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October 12, 2009 10:34 AM   Subscribe

What is the most important scientific question of our time?

I volunteer at an observatory for a local amateur astronomers' society and one of the guests at a recent star party came up and asked, "What do you think is the most important question science has to answer right now?" Obviously, there is no right or wrong answer, but after the party was over a lot of us were still talking about this question and I ended up learning a great deal from my fellow club members that I might otherwise not have.
The next time this question gets asked I want to be prepared to offer a variety of answers from differing fields and opinions. I don't expect to represent every answer as an expert, but I'd like to be able to give a few more examples than I was able to, and then correlate them to some book recommendations from the answers in this thread about introductions to your field.
I also think it is important to frame the question in a way that can be meaningfully answered, i.e. "What is the most important scientific discovery about to be made?" or something like that.
Of course, I had my own answer in mind, but as a relative layperson to that branch of study I had a really hard time articulating why it was so important to "science." Therefore, if you are uniquely affiliated with a specific field that you think will produce a game-changer, feel free to get as technical as you're comfortable doing.

Thanks!
posted by Demogorgon to Science & Nature (44 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is there life on other planets? For its potential to help us get over religion.
posted by Rumple at 10:36 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Higgs Boson
Either we understand our universe, or we really, really don't.
posted by TomMelee at 10:43 AM on October 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


2nd the Higgs Boson. It's a question of great importance in terms of validating or nullifying much of our prior understanding, and it may actually be answerable in our time.
posted by The World Famous at 10:44 AM on October 12, 2009


Well, last week I had the opportunity to speak with Richard Dawkins for a bit in his hotel room. I asked him this question (with some regard to evolution, etc.). He said two things that were not surprising:

1) How did it really all begin?
2) What is consciousness?

To me, the biggest question has always been and always will be the famous question posed by Quine, "why something rather than nothing?" which admittedly is more philosophical than scientific, but science could shed some illuminating light on the topic, perhaps, one day.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:46 AM on October 12, 2009 [8 favorites]


What is dark matter?
posted by biffa at 10:47 AM on October 12, 2009


Along the lines of the Higgs boson its right track/wrong track implications-- the question of whether String Theory can be reconciled in with things we're more (or less) sure of in a Grand Unified Theory.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:50 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


* IN its
posted by oinopaponton at 10:50 AM on October 12, 2009


Is our civilization sustainable, and if not, how can it become sustainable? In particular,
- How much resource can we safely extract from our environment?
- How much waste can our environment safely absorb?
- How do we direct our society so we don't hit these limits?
From there you get all kinds of specific questions in engineering, natural science, economics, policy, etc.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:52 AM on October 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


If you're talking to astronomers, I'd say the nature of both dark energy and dark matter (two different things). There's lots of ideas for both, everything from undiscovered particles or fields that produce those effects to attempts to modify the rules of general relativity.

Also something that could be found in our lifetime; lightest supersymmetric partners that could be part of dark matter could be produced at the LHC, while the existence of dark energy (more properly, the fact that the universe is not only expanding but accelerating that expansion) was actually just recently discovered anyhow (from data from supernovae).
posted by nat at 10:54 AM on October 12, 2009


What is consciousness? Why do we sleep? Can standard engineering tools be used to design a living organism de novo?

I think these all have a good chance of having reasonable answers with in the next 10-20 years.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:57 AM on October 12, 2009


Re: rumple. While I agree with the goal, I disagree with the premise. That's what people thought when we found out the universe didn't revolve around the Earth. Because religion is open to interpretation and pretty flexible to believe whatever one wants, it is easy to expand one's belief from "god created life on Earth" to "god created life in the rest of the universe".
posted by Sophie1 at 10:59 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Can we stop and/or reverse senescence in cells?
If so, we'll be able to extend lifespans almost indefinitely. I'm not as optimistic as say, Aubrey de Grey or Ray Kurzweil, but I certainly think it will be achievable in the next 100 years.


Can standard engineering tools be used to design a living organism de novo?

The answer to this is pretty clearly 'yes'. At this point, it's only a matter of time.


What is consciousness?

I agree wholeheartedly with this one, too.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:02 AM on October 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


As far as the question goes, I would say a discovery of how to build an effective vaccine against HIV would be an incredible leap forward in science.

