Passionately Curious: Ben Evans on deciphering unanswered scientific questions

Evans, associate professor of physics, is one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom. 

Associate Professor Ben Evans, right, working with students in a physics lab.

If physics is all about understanding the simplest bits of everything, then one particularly fiddly bit of everything turns out to be magnetics. Magnets feel simple, which is endearing – but I’ve found they are delightfully, devastatingly obtuse, and they are a puzzle I fear I’ll never solve. And I’ve always been one for puzzles.

It’s lucky for me, then, that magnetics has turned out to be useful in so many ways. Over the past decade, I’ve been working on ways to use magnetics to treat cancers and to resolve infections, to study cells and tug on single molecules, to build robots both micro and macro, to mimic microbiology and to enhance medical diagnoses. As a scientist, I value these real-world applications of fundamental principles, and I enjoy exploring interdisciplinary synergies – physics in biology, in chemistry, in medicine. But I admit that none of this keeps me up at night, neither the connections, nor the novelties, nor the ends. I don’t care for them like I should. What drives me is simpler: For me, it’s the puzzle. Like many physicists, my motivation is the simplest version of “why?” and my passion is for unanswered questions.

This is why last summer I spent a whole month reading – really, obsessively poring over (and over) – academic articles on the physics of balls falling through a fluid near a wall. Falling balls are not a particular interest of mine, but I have a question, and that question has an answer. There’s definitely an answer, and it’s somewhere in this confluence of papers. Somewhere. I go back and forth, manuscript to manuscript, re-reading bits I could see in my sleep. I get motion sickness from all the back and forth, and I imagine a deep grinding pain somewhere mid-brain, behind and between the eyes, while I wear mental ruts of well-tracked thoughts. If A then B; if B then C, if… where is the paper on C? I find success and sleep well one night, but the next morning success shows itself to be a herring, and I start over at B. Weeks, this is. More papers, more models, more mathematics, squeezing myself into a new set of definitions (theta is phi? r is a?) and finally, finally, I understand the question.

The answer, it turns out, is in an unpublished appendix held by a dead scientist. But a publisher finds hardcopy in a file cabinet and scans it back into the 21st century. It connects my dots, and another piece of reality slips into place in my head, and it fits. Now I can publish and sleep.

Is there a point? Sure: The falling-ball-near-a-wall lets us build swimming magnetic micro-robots, which can (could) deliver drugs inside the body, transport cells and constitute a tool that (eventually) makes life better for everyone. Other things – the sub-microscopic rust which heats up, the magnetic flippers and flappers which make valves, pumps, whole systems for microscopic manipulation – lead to similar ends. Those ends motivate my work for others.

For me, it’s the niggling, dangling, loose end of not understanding something which should be understood that grabs hold of my whole self and makes it work through to the end. It’s the only thing that makes me my best. It’s not that I hope to impose order on the universe – not at all; nature is fit and finished. It’s the universe imposing order on me, so I don’t track with untruths and I fall in more deeply with everything that is not me. And in falling in, I understand more because it’s all the same show.

I teach because I want others to see the same, and to learn to answer their own questions. In physics, we seek to understand the only set of rules that applies to everything and is never broken. Who wouldn’t want to learn? Yet so many don’t because they haven’t been shown the beauty, the elegance, and haven’t been made to experience themselves as a part of the system. I lead them with bits and pieces and encourage them to engage and grasp at the whole. Most everyone leaves with a deeper understanding, or at least a deeper appreciation for the way the world works, but some catch on and need to know more. Those students will never stop asking why, and they’ll turn into physicists.

Why? Because the best thing to understand is everything, and because if you want modern miracles, then these are places to start: with unanswered questions, with little bits of rust and a couple of magnets, and with the motion of a ball falling through a fluid near a wall.