Tag Archives: #curiosity

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Patches of Rock Record Erased, Revealing Clues (Planetary Science)

A new paper enriches scientists’ understanding of where the rock record preserved or destroyed evidence of Mars’ past and possible signs of ancient life.

Today, Mars is a planet of extremes – it’s bitterly cold, has high radiation, and is bone-dry. But billions of years ago, Mars was home to lake systems that could have sustained microbial life. As the planet’s climate changed, one such lake – in Mars’ Gale Crater – slowly dried out. Scientists have new evidence that supersalty water, or brines, seeped deep through the cracks, between grains of soil in the parched lake bottom and altered the clay mineral-rich layers beneath.

Sedimentary Signs of a Martian Lakebed
This evenly layered rock photographed by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover shows a pattern typical of a lake-floor sedimentary deposit not far from where flowing water entered a lake. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The findings published in the July 9 edition of the journal Science and led by the team in charge of the Chemistry and Mineralogy, or CheMin, instrument – aboard NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover – help add to the understanding of where the rock record preserved or destroyed evidence of Mars’ past and possible signs of ancient life.

“We used to think that once these layers of clay minerals formed at the bottom of the lake in Gale Crater, they stayed that way, preserving the moment in time they formed for billions of years,” said Tom Bristow, CheMin principal investigator and lead author of the paper at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “But later brines broke down these clay minerals in some places – essentially resetting the rock record.”

Mars: It Goes on Your Permanent Record

Mars has a treasure trove of incredibly ancient rocks and minerals compared with Earth. And with Gale Crater’s undisturbed layers of rocks, scientists knew it would be an excellent site to search for evidence of the planet’s history, and possibly life.

Using CheMin, scientists compared samples taken from two areas about a quarter-mile apart from a layer of mudstone deposited billions of years ago at the bottom of the lake at Gale Crater. Surprisingly, in one area, about half the clay minerals they expected to find were missing. Instead, they found mudstones rich with iron oxides – minerals that give Mars its characteristic rusty red color.

Scientists knew the mudstones sampled were about the same age and started out the same – loaded with clays – in both areas studied. So why then, as Curiosity explored the sedimentary clay deposits along Gale Crater, did patches of clay minerals – and the evidence they preserve – “disappear”?

Clays Hold Clues

Minerals are like a time capsule; they provide a record of what the environment was like at the time they formed. Clay minerals have water in their structure and are evidence that the soils and rocks that contain them came into contact with water at some point.

“Old Soaker”
The network of cracks in this Martian rock slab called “Old Soaker” may have formed from the drying of a mud layer more than 3 billion years ago. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Since the minerals we find on Mars also form in some locations on Earth, we can use what we know about how they form on Earth to tell us about how salty or acidic the waters on ancient Mars were,” said Liz Rampe, CheMin deputy principal investigator and co-author at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Previous work revealed that while Gale Crater’s lakes were present and even after they dried out, groundwater moved below the surface, dissolving and transporting chemicals. After they were deposited and buried, some mudstone pockets experienced different conditions and processes due to interactions with these waters that changed the mineralogy. This process, known as “diagenesis,” often complicates or erases the soil’s previous history and writes a new one.

Diagenesis creates an underground environment that can support microbial life. In fact, some very unique habitats on Earth – in which microbes thrive – are known as “deep biospheres.”

“These are excellent places to look for evidence of ancient life and gauge habitability,” said John Grotzinger, CheMin co-investigator and co-author at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in Pasadena, California. “Even though diagenesis may erase the signs of life in the original lake, it creates the chemical gradients necessary to support subsurface life, so we are really excited to have discovered this.”

By comparing the details of minerals from both samples, the team concluded that briny water filtering down through overlying sediment layers was responsible for the changes. Unlike the relatively freshwater lake present when the mudstones formed, the salty water is suspected to have come from later lakes that existed within an overall drier environment. Scientists believe these results offer further evidence of the impacts of Mars’ climate change billions of years ago. They also provide more detailed information that is then used to guide the Curiosity rover’s investigations into the history of the Red Planet. This information also will be utilized by NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover team as they evaluate and select rock samples for eventual return to Earth.

