One Step Beyond
A number of fascinating questions about the physical design of the universe appeared several times in the survey responses: What is gravity? What is time? What is the connection between the quantum and macroscopic world? What is the relationship between mathematics and the physical world? These are good questions. All are the subject of current research and debate, and any one of them could make a “top 20” list.
But other questions, rather similar in tone and content, are more problematic. Can we develop antigravity? Can we develop time travel? Can matter be transported across space other than physically? Each of these questions postulates technologies that are outside of current physical laws. That’s not to say that such technologies are impossible. It’s just that science, at present, has no way to address such speculation.
Still other questions approach space and time from a more philosophical perspective: What is the meaning of quantum mechanics? Why is the speed of light what it is, or, why is the speed of light so slow? Why are the fundamental constants what they are? The line between science and philosophy is often fuzzy when we ask why nature behaves the way it does. Scientists can measure the speed of light with exquisite accuracy, but why it has that particular value may defy present theory.
In a similar vein, several readers asked if alternate universes might exist, perhaps with different physical constants. Without specific observations to support or deny these ideas, alternate universes are outside the domain of today’s science.
Quite a few readers condemned us for failing to acknowledge the social sciences. One reader asks, “Where are the big questions with regard to the domain of human [society]?” Another observes, “By focusing on the natural sciences, and completely ignoring the social sciences, both authors neglect to mention the areas of our greatest ignorance: the unanswered questions of sociology, economics, political science, social psychology.”
Guilty as charged. Except for our borderline question on behavioral genetics (Is behavior dictated by genes?), we restricted ourselves to the physical and life sciences. A survey similar to ours from the perspective of the social sciences would be fascinating, especially judging from the following questions: Is war inevitable? Can we achieve world peace? How do societies arise? What is the best way to raise a child? What are the relative roles of nature vs. nurture? What is the source of religious impulse? What are the rules of economics? What are the roles of work and leisure time? While such questions are not on the scientific research agenda, readers who asked them can take heart that these issues are now in the mainstream of sociological research.