About Open Questions

What is the size and the shape of the universe? How did it begin? How did life arise? Why do we grow up and grow old? How are we able to think about such things in the first place?

These certainly aren't hard questions to understand, though they are quite difficult to answer. They represent basic questions -- mysteries -- that even a child can, and usually will, wonder about. It would seem that if we focus on such questions, it must be difficult not to find their investigation interesting.

How could it possibly be that anyone would not find such questions to be actually exciting and fascinating? At least at times when the press of everyday concerns abates temporarily.

Nevertheless, in our society today science does not have the level of understanding and respect that it did a few decades ago. Most of all, and perhaps most fundamentally, it does not seem to have the simple level of interest on the part of educated people that it used to have.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
Albert Einstein
There are a variety of reasons for this. But one of the most basic may be simply that the science taught in high schools and colleges is often material that was discovered and known decades, or even centuries, ago. While a lot of this is useful and often important to know, in order to understand many facets of our technological civilization, it lacks the elements of suspense and action and surprise that people seem to want in their lives. For such things, most people turn instead to the popular entertainment media and sporting events.

However, there is a large measure of suspense and action and surprise in many areas under investigation by contemporary scientists at the "frontiers" of knowledge, because these are exactly the areas where our knowledge is lacking. The word "frontier" itself implies challenge and excitement. The problem is that too many people do not understand what scientists are actually doing, largely because they feel that to understand the specifics is "too difficult".

And some of it is, indeed difficult, at the level of understanding required by a practicing scientist. Yet a great deal of it is easily within the grasp of any educated person who is simply motivated by interest and curiosity to learn a little background. It seems that one way to provide this motivation is to frame the issues in terms of the questions that scientists actually wonder about, because these can usually be phrased as questions that anyone might wonder about.

Such as the ones listed at the top of this page.

What science is fundamentally about is the asking - and answering - of questions. Such questions are the basic What, Where, When, How, and Why of the journalist. The first three basic questions address the issue of discovering and categorizing the contents of our perceptible universe. The question of How attempts to go deeper and discover the relationship of all the various things and events to each other. The last question, and the most difficult, Why, is the trickiest to describe, for it admits a variety of different sorts of answers - sometimes a complete mathematical theory, but sometimes only an explanation in terms of other things and events, which themselves raise further questions.

Some people seek meaning in life through personal gain, through personal relationships, or through personal experience. However, it seems to me that being blessed with the intellect to divine the ultimate secrets of nature gives meaning enough to life.
Michio Kaku, Hyperspace
In any case, the way to know what is happening in the "cutting edge" of scientific activity is to consider the basic questions that each branch of science is presently concerned with. That is our main purpose here.

We won't be attempting to provide a "complete" explanation of the background of the questions in each field, let alone a summary of the best answers or guesses which currently exist. Instead, the idea is to offer a new sort of directory of resources which may be found both on the Internet and outside it. It is a directory that provides the minimal conceptual framework to orient the reader to the structure of contemporary science as an aid to go exploring further on the reader's own.

Where do the best questions come from?

There are ways to think about many of the questions considered here, other than in terms of "what", "how", "why", etc. We might even ask: Where does a really good question come from in the first place? And there are probably a lot of possible answers to that. Here are a few of them.

Some questions are just so big and obvious that they're hard to ignore. The ones at the top of this page are good examples. They concern fundamental issues that everyone thinks about: the origin of the universe and what makes it go, the nature of life itself and how it began, the way the human mind itself works.

We do have to be careful with these. In many cases, adequate conceptual foundations and technological means of investigating such issues have not existed until fairly recently. Regarding questions about the origins of the universe and life, that time period is roughly 50 years. And as for how the mind works, it's quite possible we don't have all that we need to investigate it properly even now.

There are other obvious quesions -- often of the form: What is the purpose of X? -- for which it may well be that we lack not only the technological means for investigation, but also an adquate philosophical basis for formulating the question.

A second sort of question is one which is generally not obvious to the casual observer. Sometimes a question like this arises only after we have already learned a great deal of solid knowledge in some area and this serves to reveal previously unsuspected puzzles. Many questions in theoretical physics and mathematics are of this sort. For example, only after you already have thoroughly explored the theores of gravitation and quantum mechanics do you recognize that the two are quite difficult to reconcile in areas where they overlap (such as the interiors of black holes).

However, just because a question isn't obvious to non-specialists does not mean that non-specialists can't understand it. The question about the unification of relativity and quantum theory may not be something that the average person would come up with spontaneously, but it is understandable enough when it is pointed out to anyone who knows something of the theories involved.

Here's a similar case of a question anyone can understand: Why is the night sky dark? Perfectly comprehensible, though it's not obvious why the question would occur to anyone in the first place. Astronomers call this Olber's Paradox, after Heinrich Olbers, who first posed it in 1826. You can see why it's a problem, if you suppose that the universe is infinite and filled with stars, since every possible line of sight should eventually end at the surface of a star. (We now know that the expansion of the universe and the red shift of light from distant stars is able to resolve the paradox.)

Other important questions in cosmology are like this as well, and they depend on observational facts which are not accessible to anyone without sophisticated instruments. For example, exactly why is the universe apparently as uniform in every direction as careful observation shows it to be? ("Isotropic" is the technical term.) We're not yet sure of the answer to this, but the theory of "cosmic inflation" provides what many suspect is the resolution.

Unobvious questions like this often require expert knowledge for their formulation. But even if not, they still require a keen shrewdness to conceive. One is reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle's story where Holmes remarks on "the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime." "The dog did nothing in the nighttime," Watson replies. And to this Holmes responds, "That was the curious incident."

The point here is that, even when scientific questions don't seem to involve issues that people are in any way likely to think about spontaneously, they can nevertheless turn out to be as fascinating as any detective story if one just takes the time to get into it.

A third type of question may or may not be "obvious", but tends to become particularly interesting (and "open") not because we have no plausible answers, but because we have two (or more) seemingly persuasive answers -- which are incompatible, or at least apparently in conflict. These are the great controversies.

"Nature vs. nurture" is a classic example of this, as regards explanations for animal and human behavior and psychological traits. Do intelligence, or musical ability, or athletic prowess come from genes or culture? In recent times, entire academic disciplines such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" have emerged to justify one sort of answer or another. Not infrequently, when the dust settles, the answer that results is a combination of the alternatives. But one wants at least a good explanation of the precise contribution from each of the alternatives.

This sort of situation often occurs where the question itself is one that may be not quite ready for scientific investigation. The "nature of consciousness" could be an example of this. One school of thought holds that consciousness can be fully explained by biology and chemistry (and ultimately physics). Another school says no such explanation is possible. And yet others either doubt that there is any real "problem of consciousness" or that the problem (if real) has been well posed.

We could go on. There are all sorts of reasons that cause scientists (as well as thoughtful lay persons) to ask questions. Sometimes it's little more than a feeling that existing theories and explanations of something are insufficiently elegant or not aesthetically satisfying. There's no doubt that aesthetics matters in scientific theories.

This often happens in theoretical physics. The "standard model" is able to predict the behavior of elementary particles (or their physical manifestations) with astonishing accuracy. It provides a theoretical framework for almost all known high-energy phenomena. And yet all physicists regard it as unsatisfactory and incomplete because it fails to account for every possible detail, such as the masses and interaction strengths of particles. These numerical values are simply taken as "initial conditions". But that's not good enough. It's unaesthetic. What one really wants is a theory which allows calculation of these values from the minimum possible assumptions. So the search goes on. The question is still "open".


Copyright © 2002 by Charles Daney, All Rights Reserved