In 1984, the head of DHHS, Margaret Heckler announced that there would be a vaccine within 2 years. She was wrong because the classic vaccine systems don't work for an immune system recognition of HIV therefore an unreliable antibody response. Also, HIV is highly mutable and therefore can evade an immune system response.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:07 AM on October 12, 2009


Is P = NP? Finding that it is would be seriously game-changing for many computational tasks, and would in turn lead to significant advances in other areas of science and engineering. In terms of immediately changing our day-to-day lives, it would be amazing. Unfortunately, many people think that P ≠ NP.
posted by grouse at 11:12 AM on October 12, 2009 [7 favorites]


I think you should attempt to define "important."

It's important to figure out the Higgs Boson. But if we don't see the asteroid on track to smack the planet and kill us all, the Higgs Boson is kind of beside the point. Dark matter comes in second to figuring out what to do about slate-wiping viruses that will kill us all. And it'd be nice to figure out new sources of energy so we can stop burning stuff.

So, IMO, "the most important question science has to answer right now," is how to do everything it's already doing better, faster, stronger and cheaper.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:13 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


The answer to this is pretty clearly 'yes'. At this point, it's only a matter of time.

No it isn't. Current attempts at synthetic biology just repurpose evolved parts in new organisms. We haven't come close to a true de novo design yet. Everything we use now was "designed" over eons of evolution. When I say de novo I mean something along the lines of: determine a protein configuration that will catalyze a particular chemistry, use computational tools to design a protein that folds into that configuration (not just changing a couple of residues: I'd like to see the folding designed from the ground up), and express this protein in a cell-free system. And even that's not "life"; it's just a single protein.

Even the tools used to design genetic networks are pretty rudimentary at this point, and rely on heuristics learned from biology. It would be cool if we could computationally design a complex genetic network from the ground up...
posted by mr_roboto at 11:17 AM on October 12, 2009


Why do we sleep?

It isn't an answer, but you might find this episode of Radiolab interesting.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:18 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is there life on other planets? For its potential to help us get over religion.

I agree that it would be terribly important, but I know many a person from my former life to whom the discovery would be so far removed from their daily religious lives that they really wouldn't care. They'd just file it away under 'not our problem.'
posted by greatgefilte at 11:22 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Doc Brown has you covered.
posted by alan at 11:30 AM on October 12, 2009


A Digital Aristotle that understands and answers questions as they are posed by everyday users.
posted by jchaw at 11:32 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would say trying to find the theory of everything (look up string theory).
posted by majortom1981 at 11:41 AM on October 12, 2009


Is there life on other planets? For its potential to help us get over religion.

This may be because my own religious beliefs are kooky compared to most, but I don't see how the discovery of life on other planets would have any bearing at all on religion in general. Sure, if there is some religion that expressly believes that there is no life on other planets, that would be problematic for that particular religion.

But even the goal of helping us "get over religion" is quite axe-grindy to begin with. Moreover, do scientists genuinely think there's any significant probability that there is not a single planet anywhere in the universe, other than Earth, with life on it?
posted by The World Famous at 11:50 AM on October 12, 2009


Free (or close to free) clean energy. This would solve so many complex environmental problems that the world would be completely different within 5 years.
posted by benzenedream at 11:51 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


From a practical standpoint I would say 'efficient, lightweight energy storage'.
there's plenty of free energy out there, but it's all use it or lose it right now. a better battery, and i mean quantum leap better, has implications from the grid to space travel, replacing fossil fuels to bionic people.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:58 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


What is the most important scientific question of our time?
"What is it that makes us ask such questions?"
posted by Namlit at 12:08 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


A lot of good answers so far. I feel like the Higgs Boson is going to be the go-to answer for a lot of people (it was my answer at the party), so I'm just going to go ahead and mark that as a best answer right away. If you want to say more about it, or explain why it's relevant to a particular field, please do so but nthing it isn't going to help me out a whole lot at this point.