“We’ve learned something very important: There are some parts of the Martian rock record that aren’t so good at preserving evidence of the planet’s past and possible life,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist and co-author at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The fortunate thing is we find both close together in Gale Crater, and can use mineralogy to tell which is which.”

Curiosity is in the initial phase of investigating the transition to a “sulfate-bearing unit,” or rocks thought to have formed while Mars’ climate dried out.

The mission is managed by JPL, a division of Caltech, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Colleagues in NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division at Johnson and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, also are authors on the paper, as well as other institutions working on Curiosity.

“Knockfarril Hill”
The Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this mosaic as it explored the “clay-bearing unit” on Feb. 3, 2019 (Sol 2309). This landscape includes the rocky landmark nicknamed “Knockfarril Hill” (center right) and the edge of Vera Rubin Ridge, which runs along the top of the scene. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Featured image: A self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location in Gale Crater.

Reference: T. F. Bristow, J. P. Grotzinger, E. B. Rampe, J. Cuadros, S. J. Chipera, G. W. Downs, C. M. Fedo, J. Frydenvang, A. C. McAdam, R. V. Morris, C. N. Achilles, D. F. Blake, N. Castle, P. Craig, D. J. Des Marais, R. T. Downs, R. M. Hazen, D. W. Ming, S. M. Morrison, M. T. Thorpe, A. H. Treiman, V. Tu, D. T. Vaniman, A. S. Yen, R. Gellert, P. R. Mahaffy, R. C. Wiens, A. B. Bryk, K. A. Bennett, V. K. Fox, R. E. Millken, A. A. Fraeman, A. R. Vasavada, “Brine-driven destruction of clay minerals in Gale crater, Mars”, Science  09 Jul 2021: Vol. 373, Issue 6551, pp. 198-204 DOI: 10.1126/science.abg5449

Provided by NASA JPL

Brain Mechanism of Curiosity Unraveled (Neuroscience)

Curiosity is the motivational drive for exploring and investigating the unknown and making new discoveries. It is as essential and intrinsic for survival as hunger. Until recently, the brain mechanisms underlying curiosity and novelty seeking behavior were unclear. However, researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience have now discovered a new brain circuit underlying curiosity and novelty seeking behavior. The results have been published in the scientific journal Science.

Curiosity, hunger and appetitive aggression drive three different goal-directed behaviors: novelty seeking, food eating and hunting. In animals these behaviors are composed of similar actions. This similarity of actions has made it challenging to study novelty seeking in inarticulate animals and distinguish it from eating and hunting.


“In spite of having well-developed techniques to study mouse brain circuits, there are many controversial and different results in the field of motivational behavior. Therefore, we chose a simple solution to conduct our research: giving the mouse freedom to choose what it wants”, says Alexander Heimel, group leader at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. By examining mice in an experimental battery of new and familiar objects and social interaction, the scientists uncovered a cell-type specific brain circuit of the curiosity and novelty seeking behavior.

Researcher Mehran Ahmadlou explains: “By increasing brain activity in a specific brain region, the Zona Incerta, interaction with conspecifics and novel objects compared to familiar objects and food increased. When we inactivated the cells in this region, depth and duration of investigation decreased”. Moreover, the researchers found that specific neurons were more active during deep investigation compared to during shallow investigation.


Using several innovative techniques, a whole path of multiple brain regions was uncovered that converts curiosity into action in mice. Heimel: “It is the first time that this path has been described. Now we can begin to understand, for example, how curiosity sometimes wins over the urge for security, and why some individuals are more curious than others. There is still a lot we are curious about.”

How curiosity leads to research behavior in humans is still unknown. Another recent study shows that the Zona Incerta also plays a role in arousing curiosity in monkeys. Heimel: “We still know little about this area in humans, because it is located deep within the brain and it is difficult to measure activity with brain scans.” The development of new techniques may lead to more clarity in the future.

