The curious story of Research Matters

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Patchen Barss, Creative Director and Managing Editor, Research Matters

The first question I really remember being curious about was, “How fast does gravity travel?”

I was a teenager. I stood on a bathroom scale and picked up a heavy book. The dial moved a half a pound. The book was several feet from the scale. Did the scale “know” instantaneously when I picked up the book, or did the information have to travel the length of my body?

Even then, I knew the effect couldn’t be instantaneous – that would mean information was traveling faster than the speed of light, and Albert Einstein had put the kibosh on that possibility way back in the early 20th century.  So did the information about the weight of the book travel at the speed of light? More slowly? How was the information actually transmitted? If I held the object out at arm’s length, did its weight to travel a longer distance through my body, or did it go in a straight line from book to scale?

So began my career as a curious human being.

Skip ahead 30 years to a few months ago, when I was helping to plan a project known as The Curiosity Shop – a roaming, pop-up, question-asking venue that will appear at Congress this May. At the Shop, curious people ask questions, and university researchers answer as many of them as possible. The Curiosity Shop is part of Research Matters, a public outreach initiative aimed at drawing connections between university research and everyday life.

We weren’t sure if there were going to be enough good questions, at least to start, so I took it upon myself to write out some “seed questions” to get the ball rolling. In less than two hours, I had more than 50 questions, and showed no sign of running dry.

Why is there no green in the sunset?

Is a “point” on the Toronto Stock Exchange the same thing as a point on the Dow or the Nikei?

How and when did people figure out there was no air in outer space?

How could postmodernism precede modernism?

Is time merely a product of memory, or is it the other way around?

What social construct empowers me to take a rectangle of green polymer out of my wallet and trade it for $20 worth of food?

And of course, the classic: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I could have gone on indefinitely.

I don’t know if my brand of curiosity is universal, but it certainly isn’t unique. In the first few days of that Curiosity Shop was on tour – in malls, at festivals and other public places, thousands of people stopped by to ask questions.

At Congress, the Shop will be as much about answers as questions. There is a backlog of queries from the curious public on subjects ranging from dating to carbon dating. As one of the organizers of the Shop, I’m hoping we’ll get as many questions answered by Congress attendees as possible. And as a curious human being, I’m hoping we’ll get as many of my questions answered as possible.

Of course, researchers themselves tend to have at least as many questions as answers – that’s usually why they became researchers. All attendees are more than welcome to drop by the Shop and ask their own questions – perhaps ones they are working on themselves, or something from way beyond their field of study that has always puzzled them.

And in case anyone is wondering, the consensus appears to be that gravity does indeed travel at the speed of light. But the full details on how, exactly, gravity works are still being hammered out by some of today’s leading mathematicians, physicists and cosmologists. And really, that’s the best kind of question – one that you can keep answering and answering and answering, always finding new complexity, and creating new knowledge at every step of the way.

In general, when I and other organizers talk about the Shop, we tend to finish by exhorting people to “stay curious.” I don’t think that’s really an issue for people who come to Congress. But I hope you’ll drop by the shop and be a part of the effort to encourage curiosity, and also to satisfy it.


Find out more about Research Matters and the Curiosity Shop at


Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2014