[Paleopsych] Chicago Tribune: Advances in science: Answering the big questions
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Advances in science: Answering the big questions
World's scientists predict what's next in coming 25 years
December 11, 2005 By Ronald Kotulak Tribune science reporter
To celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding by Thomas Edison, the
journal Science asked more than 100 of the world's top scientists what they
thought were the 25 most important scientific questions likely to be answered
in the next 25 years.
The 25 big questions range from what is consciousness (the mysterious interplay
of brain cells and neurotransmitters that conjures up awareness and the ability
to ask questions) to what is the universe made of.
What distinguishes humans from all other species is that capacity to formulate
questions--and to find answers that lead to more questions.
Children start asking "why" almost as soon as they learn to talk. Why is the
sky blue? Do mosquitoes go to the bathroom?
Asking the right question is the driving force behind science's amazing run of
successes in explaining how the world works.
"Children ask the most natural and the most difficult questions because they
really do want explanations in which they can understand relationships between
cause and effect," said Donald Kennedy, executive editor in chief of Science.
"Scientists proceed in much the same way," he said. "They see some complicated
outcome and they say, What produced this? I'm not going to be satisfied with
just describing that it happened; I want to know what put it in motion."
Whereas a frustrated parent may answer a child's inquisitiveness with "because
I told you so," scientists must frame a question in such a way that it poses a
hypothesis--a theory that tries to explain how something works--that can be
tested to determine if it is true or not.
Questions are more important than answers in shaping the future of science,
Kennedy wrote in an editorial in Science, adding that science is about
questions while research is about answers.
"The essential feature of a good question is that it is ultimately testable or
answerable," he wrote. "The big question that can never be wrestled with isn't
In 1943 Erwin Schrodinger posed one of the most famous questions ever recorded
when he asked, "What is life?" Enough tantalizing clues are known, he
postulated, to begin looking for the molecules of life.
Schrodinger's question, and slim book by the same title, inspired a generation
of young scientists, including James Watson and Francis Crick, who won the race
to decipher the chemical structure of DNA.
But Watson and Crick's achievement was only the start of a cascade of new
questions: What are genes? Are there disease genes? Why do humans have so many
fewer genes than previously thought? That last question opened a new field of
epigenetics, which studies the role the environment plays in determining how
genes are expressed.
Scientists ask questions because they have an overwhelming urge to know why
things are the way they are. The knowledge learned scrapes away the crust of
ignorance that limits human progress.
"In many cases, the answers are going to have a big impact on human well-being,
and not just in the medical sense," Kennedy said. "People who explore the
cosmos try to put our solar system, Earth and everybody on it in some kind of
grander context in terms of our universe."
Some answers seem to have no immediate relevance at the time of discovery, but
later turn out to have a major impact on society.
When Michael Faraday was demonstrating his equipment for generating the newly
discovered phenomenon of electricity in the early 1800s, British chancellor of
the exchequer William Gladstone, said: "It is very interesting, Mr. Faraday;
But what practical worth is it?" Faraday replied: "One day, sir, you may tax
The ancient Greeks were masters at asking questions and coming up with
philosophical answers that were intellectually satisfying but usually not
testable. It wasn't until the Age of Enlightenment starting in the 1600s that
the scientific method--observe, form a hypothesis, test it--took hold.
The flood of discoveries that followed changed the world. Every now and then,
particularly after a surge of great discoveries, someone, often a scientist,
would say that science has learned all there is to learn.
"The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all
been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility
of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly
remote," Albert A. Michelson, who measured the speed of light, said in a speech
dedicating the Ryerson Physics Lab at the University of Chicago in 1894.
He could not anticipate the revolutionary discoveries of relativity and
quantum mechanics that soon followed.
The most recent pessimistic forecast is a 1996 book, "The End of Science" by
John Horgan, that claimed all the big questions have been asked and answered.
What's left, he said, is simply filling in the details.
Most scientists, however, believe that there may be no end to big questions and
that they will lead to big discoveries. "It is very plain that science has as
much going for it now as it ever had. There are even more questions," Kennedy
Besides consciousness, the small number of human genes and what the universe is
made of, the other big questions on Science's list of 25 are:
- To what extent are genetic variation and personal health linked?
- Can the laws of physics be unified?
- How much can the human life span be extended?
- What controls organ regeneration?
- How can a skin cell become a nerve cell?
- How does a single somatic cell become a whole plant?
- How does Earth's interior work?
- Are we alone in the universe?
- How and where did life on Earth arise?
- What determines species diversity?
- What genetic changes made us uniquely human?
- How are memories stored and retrieved?
- How did cooperative behavior evolve?
- How will big pictures emerge from a sea of biological data?
- How far can we push chemical self-assembly?
- What are the limits of conventional computing?
- Can we selectively shut off the immune responses?
- Do deeper principles underlie quantum uncertainty and non-locality?
- Is an effective HIV vaccine feasible?
- How hot will the greenhouse world be?
- What can replace cheap oil, and when?
- Will Thomas Malthus [who predicted that overpopulation could lead to a global
disaster] continue to be wrong?
Scientists are already working on these questions and many more. "We thought
these had the biggest potential for impact and the ability to be answered in
the next 25 years," said Science executive editor Monica Bradford.
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