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Ask Dumb Questions

"The only dumb question—is the one that isn't asked." That's what I was told when I started working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I quickly learned that all these brilliant scientists and engineers had a culture of questions: there's no such thing as a dumb question.

During the planning of the Mars Climate Orbiter, the dumb question that wasn't asked was, "Are these numbers in metric or in the English system?" The unasked question of centimeters versus inches led to the destruction of the $200 million spacecraft when it dove into the Martian atmosphere and exploded.

Remarkably, at Caltech, which operates JPL, the students have adopted a custom that is the antithesis of the JPL culture. The undergraduate class consists of the most intelligent students in the country with an average IQ_ of 150. The professors (among them several Nobel laureates) who teach there rarely hear a question from the students. Nobody wants to ask anything. Why not?

I observed a similar phenomenon when I was working (long distance) with Dr. Buzz Aldrin (the lunar module pilot for the first human landing on the moon). I arranged for my students to make teleconference presentations to Dr. Aldrin about the research we were doing for him on a human transportation system that would cycle between Earth and Mars. After our second meeting, I realized that my students never asked any questions of Dr. Aldrin. I asked them why. "We were afraid to appear stupid," said my top doctoral student.

The answer was fear.

There is a tendency for older adults to care less about what others think of them, but students can be strongly influenced by (often nonverbal) peer pressure. (If you have any doubt of this, consider Judith Rich Harris's insightful book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do.) The fear students have is usually based on how their classmates might react. I notice that when students privately ask me questions (after class or in my office), this fear disappears. They don't care what I think of them.

When he worked on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, Richard Feynman was asked by a general to review the safety of the new designs for the Oak Ridge plant. The plant was to separate isotopes of uranium—the nuclear fuel for the bomb. Two engineers rolled out a complicated blueprint with many symbols that Feynman could not decipher. The engineers had boasted that they had redundant valves everywhere so that if any one of them failed, a secondary valve would prevent an accumulation of uranium—a potentially explosive situation.

Completely flummoxed and unsure whether the "X" he was looking at was a valve or a window, Feynman stabbed his finger at the blueprint and asked, "What if this valve fails?"

The engineers looked at each other and thought for a moment. Worried looks appeared on their faces and one of them said, "You're absolutely right, sir!" Then they excused themselves to examine the problem further—dire consequences were indicated.

Then the general, who had invited Feynman to study the plant design said, "I knew you were a genius when you spotted that valve problem!"

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