For some time now, my son has been asking “Why?” questions. I love it.1 At least I try very hard to love it. My father was patient with my why questions, and I believe this imbued in me the idea that one can figure out anything, if one just tries hard enough. Sometimes his questions are difficult to answer, and not in the way I had expected. Here are two examples.
Scene: We are watching something rise out of an industrial chimney. The wind picks it up and causes it to drift slowly to the side as it rises in the cold winter air. It’s beautifully lit up in yellows and oranges from the setting sun behind it. My son asks what it is, and I explain that I think it is water vapour. Burning things often releases steam, which turns into water vapour in the cold air.2 He probably doesn’t understand much of this, but I like to be as accurate as I can.
He asks a follow-up question: “Why is there not more water vapour coming out?”
Scene: We are walking along the quay, looking at the old boats. Most of them are almost always empty, maintained probably for sentimental reasons more than anything. We come up to a ferry vessel parked alongside the quay. It, too, is dark and quiet.
My son asks, “Why is there nobody on that boat?”
After hearing quite a few of these types of questions3 Another is “Why is no lamp lit in that apartment over there?”, or “Why is that car not blue?”, I have picked up on what makes them difficult. My son is imagining a specific alternative way for things to be, and wants to know why it’s not that way. Conditional on the information we have, there are simply so many alternative ways for things to be that trying to explain why it’s not the way he imagines reminds me of trying to explain entropy – difficult even when speaking with adults!
I still love it. But I also still don’t know how to answer.