Reference: Mehran Ahmadlou, Janou H. W. Houba et al., “A cell type–specific cortico-subcortical brain circuit for investigatory and novelty-seeking behavior”, Science  14 May 2021: Vol. 372, Issue 6543, eabe9681 DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9681

Provided by Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

Studying ‘Hunters and Busybodies,’: Researchers Use Wikipedia To Measure Different Types of Curiosity (Psychology)

Curiosity has been found to play a role in our learning and emotional well-being, but due to the open-ended nature of how curiosity is actually practiced, measuring it is challenging. Psychological studies have attempted to gauge participants’ curiosity through their engagement in specific activities, such as asking questions, playing trivia games, and gossiping. However, such methods focus on quantifying a person’s curiosity rather than understanding the different ways it can be expressed.

Knowledge networks were created as participants browsed Wikipedia, where pages became nodes and relatedness between pages became edges. Two diverging styles emerged — “the busybody” and “the hunter.” (Illustrations by Melissa Pappas)

Efforts to better understand what curiosity actually looks like for different people have underappreciated roots in the field of philosophy. Varying styles have been described with loose archetypes, like “hunter” and “busybody” — evocative, but hard to objectively measure when it comes to studying how people collect new information.

A new study led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University, uses Wikipedia browsing as a method for describing curiosity styles. Using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, their analysis of curiosity opens doors for using it as a tool to improve learning and life satisfaction.

The interdisciplinary study, published in Nature Human Behavior, was undertaken by Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, David Lydon-Staley, then a post-doctoral fellow in her lab, now an assistant professor in the Annenberg School of Communication, two members of Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab, graduate student Dale Zhou and postdoctoral fellow Ann Sizemore Blevins, and Perry Zurn, assistant professor from American University’s Department of Philosophy.

David Lydon-Staley, Danielle Bassett, Perry Zurn, Ann Sizemore Blevins, and Dale Zhou (clockwise from top left)

“The reason this paper exists is because of the participation of many people from different fields,” says Lydon-Staley. “Perry has been researching curiosity in novel ways that show the spectrum of curious practice and Dani has been using networks to describe form and function in many different systems. My background in human behavior allowed me to design and conduct a study linking the styles of curiosity to a measurable activity: Wikipedia searches.”

Zurn’s research on how different people express curiosity provided a framework for the study.

“Each curiosity style has its own ‘kinesthetic signature’ that describes how a person naturally searches for information,” says Zurn. “For example, the ‘hunter’ style is characterized by the seeking of closely related information, aiming to dive deeply into a certain topic, while the ‘busybody’ jumps from topic to topic, collecting loosely connected information.”

The study was comprised of 149 participants, who were instructed to browse Wikipedia for 15 minutes a day over the course of 21 days. With no further instructions on what pages to visit, the participants’ paths through the site revealed the kinesthetic signatures of their curiosity styles.

“Wikipedia allowed both introverts and extroverts to have equal opportunity in curious practice, a limitation in other studies of curiosity, while the ad-free search engine allowed individuals to truly be captains of their own curiosity ships,” says Bassett.

While browsing, data was recorded as knowledge networks where each unique Wikipedia page visited became a node and the relatedness between Wikipedia pages, determined by text similarity between two pages, created the thickness of the edges between the nodes.

Curiosity styles as knowledge networks where each node is a Wikipedia page and the paths between nodes represent the similarity between pages. “The hunter” style is characterized by high clustering and low overall path length, while “the busybody” style is characterized by low clustering and high overall path length.

Participants with the hunter curiosity style exhibited a tight network with relatively high clustering of nodes, thick edges, and short overall path lengths. Those with the busybody curiosity style exhibited a looser network with nodes further separated by thin connecting edges and longer path lengths.

The signatures of a participant’s curiosity style were not written in stone, however.

“We found that people are curious in their own ways and fall in and out of different styles, shown by changes in the knowledge network structures over time. We then wanted to understand the drivers of these changes,” says Bassett.

