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Life with Liz: Learning starts with asking “Why?”

Recently, I came across an article about how doctors in Europe have noticed a decline in the number of preemies being born during the COVID-19 outbreak. A doctor who had been on vacation noticed a deviation in the amount of stored milk being used when he came back to work.

Upon further investigation, it was discovered that this milk was primarily being consumed by premature infants, and it turns out there had been none born recently. Ultimately, it’s too early to tell why the decline in premature births has happened, but at the very least, curiosity has been piqued and the right people are starting to try to understand the “why” behind it.

Of course, there are some early hypotheses. One is that people’s behavior has changed and more people were staying home and more sedentary. One is that doctors may be less likely to induce delivery because of a high risk pregnancy, because of the high risk of being in the hospital right now.

It’s too early to tell, and truthfully, every pregnancy is different, and there may not ever be a definitive cause found. But to me, it is just fascinating to follow the chain of events, that might not have even been noticed if a doctor hadn’t been absent from the every day goings on and more aware of changes when he came back.

I also recently finished reading “The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine.”

A relatively short book, it combined two of my favorite things: history and science. In Lister’s time, microscopes were not fundamental tools of medical “professionals.”

However, his father happened to dabble in lens design, and as a child, Lister grew up well aware of the world beyond what the naked eye can see. As he entered the field of surgery, he came predisposed to the idea that there was something going on in wounds that we could not see.

At the time, surgeries were performed without antiseptic and usually without anesthesia. While surviving the surgery was a feat unto itself, most patients ended up dying of sepsis or gangrene shortly after a “successful” surgery.

Again, a remarkable confluence of circumstances led to the development of the first antiseptic being introduced into the surgical profession. As is often the case, Lister’s revolutionary ideas were met with skepticism and doubt, with many of his peers labeling him a quack.

Luckily, Lister didn’t have to wait long to be able to prove his theories, and whether or not other doctors believed in tiny, invisible organisms invading the body, they couldn’t argue with his success rates.

In so many ways, science is complicated. First of all, when you say “science,” do you mean chemistry, biology, physics, geology, or astronomy? Or did you mean political science or social science? I mean, what other discipline would refer to a canis lupus familiaris, when they could just call it a dog? Aside from having its own language, every discipline has its own special tools: lenses that magnify for biology, lenses that enlarge for space exploration, tools that let you see inside the human body using sound waves! I mean, how crazy does that sound?

I had a hard time choosing between chemistry and biology when I went to college, and that was before I got sucked into the world of electromagnetism in physics. Talk about pretty cool stuff! I spent hours in the physic lab, but in the end, my love of animals and understanding how bodies work won out, and I ended up spending those hours in the comparative anatomy lab and studying animal behavior. I think underneath it all, I just wanted to learn how things worked. Learning how fish gills and cat lungs both accomplish the same job, but in a very different manner was just plain old interesting.

When it came time to choose a preschool for my kids, there were a lot of decisions to be made. I had a lot of criteria that I wanted met, but the one that sold me the most was the one that had one whole afternoon set aside for “science.”

The other two days of the three-day program were for music and what I would call a social studies program. I was thrilled when my 4-year-old could recite the steps of the scientific method, and as I followed my kids’ education, I realized that learning that process at such a young age had so many benefits because following that logical process had many applications in real life.

My kids’ curiosity for things makes their lives exciting. Having watched them roam around the farm for the last few months, I’ve seen them ask “why” a hundred times a day.

At the same time, I’ve noticed myself asking “why” a lot less. I don’t know if it’s the deadlines, or the responsibilities, the monotony of “mom life,” the just trying to keep everyone alive and in one piece, but I feel like my curiosity has been significantly dulled as I’ve gotten older. For me, I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of thinking I know it all. Instead, I think it’s just a case of keeping things simple.

Things can be really simple when you don’t think too much. Lately, though, I’m bothered my lack of curiosity to the point that I’ve tried to inspire myself to try to ask “why” at least once a week, and not a “why” in the metaphysical sense, either. The world is a pretty incredible place, always changing and evolving.

Trying to foster my former sense of curiosity is helping to remind me of that, and also that now is a much better time to need medical care than 19th century England was.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.