The value of asking questions

Shaira Panela

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We do not ask questions because they matter. We do it because it matters that we ask questions.

MANILA, Philippines – I have always wanted to attend a TED (Technology Education and Design) Talk before. I would download videos from iTunes and watch those I love over and over again. Some of the videos I like were about philosophy, astronomy, psychology, and minimalism. They are 20-minute brain food that can easily be digested.

But apart from conferences organized by TED, an international non-profit organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” an international community called TEDx organizes independent talks in more than 130 countries all over the world, including the Philippines.

In the Philippines, Canvas headed by Atty Gigo Alampay, a non-government organization which publishes books, and other merchandise to promote Philippine art and culture, organized TEDxDiliman 2013 with the theme “Things that Matter.” The speakers include musician Joey Ayala, astrophysicist Reinabelle Reyes, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, The Apprentice Asia winner Jonathan Yabut, former Department of Energy secretary Raphael “Popo” Lotilla, visual artist Marina Cruz, shadow play artist Dan Salubayba, UP Madz conductor Mark Anthony Carpio, columnist Rica Bolipata Santos, and the Ballet Philippines.

Thankfully, I got in TEDxDiliman 2013. I wanted to believe that it was my Scholarum award (on an online article I did last year) that got me in.

Kidding aside, I initially just wanted to hear what Reina has to say about science and why it matters. But the entire afternoon turned out to be an inspiration boost for a week loaded with editing jobs, school work, and a couple of writing assignments, with recurring music in my head of the Philippine Madrigal Singers version of Circle of Life, and Joey Ayala’s rendition of our National Anthem.

I believe that learning could be – or perhaps should be – an end goal in itself. There is nothing wrong with enriching the mind with great ideas. In fact, it should be a life-long process. But it is also important to take action. Ideas alone cannot change the world. One must step up and put these ideas into something tangible or at least something that can be recognized by any of our five senses.

But how do we come up with ideas? We ask questions. And that is what Reina’s talk is about:

The Value of Asking Questions by Reina Reyes

 When I was a kid, I asked a lot of questions. Isa akong makulit na bata. Thankfully, my Mom never got tired of them. She didn’t shush me, or dismiss me, like other parents would. And even if she didn’t know the answer, she would simply say, “Anak, hindi ko alam (I don’t know), but we can find out together. And we would look it up in our books. Wala pang Internet noon – can you imagine? (We didn’t have internet before. Can you imagine?)”

 So I learned early on that it is OK to ask questions. In fact, it was good to ask them- and to look for the answers. And I’ve never stopped asking since.


One afternoon, it was raining. So I asked, “Saan galing ang ulan?” (Where did the rain come from?)


She answered, the rain came from clouds. So of course I asked – where do clouds come from? And we looked it up and I learned about the water cycle. Clouds, themselves, form from water that evaporated from rivers and the ground itself, after it rained. Water made its way from the ground up to the sky, and back down again as rain – the cycle would repeat itself. Again and again.


So I learned that beneath something that seemed random and unpredictable – the rain – sometimes it rained, sometimes it didn’t – there is an underlying process, an order hidden from plain sight, but is happening all the same, all the time. 


When I was a kid, I wanted to become an astronaut. I became fascinated with space, like many kids do. But I was a smart kid, and soon I realized it was not a practical dream– height limit pa lang, hindi na papasa! (With the height limit, I cannot possibly pass!)


So I set my sights back down on Earth. At some point, I wanted to become a lawyer, like our good family friend Atty. Lontok. Then I wanted to be an architect, like my older cousin Kuya Raymond, who was studying to be one then, and is a successful one now. Eventually, I decided I wanted to be a businessperson – like my parents. 


Only in high school – at Philippine Science – did I start to think about becoming a scientist. You see, growing up, our family didn’t know anyone who was a scientist, and it didn’t even occur to me that I can be one. In the books, scientists were an abstract concept, or they were people long dead, in strange costumes, from a different place and time – not here, not now, nothing like me. In high school, I got to read about scientists who I can relate to, who I admired – Uncle Albert Einstein and Mr. Feynman. And I started to think I can follow the same path. That became my dream. And that’s what I did.