To better understand the factors that influence which curiosity style a person might use, the researchers surveyed the participants on indicators of well-being in a laboratory visit before their Wikipedia browsing began. These indicators included “deprivation sensitivity”, or the tendency to seek information in order to fill knowledge gaps, and “sensation seeking”, or the tendency to seek novel and exciting information. Other factors recorded participants’ tendencies to browse topics for fun, seek out social interaction, and tolerate stress. The information from these surveys was incorporated in the models of the knowledge networks, allowing the team to assess the mechanisms behind curiosity styles.

“We hypothesize that a switch from hunter to busybody style might arise due to sensation seeking, or the craving for novelty and new information during the day,” says Bassett.

“By measuring a person’s level of sensation seeking before each Wikipedia browsing session, we found that people tended to take larger steps between nodes when the tendency to seek new information was high,” says Lydon-Staley, creating a loose knowledge network.

The participants who originally scored higher in deprivation sensitivity tended to form tighter networks as they sought information to fill knowledge gaps. This network structure indicated the hunter style of information seeking. For example, one participant searched for “History of the Jews in Germany”, “Hep-Hep riots”, “Zionism”, “Nathan Birnbaum”, and “Theodor Herzl” all centralized around Jewish history.

On the other end of the spectrum, participants who reported lower deprivation sensitivity exhibited a knowledge network characterized by thinner links, loosely connected topics, and longer overall network paths. An example of this style is a Wikipedia search for “Physical chemistry”, “Me Too movement”, “The Partridge Family”, “Harborne Primary School”, “HIP 79431”, and “Tom Bigelow.”

“With this method, we can now quantify the kind of information or resources we store. Resources affect well-being, and this research complicates, in a good way, how resources affect well-being,” says Lydon-Staley.

Bassett adds that, “while there may be different motivators behind each curiosity style, each style has a purpose.”

In addition to the importance of each style, our ability to learn and our emotional well-being may be more related to the connection of information rather than the information itself.

“Curiosity is edgework. It is more about building structures of information than about acquiring separate informational units. This can motivate us, as educators, to ask how we can help students not only understand existing knowledge connections but get excited about building new ones,” says Zurn.

As to whether we should be directing curiosity to improve education, Lydon-Staley says, “We need more data to know how to use this information in the classroom, but I hope it discourages the idea that there are curious and incurious people.”

“Curiosity should be encouraged and expectations of certain types of curiosity to be exhibited by certain types of students is limiting. We should value and respect each style of curious practice while being less prescriptive for how to accomplish a task,” says Bassett.

Some real-world applications that align with this understanding of curiosity are using projects that students can tune to their own curiosity, supporting quieter students to express their curiosity in less boisterous ways, and realizing that students may be able to solve problems in ways unimaginable to the teacher.

“By visualizing these networks, we can begin to see not only the spectrum of hunter and busybody styles, but the incredible flexibility that characterizes curiosity and the knowledge networks it builds. Appreciating the diversity of curious practice can be really empowering for students, especially those who are otherwise socially marginalized or underserved. Rather than asking ‘am I curious or not?,’ they can ask ‘which style or styles do I have?’ and ‘what can I do with it?’,” says Zurn.

It is clear that curiosity is important for our well-being and the visualization of these knowledge networks may help to pinpoint where curiosity reflects emotional state and vice versa. Recent research from the same team showed that when we maintain a consistent level of curiosity throughout the day, we are more likely to experience increased feelings of life satisfaction and decreased symptoms of depression. Their work suggests that engaging in curiosity more often and having an open mind about what curiosity looks like may improve well-being, a link the team plans to test using interventions in future work.

In a time when human interaction is stinted and our natural curiosity is interrupted by ads and algorithms, curiosity examined through a network perspective helps us see how we can use curiosity to increase life satisfaction and communication with others. While a clear benefit of this study is its potential future applications in education and emotional well-being, its network approach and interdisciplinary research design also promotes collaborative scientific studies. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to learn from many perspectives and propose many applications for knowledge networks as tools to enhance our well-being beyond education.

