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Human Needs and New Technologies

Several respondees chastised us for neglecting questions that address pressing human needs. “The most significant science done by humans,” according to one reader, “will be connectable to the human scale, affect human society in some plausible way. Hazen’s questions fail this test.”

Among such questions readers asked are: Can we extend the human life span? Is death inevitable? How can we increase food production? What is earth’s global water cycle? Is the earth’s ecosystem self-correcting? Can we develop synthetic replacements for the body’s organs? What causes weather? Can we direct evolution? Can we build in a process of recovery from the next dark age-assuming there is a next dark age?

Others proposed questions related to developing new technologies: Can we develop new energy technologies? (This was also the basis of our fifth question. Can we develop human space travel? What are limits on computer speed? What will become possible through nano-technologies?

The difficulty of judging the relative importance of applied questions is well illustrated by efforts to find a cure for AIDS. Basic discoveries related to viruses, DNA, and the immune system, for example, may not directly benefit anyone now infected with HIV, but eventually they will be essential to finding cures for many diseases, perhaps including AIDS. Discovery of a specific AIDS vaccine, by contrast, might not result in any fundamental new understanding of biological systems, but would have an immediate and profound effect on millions of people. It would seem prudent, therefore, for any AIDS research funding strategy to strike a balance between basic and applied efforts.

This Too Shall Change

According to one observant reader, Hazen and Singer’s “questions are an oddly unsorted lot that address different levels in an unsystematic way…. The list is too much a creature of our present preoccupations; it is not built to stand the test of time.”

We couldn’t agree more. The list will change for three reasons. First, scientific questions are inherently answerable, so the questions may, in fact, be answered. Two centuries ago, one of the greatest questions in science was how to achieve a reliable method to determine longitude. A half century ago, the search for the molecular mechanisms of genetics consumed thousands of biologists. Now, new questions arise to replace the old.

Second, profound questions are not always obvious questions, so new questions may be discovered. While the birth of the universe, the origin of life, and the inevitability of aging and death have invited speculation for thousands of years, other compelling questions, such as the nature of energy, the operation of genes, and the mystery of dark matter, are far more subtle, emerging from the nagging persistence of odd observations and anomalous bits of data. Gradually, over the span of decades or even centuries, we become aware of a fundamental lack in our understanding of the physical world, and a deep mystery-a new question-comes fully to light.

Third, some questions are not now scientific but may be some day. Before Edwin Hubble’s discovery of distant galaxies, the question of how the universe began lay outside observational science. Without relevant data, it was a matter of philosophical speculation. But, once astronomers understood what to look for, the origin of the universe entered the mainstream of scientific inquiry. Similarly, “What is time?” and, in my opinion, “What is consciousness?” are today more questions of philosophy than of science, though that situation may change as we learn more about matter, energy, and the brain. And who knows what questions we have not yet thought to ask? But that’s the fun part.

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