My friend must have been confused as I drew the top note card from my stack, handing it to him without a word. He must have pondered my intentions as he took it from my hand and looked me in the eye, waiting for an explanation. He must have been disoriented by my refusal to utter a single word. He must have lost himself in his sea of questions, asking a simple “why?” before flipping it over to see what was on the other side. He must have been perplexed when he found it was completely blank, and he must have been startled as I took it back from him without warning. I smiled at him, thanked him, and turned to someone else. She must have been put through the same course of emotions as I replicated the process with her.
For multiple days, I copied the exercise with as many people as I came in contact with: friends, teachers, family, acquaintances. At first, it was just for fun, but it quickly became much more interesting as I began to observe patterns. I noticed that although the cards were blank, most people flipped their card over to check the other side. Even after watching preceding subjects flip over cards to reveal complete blankness, when handed the exact same card, many still flipped it over. As soon as I noticed—relatively early in my impromptu experiment—I started recording how many people flipped over a card and how many did not. It was clear that there was something compelling going on here; however, I realized that this near-homogeneous interest was most likely just a symptom of humans being curious creatures. While interesting, the experiment had not roused any epiphanies about human nature. Nevertheless, I diligently continued my tallying.
I stared at my computer screen the night after my last day with the cards, trying to will the near-100 data points into meaning something more—and then, it clicked. For the duration of my experiment, I thought I was providing my subjects with a conflict; however, I was providing them with a blank slate on which to project facets of their personalities. I noticed a correlation between each person’s willingness to flip the card over and the nature of the questions they asked—of the group who flipped and the one that didn’t, one asked more creative questions, replied with more diverse responses, made me smile, laugh, and question my experiment much more than the other.
I was convinced of the fallibility of my memory when I recalled that the group with more curious responses was not the group who flipped the cards over, but as I mentally ran through each person I had marked down, I slowly realized that I had, in fact, remembered the truth.
The most common reaction was a quick flip of the card and glance at the back, followed by a “why?” or “wait, what?” In contrast, the unique responses varied from one subject asking “can I keep it?” before pocketing the card (following my laughter and confirmation), to another asking if she could take another and another and another, barely looking at any of them while we both restrained laughter.
The group who asked unique questions was the group of people who chose not to flip over their card. Why? Was it because they didn’t know the back was blank, so they didn’t know they were supposed to be confused? Was it because they were preoccupied with being funny? Was it because they knew I was conducting an experiment and did what they could to throw me off? Was it a glitch in the matrix?
Scientists hate being right. They long for the day that they can prove their hypotheses wrong and ask more questions about our world. In that regard, I suppose I am a scientist. The unsatisfying conclusion to this phase of the study left a foul taste in my mouth, but it also piqued my curiosity. The scientific bug had bitten me—its venom was coursing through my veins, inspiring me to run the experiment again, record my subjects’ responses more carefully, modify and remove the unhelpful variables, and—
The state had been quarantined. School was shut down. Rumors were circulating that it wouldn’t reopen. I didn’t have a chance to run more tests.
Science is not some mystical process available only to those with a degree. Everyone can partake in science. I may not have had the chance to follow my curiosity to its end, but you do. You can take that crazy idea that randomly popped into your head, that weird activity you intended as a joke, and learn something from it.
You have the option to study forests by examining leaves, not solely by leafing through an environmental science textbook. You can learn about people through socializing, not pedantically recording a psychology lecture. In short, you can study what you love by doing it, no matter what it is.
Science lets you have your cake and eat it too. If you have fun actively, you will find yourself both happier and more educated.
Whether your subjects flip over the card or not does not matter. What matters is that you silently asked them to participate, that you were thoroughly invested in what you were doing, and that you learned something in the end.
Pursue what you love, love what you do, and don’t be afraid to question it.