This research was supported by the Center for Curiosity, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the ISI Foundation, the Paul Allen Foundation, the Army Research Laboratory through grant W911NF-10-2-0022, the Army Research Office through grants W911NF-14-1-0679, W911NF-16-1-0474 and DCIST-W911NF-17-2-0181, the Office of Naval Research, the National Institute of Mental Health through grants 2-R01-DC-009209-11, R01-MH112847, R01-MH107235 and R21-M MH-106799, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through grant 1R01HD086888-01, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke through grant R01 NS099348, the National Science Foundation through grants PHY-1554488 and BCS-1631550, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse through grant 1K01DA047417.

An infographic summarizing the team’s research on mapping curiosity styles through Wikipedia browsing and graph theory. Results show that participants tend toward either a “busybody” or “hunter” style, but change throughout the day. Surveys served to link how curious practice might influence emotional well-being and vice versa. Continued research on linking the two will help elucidate new applications for mapping knowledge networks. (Melissa Pappas)

Provided by Penn Engineering Today

The Evolution of Honesty (Psychology)

New research explains why we tend to tell the truth instead of lie.

As one who studies deception for a living, I am often asked why some people seem to lie a lot. That question always seemed like a fair one to me. We can all immediately recall examples of lying politicians, corrupt businessmen, conniving lovers, and duplicitous coworkers. These deceivers grab our attention because their dishonesty is so far outside the norms of society. We feel fortunate that these big liars are rare, with most people in our communities acting just like us—honest. But not long ago, another question crossed my mind: Why are most people so honest? Sure, there are some big liars out there, but most people are honest most of the time, even when being dishonest might help them get ahead. Why, when lying and deception often would allow one to gain an advantage, would honesty be such a central feature of human nature? The tendency to be honest with those around us seems so pervasive that it is almost as if the tendency is baked into human psychology along with sociality, curiosity, language, and other nearly universal traits. Researchers have recently begun to explore this question from an evolutionary perspective.

Competing Goals

When two individuals interact, they often have divergent goals. When buying a car, the salesperson and the customer have a shared goal of facilitating the transaction, but they also have subordinate goals that are diametrically opposed. The salesperson wants to sell the car for a high price, and the customer wants to purchase the car for a low price. Similarly, we can see these opposing goals in romantic relationships with each partner prioritizing some goals such as marriage, having kids, buying a new car, etc., that may come into conflict with the goals of the other partner. Once a conflict of interests emerges, each person may use a combination of strategies to protect their interests. They negotiate, argue, beg, make tradeoffs, share, fight, leave, compromise, etc. One such strategy is to deceive. If Sylvia wants to have an affair, but her spouse insists on monogamy, Sylvia can lie and say that she is spending the evening with friends. Likewise, if John wants the day off from work, and his boss wants him to work, John can simply lie and say that he is sick. People can use deception to gain the upper hand in a struggle for their own interests when those interests come into conflict with another’s.

Natural Honesty

But it turns out that most people are honest. In some of my own studies, I have found that most people report lying very rarely, even when there is no serious prospect of being caught if they lied. In laboratory studies on deception, people tend to honestly report their performance on a dice-rolling task, when lying would profit them financially. Even those people who do lie tend to do so in ways that fail to maximize their financial advantage. Even more perplexing, people who actually do come out ahead in such games sometimes lie in order to appear less successful than they actually were. So why do people behave so prosocially when there are clear financial incentives to lie? Some researchers have argued that we humans have evolved prosocial preferences, both for others and for ourselves. We have evolved to cooperate. Why would we evolve prosocial tendencies when Machiavellian tendencies (the tendency to exploit, manipulate, and deceive, others in order to achieve our own goals) would seem to obviously benefit one’s selfish interests? Evolutionary theory would argue that the honest approach must yield some adaptive advantage. That is, being prosocially honest must, in the end, produce more benefits to the individual than the Machiavellian approach.

