subjects.

Therefore, for my daughter, we have a bedtime routine, we control the environment, and we put a worn t-shirt of mine in the cot so she can smell my pheromones (yes we even use science to try and fool her). We follow a methodology.

However, there is one variable we can’t control: the little person in the cot! N = 1 is doing her own thing and has her own little brain and personality. And I am coming to realise that there may be one reason for why she does something one day and another reason for why she does it the next.

So although asking why stimulates my brain, allows me to contribute to Australian medical research and health care, and pays my bills; this is one occasion when I need to stop asking why so much and go with the flow.

And then, when she is older, we can ask ‘why at the world’ together.

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Dr Anna Hudson Price

  1. I have a 5 year old, and I love when he asks ‘why’ questions about the world. I do not love the ‘whyyyyyyyy?’ questions about long-standing household rules, however.

    Working on increasing the first and eliminating the second.

    Love the post!

  2. Hi Cathy,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I agree, there are many different genres of ‘why’! Some fantastic, some not so much 🙂

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