Luckily, it turned out to be a natural fit. As a scientist, my job is to ask questions – and to find the answers. But this time, the questions are not the kind for which you can find the answers to in a book – or even in the Internet. These questions are ones for which no one knows the answers to – at least not yet.


As scientists, our job is to push the boundaries of knowledge, to discover something new, to understand the world a bit better than we did before. One of the greatest pleasures of doing science is that moment when after months and months of hard work, you hold in your hand something – a result, a plot – that you know you are the first person to ever see!


As an astrophysicist, I ask questions like, how did galaxies form? How did the universe begin? How will it end? These are big questions. And the reason we are able to even begin answering them is because there is an underlying order behind all physical phenomena – the rain, the Earth, the stars, and the entire cosmos, all follow the same physical laws. And these are laws we can understand. 


The science that explains the formation of clouds here on Earth, also explains the giant clouds of Jupiter, and the clouds in planets outside the solar system, like Kepler 7-b. The gravity that pins me down to this stage – and keeps you at your seats – is the same gravity that holds our galaxy together, and that governs the evolution of our universe as a whole. 


The underlying order that I sensed as a kid is with me today – even stronger now – stretching out over all space and time. 


I don’t confine myself to questions of astrophysics, for the world is in fact much bigger than the universe. As a Filipino, I ask questions like, how did the Philippine archipelago form? And how did we – Filipinos – come to populate it? Where did our ancestors come from? These are big questions, too, and our scientists at the Philippine Genome Center and at the National Science Research Institute, led by Dr. Corazon de Ungria and Mr. Frederick Delfin, are starting to piece together some answers. 


When I was younger, I asked where the rain came from. Today, our scientists at DOST’s Project NOAH and at the Manila Observatory ask and answer questions like – when will it rain, where, and how much? They ask – where does the rain go? And perhaps most importantly, to save lives and livelihoods from the floods – where should it go? 


Just recently, a new species of beetle was discovered inside Ateneo – by Dr. Henrik Freitag and his collaborators. A new species, right in the middle of Metro Manila! In fact, our country has one of the highest concentrations of endemic biodiversity in the world – and one can only begin to imagine how diverse and unique life is in our forests, mountains, and waters – just waiting to be discovered and studied and – if we are wise – preserved and protected. 


I hope I’ve given you a flavor of the wonderful science that is being done, right here in the country. There are many more whose stories deserve to be shared – and I hope that more and more will continue to be shared. You see, I have something to confess. When I was younger, I thought – naively, but perhaps, understandably, that to be like the scientists I read about and admired, I had to go study and work where they studied and worked. And that’s what I did. Today, after 8 long years abroad, I’m happy to say that I no longer think that’s true. I’m happy to say that I’ve decided to come back, to come home. 


For although there are still many challenges to doing science here – in many ways, it is a wonderful time to be a scientist in the Philippines. And I’m excited by the fact that as more people realize this, and join us – geographically and virtually – together, we can build a future in which science plays a bigger role in the public life of the country, a future in which engaging in questions is encouraged by our culture, not dismissed, a future in which more young Filipinos can grow up imagining that they can be scientists, too. And I feel very lucky that I can be part of building this future. 


You may ask me, Reina, why bother? Why bother to ask these questions? What does it matter? To me? Today? To be honest, I ask these questions myself, too, sometimes. But in the end, I have to ask back, why not? Why not ask? Why not ask for the same reason a child naturally asks questions – like I did when I was a kid, and I bet, like you did when you were a kid, too. The question is – When did you stop asking? And why did you stop asking?


My appeal to you today is to remember that “makulit na bata” you once were. My appeal is that you don’t shush the kid inside who is asking questions. And please, don’t shush the real kid beside you, for being makulit. My hope is that you find yourself starting to ask again, like a kid, and with your kid – or young cousin, niece, or neighbor. My hope is that you discover the pleasure of learning something new, every day. My hope is that you never stop asking – and I sincerely hope the same for myself.


For we do not ask questions because they matter. We do it because it matters that we ask questions.



Thank you very much.




13 October 2013

UP School of Economics

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