Cooperation and Survival

The key to understanding this puzzle seems to be in the power of cooperation. Humans are a social species. There is pretty compelling evidence that without cooperation, people are much less likely to survive and thrive. By studying hunter-gatherers, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have discovered that our Paleolithic ancestors would be very unlikely to live long if they attempted to go it alone. In hunter-gatherer tribes, individuals are often left helpless by injuries and illness. Without cooperative help from others, these sick and hurt people would die of starvation. Likewise, without communal food gathering and sharing, each individual would not survive the feast and famine cycle of unpredictable hunting and gathering. Together, though, they share their bounty so that when each one inevitably has a bad day, the other members of the group will help them survive.

Evolution of Honesty

But before people will want to cooperate with you, they will need to know that you will reciprocate. People are vigilant observers of others’ behaviors. We note when someone is a cheat, when they are dishonest, or when they are cheap. We also notice when they share, when they pull their weight, and when they are genuine. We selectively cooperate with those who are themselves good cooperators. So, in order to be in productive cooperative relationships with others, we must demonstrate that we are good teammates. We do this by managing our reputations. We go out of our way to show people that we carry the credentials of a good cooperator. We showcase our warmth, our loyalty, and our honesty. The survival requisite of group living has driven people to place a premium on marketing themselves as reliable cooperators. But we need not even be consciously aware of this strategic cooperative machinery driving our behavior. Instead, we usually only notice the proximate gears that drive our behavior. We notice the guilt and shame we feel when we betray someone. We feel queasy when we fail to act fairly. We feel a loss of self-esteem when we recognize that we have been lying. Whether these drivers of honesty are hardwired into our brains or whether they are products of cultural evolution is still a matter of debate, but there does seem to be a compelling case that we humans, at least the majority of us, have evolved a tendency toward honesty, not deception.

References: (1) Heintz, C., Karabegovic, M., &, Molnar, A. (2016). The co-evolution of honesty and strategic vigilance. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1503. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01503 (2) Henrich, J. (2018). Human cooperation: The hunter-gatherer puzzle. Current Biology, 28(19), 1143-1145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.005. (3) Oesch, N. (2016). Deception as a derived function of language. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1485. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01485

This article is originally written by Christian L. Hart, who is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Psychological Science program at Texas Woman’s University. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses

Why Are We Reluctant to Ask Why? (Psychology)

How can you ask the question “Why?” without shutting down the conversation?

We stop asking the question “Why?” about the time we begin to think we understand it all. This usually occurs in adolescence. Once the adolescent attitudes begin to mature into adulthood, it should be time to begin asking why again. Once the realization occurs that no one has all knowledge, it should become easier to ask questions — including why questions. Yet, we are told that the question “why” will shut down the person being asked and so you should avoid it. What else might it shut down? 

Waves Unspoken. Source: Madelyn Blair

In my work, I’ve always been told that I should avoid asking the question “why.” I was told it makes people uncomfortable. Yet, we all begin our lives as young children by asking why about anything, such as, “Why are there so many people who don’t know me?” “What does ‘kind’ mean?” or “Why do trees just stand there?” Other questions are a daily occurrence. And as one author put it, “One day the flow of questions will stop, but of course even as adults, we’re still searching for the answers.”

Children like to know why things are as they are. What am I saying? All of us like to know why things are as they are. Yet, for some reason, we stop asking why. Fortunately, scientists are always asking this question, which is why we understand so much about the universe. Deep down, the question of why comes from our curious nature to know more about something.

The effect is that people stop asking questions. If you have to edit your question so as not to ask “why,” does it also edit your thinking so that you eventually stop thinking?

When I teach graduate students, I use their questions as a measure of their thinking. Eventually, they have to write or do something, but up to then, the best measure is their questions. Even a comment in class can reflect reading from somewhere else. I am interested in what the student is thinking for themselves. So, I listen to their questions the first signal of how they are thinking. 

Assuming for the moment that what I am saying has relevance, I have to believe that if my students or audience are not asking questions, it must be that someone or something suggested that asking questions was a dangerous pursuit.

