A brief anecdote.
Today, a student came to me with a question that their science instructor could not answer (the curriculum is mostly intro to chem with some classical physics). I am in no way, shape or form, a scientist or even a teacher of science, but the students know I’m interested in many odd things and like to reason through intriguing problems with them. The student asked:
“How can a photon – which has 0 mass – have 0 kinetic energy even though it is moving? If it does have mass, how can a photon go the speed of light?”
Now, I knew that the answer had to be explained via quantum mechanics and was fuzzily certain it was because particles did not behave as particles should in this scenario, but the ability to give a coherent and scientifically accurate explanation that related to the student’s current knowledge base was beyond me. I do not have a good enough grasp of the basics of quantum physics to lead the student to particles and waves through a series of questions. So, after complimenting him on his insightful question, I said I would contact an expert, Dr. Von, and get him a concise, equation-free, answer, which Von helpfully provided.
The point here, however, is not the answer (Newtonian physics is invalid at this scale and momentum is redefined in relativity theory which leads to particle-wave duality, uncertainty and other aspects of quantum mechanics) but the excellence of the student’s thinking that went into the question.
The student knew very little about physics except what was presented in the course – essentially, some laws of Newtonian physics, basic constituent parts of matter, simple atomic models etc. Given that information and having – this part is critical – no prior assumptions, having understood the “rules”, in a few minutes he identified a contradiction or paradox that undermined the authority of an elegantly constructed system of great explanatory power, conceived by the greatest genius to ever walk the Earth.
Not too shabby for a younger American teen-ager. Remember him the next time some loudmouthed fool opines how worthless kids are today or how they learn nothing at school.
Obviously, my student is quite bright, but his reasoning was also not polluted with the preconceptions we all pick up as we gain ever greater depth of mastery of a field. It was fundamentally new to him, so he did not yet have the kind of blind confidence in “the rules that everyone knows to be true” possessed by most adults and nearly all experts. He was still skeptical. Few content domain experts are innovaters for this reason. They are mostly overconfident masters with answers – not makers who create or discover the novel by asking questions. They are not skeptics, they are guardians of received knowledge.
We all need to step back, periodically, from the rush of life and our own pride and try to look at the things we think we know with a fresh mind.