^Cool Papa Bell, "important" is kind of for you to define. I'm interested in knowing what other people think about it, not just what I think is important.
"IMO, "the most important question science has to answer right now," is how to do everything it's already doing better, faster, stronger and cheaper."
Actually, I think that's a great answer.
posted by Demogorgon at 12:18 PM on October 12, 2009


Lots of good answers here but has no one suggested finding a cure for cancer? That strikes me as one of humanity's most immediate needs. It counts as a scientific question but not as cosmological of one as the others here.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:20 PM on October 12, 2009


Maybe I should have worded it as a question… what is the physiological cause of cancer in the human body, and how can it be reversed?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:21 PM on October 12, 2009


The Winsome Parker Lewis, take a look at this comic to get a better idea about why trying to find a "cure for cancer" is often seen as a fallacious approach to the complex issues at hand.
posted by Demogorgon at 12:32 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would still say the theory of everything.A Theory that describe the universe as a whole . Right now we know bits and pieces but not how everything is related. The higgs boson particle is only a part of that .

http://www.firstscience.com/home/articles/big-theories/the-theory-of-everything-page-2-1_1224.html

"This is perhaps the greatest challenge of all time, to unite all four fundamental forces into a consistent, coherent picture. At present, the sole candidate for the theory of everything is superstring theory."
posted by majortom1981 at 12:34 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Engineering is applied science, in my dictionary. The answers above that relate to applications do not fall into pure science, which may/may not have day to day applications.

Higgs boson fits this. Cure for cancer does not. Doing anything with the findings of science, (which are always provisional "truth") makes it technology, not science.

Pure science is the search for fundamental underpinnings of the universe, including the machinations of the mind and body, inert and animated matter.

Math seems a special case. One can't really call it science, though, IMO, because WE set the rules in place. They don't stand alone; they are generally not natural, they have existence in our culture more than the real world and they are descriptive constructs. It is possible to invent maths that have no reality corollary. They may be useless, but that doesn't keep me from inventing one. (Remember... 0 is a concept that was INVENTED, as is decimal notation... as it positional notation, generally.)

Matter, energy, time, space and unifying concepts that relate these... those are science.

Higgs boson. Dark matter. Maybe string theory. I'd vote for these and the last only because it applies to relationships between matter, etc.
posted by FauxScot at 12:55 PM on October 12, 2009


Good link, Demogorgon! That comic was a very insightful response to my cliche post. But despite the complexities of the issue, I think most would agree the world would be a better place without all forms of cancer — regardless of how many leaps in medical progress are required to root them out completely. It's a shame things look so hopeless at this point in time. In the grand scheme of things, I agree that some of the other things mentioned are are probably more "important," depending on your definition of importance, of course. :-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2009


plasma.
posted by water bear at 1:10 PM on October 12, 2009


Not just "is there life on other planets", but "why haven't we seen it yet"? Building space colonies that could occlude a noticeable percentage of the Sun's output or could travel to other stars is still science fiction, but the prospects have gone from "inconceivable" to "very difficult" in a couple centuries and are still improving. And yet we can see a hundred billion stars that haven't sent us Von Neumann probes and a hundred billion galaxies whose light is still all being wastefully spilled into space. The universe looks emptier than it should.

"The Earth is unique, so something prevents species from developing to our level" keeps looking less likely with new scientific discoveries. (most recently: extrasolar planets are a dime a dozen!) But "The Earth is not unique, so something prevents species from developing past our level" is a very unpleasant alternative.

I'm not sure how we could answer that question right now, though, even though the possibility of exterminating ourselves has been around for decades. In particular, if there is something (nukes? grey goo?) that wipes out species before they can spread off their home planets, by definition we're never going to get to any place where we can find evidence of that. And if we prove there is no Great Filter by becoming a counterexample, it'll be in millennia at best, not "right now".

Oh, and on an unrelated nitpick: P ?= NP isn't science, it's math. (as is the rest of "computer science", ironically) That was still a very good response to the (probably inadvertently too strict) question, though.
posted by roystgnr at 1:14 PM on October 12, 2009


* a deep understanding of consciousness (and this will go far beyond explaining the inner experience of human beings). are plants conscious? are fruit flies conscious? are dogs conscious?. I doubt the answers to any of these are yes or no
* a resolution to the fermi paradox
* an explanation for the "finely tuned universe"
* a 'true' interpretation for quantum mechanics and an understanding of how and why (whether?) wave function collapse occurs

I have a feeling these are all related
posted by crayz at 1:22 PM on October 12, 2009


roystgnr - For my money, the answer to the fermi paradox(which you essentially described) is the same as the answer to why we're the only technological species on earth - we got there first, and the timescale at which we're progressing from intelligence to civilization to technology to [?] is so tiny compared to the other evolutionary forces in the universe that we'll take over before anyone else has a chance to get there
posted by crayz at 1:26 PM on October 12, 2009


^Math seems a special case. One can't really call it science, though, IMO, because WE set the rules in place.
^Oh, and on an unrelated nitpick: P ?= NP isn't science, it's math.