How often have I met a leader who says, “Remember, there are no stupid questions.” When I hear that, I am not inspired to ask anything. Once I recognized this in myself, I began to change the way I asked for questions during class or after a speech. As a result, I say something like, “A question just means you want more information. What more would you like me to explore?” I hope that says I’m really interested in learning what others are looking for. It’s so easy — so why do people still feel reluctant to ask why? 

How can you ask the question “why” without the “why?”

Let’s look at some examples. Maybe the reluctance to ask why questions is because some people use that question as an easy way to put an issue on the table (“Why can’t these politicians solve global warming?”). Or we might use why questions to appear smart (“Why did we choose this product?”). Or they want to derail a meeting by asking a question that has already been answered (“Why have you called this meeting?”). Or they are too lazy to explore in their minds what they are really interested in knowing (“Why?”). Or they don’t want to take any responsibility in the answer (“Why am I spending my time here?”). I suspect you have heard these kinds of questions. No wonder the warning is given. 

Hopefully, as we become more experienced, we learn how to ask the “why” question indirectly. Moreover, we can ask so that we become involved in the answer. This says that while I am asking a question, it is because I am a part of the conversation and part of the answer as well. For example, “What you are saying is [use your favorite word, e.g., exciting, interesting, fascinating] to hear. Please tell me the steps that led you to this conclusion.” By sweetly asking the question “why” while taking away the judgment and putting ourselves in the middle of the answer, we may even bring the question to a deeper level. 

Using the earlier examples, let’s see how they can be shifted as well so that the judgment dimension is diminished or eliminated entirely. 

Reason for asking why is to put an issue on the table  

Original “why”: Why can’t these politicians solve global warming?

Alternative question: I’m curious about the deeper concerns that hold politicians back from addressing global warming. 

Effect: This approach shifts the conversation to one that is not judgmental and might actually be helpful by exploring another dimension.

Reason for asking why is to appear smart  

Original “why”: Why did we choose this product?

Alternative question: This product looked good in the beginning. As I review the original reasons for doing so, they are coming up short. How do others see the decision?

Effect: This approach brings more voices to the concern without judgment.

Reason for asking “why” is to derail a meeting by asking a question that has already been answered 

Original “why”: Why have you called this meeting?

Alternative question: I’m confused; would you please remind me of our purpose for this meeting?

Effect: This approach puts you in a vulnerable posture (I’m confused) which removes judgment from the question and frees the leader to review the purpose and its reasoning.

Reason for asking “why” is to avoid thinking of what they are really interested in knowing 

Original “why”: Why?

Alternative question: Can you tell me more about (fill in the blank)?

Effect: This approach tells the speaker you are not just interrupting but interested in something specific.  

Reason for asking “why” is to remove any responsibility in the answer  

Original “why”: Why am I spending my time here?

Alternative question: I feel I can’t contribute to the objectives of this meeting. Please tell me what you hope I bring to this meeting?

Effect: This approach can actually elicit the real purpose of your presence and may even catch you out as, hopefully, the expected contribution may be reasonable and appropriate.

Is there more to be lost if we don’t ask? 

In not asking why, I wonder if we have also stopped asking questions in general. Are we living on assumptions we made years ago? Are we basing our actions on previous experiences and never questioning that those early experiences no longer exist? Or are we satisfied only to ask who did something, when did that happen, or how can I get that refund? These are all practical questions, but are we losing opportunities to learn more deeply as we carefully avoid asking why and curb and limit the kinds of questions we ask? Ask yourself if you are stunting your thinking as well. 

One of the practices that I recommend to those who wish to enhance their resilience is to ask questions. Asking questions is the first step to nurturing curiosity and pushing our knowledge to a new level — and in-depth knowledge is a trait of resilient people. Curiosity, after all, it’s the engine of learning. 

Is there something you can do right now?

We’ve seen that asking questions — especially the right questions, can lead to a new understanding of an issue that may have been obscured by confusing facts, conflicting opinions, or obsolete assumptions. If there is one lesson I have learned is that I need to be asking more questions; even challenging myself to see if I can ask a better question, a more important question, or a question that will deepen the conversation and challenge even my own thinking. 

