How odd, what do you think it means?
Updated: Oct 22
I like to think that our minds are in an ever evolving state. We shape our intellect through our experiences and learnings. We may grow, change our minds, go back, skip a step, our minds are in perpetual motion. Unless you are stubborn AF, in which case Darwin will take
care of you. Darwin aside, I also like to believe that we do carry a core part of ourselves which is very fundamental to who we are. A quality that becomes part of our DNA. I would not say we are born with it, I have no way of knowing this, but “it” certainly becomes an
invariant gauge throughout our lifetime.
In my case this core quality is: asking questions. I can not with certainty attribute it to the interactions of specific people, however, two individuals played a very special role: my grandfather and Jacques Lefrançois (my sort of PhD supervisor).
As a kid, I had the luxury of spending countless hours with my granddad in a garden.
After he retired, he dedicated a lot of his time to reading, writing, taking care of his grandkids and his garden. When each grandkid was born he planted a tree. As the privileged first grandchild, two plum trees were planted for me.
We used to conduct all sorts of experiments. One of my favorites was to add a few drops of ink in water and let it get absorbed by Jasmine flowers. This was pure magic or science, you name it.
We would kneel down on the ground and observe what was happening. A garden is an infinite source of wonders, each snail, tree or leaf becomes the source of observations. My grandfather would maybe point out something I didn’t notice or patiently answer my five billionquestions: “Why this, why that? Yes but why?”.
Jacques first entered my life during the PhD years. These three years were a mixture of joy of finally being done with classic academic lectures and the fear of having no clue what you are doing. I have told this story many times, my PhD had nothing to do with what I had imagined it to be. Not even a little. In this untold yet probably visible disappointment, Jacques treated any little distribution I
produced with the seriousness that the scientific process demands.
Any PhD student knows this: a good fraction of what they first produce is buggy. The trick is to understand that and analyse what is going by yourself and no amount of Wikipedia, Googling or stackoverflow will answer that for you. It’s a process that we must go through. What makes Jacques special is that he would never make anyone, myself included, feel garbage for the intermediate buggy distributions, he would walk you through them until you figure out what went wrong. And if nothing went wrong and the plot still makes no sense, then he would patiently try to understand it with you. “Do you understand why this
is? ”, “Did you make an assumption here?”, “What conditions did you use?”. This could last five minutes or many hours or days depending on the complexity of the problem.
In my personal scientific pantheon Jacques sits at the top. Besides the fact that he is the quickest, that nothing escapes him, that he
can build calorimeters in his sleep. He is always driven by scientific curiosity.
It’s not about judgement of the person, it’s about understanding what is going on. What is the data telling you.
Fast forward many years, my reflex to ask questions has not changed. As of today, I am not evolving in the easiest environment. A number of reasons such as the scarcity of the job market, the industrialization of research and more importantly the reduction of major discoveries fostered an atmosphere where information became power. Power to win an argument, power to get one step ahead, power to make a decision, power
to climb the next step of the pointless ladder. A very effective method to dismantle this constructed opacity and blow away illusions of “expertise” is to ask questions and oh boy this is met with resistance, if not violence in some cases.
Probably for the first time in my life I have witnessed attempts to silence me. To make me stop asking questions. It’s one of these things where the magnitude of which is difficult to grasp until you sit on the receiving end.
Recently, I had dinner with Jacques whom I had not seen in many years.
Being in contact with such intelligence, vibrancy and curiosity was the reminder that I needed to never ever not in a million years stop asking questions.