Math is science. At least I think we can say it is for the purposes of this discussion.

From the links,

Mathematics is the science and study of quantity, structure, space, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns, formulate new conjectures, and establish truth by rigorous deduction from appropriately chosen axioms and definitions.


Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") refers in its broadest sense to any systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a prediction or predictable type of outcome. In this sense, science may refer to a highly skilled technique or practice.
posted by Demogorgon at 1:34 PM on October 12, 2009


Millenium Prizes for the most important (subjective) math problems support your contention that these two categories overlap, but the minute you put matter in the mix, IMO, you migrate out of pure math and into descriptive math. One is independent of matter, and the other is a real world description using math as a tool. The Riemann hypothesis could care less about the real world. Navier-Stokes, OTOH, does.

Regardless, the Clay Mathematics list is a good place for 7 additions to your list, which has some handsome members!
posted by FauxScot at 2:04 PM on October 12, 2009


Does free will exist? Or are we nothing more than a series of compounded binary results of biological responses to stimuli?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:45 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


What is the true price of carbon emissions? In particular, what is the global average temperature at which the release of methane from thawing permafrost and/or clathrates would cause a mass extinction event on this planet via a runaway greenhouse effect feedback loop? What level of CO2(-equivalent) in the atmosphere will lead to that temperature, and what price on CO2e emissions will lead to that level of CO2e? We have some answers to all these, but the combined uncertainty is still way too large. More certainty is needed, preferably by December 6th.
posted by Canard de Vasco at 3:54 PM on October 12, 2009


The Double-Slit experiment: How does the particle know we're watching? :^p

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:54 PM on October 12, 2009


The Riemann hypothesis could care less about the real world. Navier-Stokes, OTOH, does.

Only in a loose sense. There are real and philosophical differences between math and science, which this example demonstrates. The real difference is that the Navier-Stokes equations are based on idealized approximations that don't exist. People have been wondering whether matter is atomic or continuous for thousands of years; science says the former, while the Navier-Stokes equations assume the latter.

That leads to the philosophical difference: are the Navier-Stokes equations wrong? Science says "yes", because although their error will be orders of magnitude less than experimental error in most conditions, it will be detectable in vacuum chambers, the top of the atmosphere, etc. Math says "mu", because this question isn't mathematical. "Do the Navier-Stokes equations have solutions for all initial/boundary conditions in class X" might be proven or disproven from axioms, but "Do the Navier-Stokes equations correspond to reality?" can only be tested with experiments.

Sorry for the threadjack. In penance, I offer another "most important question" possibility:

What will it take for the social sciences to reach the same level of rigor, predictive power, and utility to civilization that the physical sciences currently enjoy? "How do we interact with each other and how can we improve that?" could be as world-changing a question as "What is energy and how can we control it?" was. "How do we avoid social disasters?" becomes a more important question as the answers to "How can we surveil, control, and kill people?" become more numerous.
posted by roystgnr at 8:39 PM on October 12, 2009


Nitpicking The Winsome Parker Lewis here.

Lots of good answers here but has no one suggested finding a cure for cancer? That strikes me as one of humanity's most immediate needs. It counts as a scientific question but not as cosmological of one as the others here.

AND

Maybe I should have worded it as a question… what is the physiological cause of cancer in the human body, and how can it be reversed?

I can answer these: There will never be "a cure" for cancer, and there is no single physiological cause of cancer.

Cancer is a catch-all phrase describing cellular growth; it's a bit more like saying "sore throat" than "strep throat". Cells can become cancerous because of a variety of causes (environmental pressures, toxins, genetic propensity to randomly "turn on"...). There's no one cause, no one path, and therefore no one cure is possible.

To carry the analogy, menthol candies might help some sore throats, but really won't due much to cure strep throat. Antibiotics will cure strep throat, but will do nothing to improve sore throats from non-bacterial causes (overuse, smoke exposure, viral...).

Sorry to be a kill-joy. Cures for specific cancers are possible, and cures for the most lethal kinds (in a per-capita sense) would be a great thing.

On review, what Demogorgon said in his cartoon link.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:42 PM on October 13, 2009


I'd say something about popular science education and journalism, some serious look at how to put creation museums out of business, and have more people get more access to some interesting scientific ideas about climate, nature, health, mechanics, etc...
posted by ServSci at 1:03 PM on October 13, 2009


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