Powerful questions are really doorways leading toward the more resilient and vibrant life you want to lead. 

In any event, asking questions, along with enhancing resilience, opens possibilities. And when we are in a moment when we have been pummeled by the unexpected, it’s great to be ready with more possibilities from which to choose our response — resiliently. 

Think of a time when you encountered something that simply piqued your curiosity. You just had to learn more. Perhaps it was when you met a new person over a Zoom call who said something intriguing. Think about how you realized the questions that were bubbling up in your mind. Think about what you did to satisfy the questions — or not! Spend time today looking at the world from the perspective of what more might you like to know about what you are seeing. What assumptions are you making that might have snuffed out your curiosity? Formulate questions that would tell you what you would like to know. At the end of the day, consider how differently you saw the world through curious eyes. 

I’d love to hear about your experiences of asking questions that carry no judgment. Please comment here, and I’ll join the conversation. 

References: [1] Kelly O’Brien (March 22, 2017). How Does Life Live?, NYT Op-Doc https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/opinion/how-does-life-live.html

This article is originally written by Madelyn Blair, and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Marks Eight Years of Mars Exploration (Planetary Science / Astronomy)

NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen a lot since August 5, 2012, when it first set its wheels inside the huge basin of Gale Crater.

Fig: Curiosity rover took this selfie on October 11, 2019. The rover drilled twice in this location, nicknamed Glen Etive. Just left of the rover are the two drill holes, called Glen Etive 1 (right) and Glen Etive 2 (left). Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Curiosity, the fourth rover the United States has sent to Mars, launched November 26, 2011 and landed on the Red Planet at 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 5, 2012 (1:32 a.m. EDT on August 6, 2012).

The mission is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and involves almost 500 scientists from the United States and other countries around the world.

Curiosity explores the 154-km- (96-mile) wide Gale Crater and acquires rock, soil, and air samples for onboard analysis.

The car-size rover is about as tall as a basketball player and uses a 2.1-m- (7-foot) long arm to place tools close to rocks selected for study.

Its large size allows it to carry an advanced kit of science instruments, including 17 cameras, a laser to vaporize and study small pinpoint spots of rocks at a distance, and a drill to collect powdered rock samples:

Fig: These 26 holes represent each of the rock samples NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has collected as of early July 2020. A map in the upper left shows where the holes were drilled along the rover’s route, along with where it scooped six samples of soil. The drill holes were taken by the MAHLI camera on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

(i) the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) is the rover’s version of the magnifying hand lens that geologists usually carry with them into the field; MAHLI’s close-up images reveal the minerals and textures in rock surfaces;

(ii) the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) shot a color video of the terrain below as the rover descended to its landing site; the video helped mission planners select the best path for Curiosity when the rover started exploring Gale Crater;

(iii) when the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is placed right next to a rock or soil surface, it uses two kinds of radiation to measure the amounts and types of chemical elements that are present.

(iv) the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument’s laser, camera and spectrograph work together to identify the chemical and mineral composition of rocks and soils;

(v) the Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) performs chemical analysis of powdered rock samples to identify the types and amounts of different minerals that are present;

(vi) the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) is made up of three different instruments that search for and measure organic chemicals and light elements that are important ingredients potentially associated with life;

(vii) the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) is helping prepare for future human exploration of Mars; the instrument measures the type and amount of harmful radiation that reaches the Martian surface from the Sun and space sources;

(viii) the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) looks for telltale changes in the way neutrons released from Martian soil that indicate liquid or frozen water exists underground;

(ix) the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) contains all the weather instruments needed to provide daily and seasonal reports on meteorological conditions around the rover;

(x) the Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) measured the heating and atmospheric pressure changes that occurred during the descent to help determine the effects on different parts of the spacecraft.

Since touchdown, Curiosity journeyed more than 23 km (14 miles), drilling 26 rock samples and scooping six soil samples.

References: (1) https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/mission/overview/ (2) https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/spacecraft/instruments/summary/