In this short clip, Best-selling author and physicist Safi Bahcall explains the one reason that Rabi gave as to how we won the Nobel Prize. (5:06)
“Did you ask a good question today?”
How a scientist's mother inspired her child to become a scientist
Isidor Isaac Rabi, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, who was one of the consultants of the development of the atomic bomb, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. (Shortly before his death in 1988, Rabi experienced first-hand the practical offspring of his magnetic resonance work when doctors used MRI to aid in his diagnosis. Once inside the machine, Rabi saw a distorted image of his face in the cylindrical surface surrounding him. “It was eerie,” Rabi said. “I saw myself in that machine. I never thought my work would come to this.”)
As a boy, Rabi was interested in science. He read science books borrowed from the public library and built his own radio set. His first scientific paper, on the design of a radio condenser, was published in Modern Electrics when he was in elementary school.
When he was once asked how he became a scientist. Rabi replied that every day after school his mother would talk to him about his school day. She wasn’t so much interested in what he had learned that day, but how he conducted himself in his studies.
She always inquired, “Did you ask a good question today?”
“Asking good questions,” Rabi said, “made me become a scientist.”
In order to ask a good question I think you need to have noble motives behind the question. You have to want to know the truth.
The Pharisees, by contrast, already had the answers to their questions. They felt they already knew the truth. The Pharisees come to Jesus once again with a question designed to do damage to the reputation of Jesus.
Although Rabi was not a practicing Jew, he did believe in God. One question, he would always ask his graduate students was, “Does [your research] bring you near to God?”
As John Rigden, a physicist himself, later wrote, "To Rabi, physics, like religion, sprang from human aspirations, from the depths of the soul, from deep thinking and deep feeling. For Rabi, doing great physics was walking the path of God."