5 Big Unanswered Science Questions


This image obtained on July 4, 2013 from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows NGC 6744, one of the galaxies most similar to our Milky Way in the local universe. AFP PHOTO / NASA/JPL-Caltech

Are we nearing the end of science? That is, are we running out of answerable questions, leaving us with only some mop-up duty, working around the edges of the great scientific achievements of Darwin, Einstein, Copernicus, et al.?

This was the provocative thesis nearly two decades ago of John Horgan, the Scientific American writer who had spent years interviewing the luminaries of a variety of fields, and had come away with a decidedly jaundiced view. His book “The End of Science” introduced the reader to superstars and geniuses, most of whom seemed slightly smaller in stature by the time Horgan left the room. A delightful romp of a book, it nonetheless suffered from the declarative nature of the title, which had the loud ping of overstatement. There is the provocative and then there is the insupportable. Naturally the professionals in the world of science were aghast. Horgan all but said they were wasting their time on marginalia.

Horgan’s book came to mind via Faye Flam’s recent post on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, of which I am a regular reader. She cited the Horgan book when she picked up on a Horganesque line in the new George Johnson column in the Times. Johnson wrote about the argument advanced by professor of medicine John Ioannidis, who says most scientific studies are wrong, their results not  reproducible, and likely fatally skewed by the unconscious desires of the researcher for a certain result.

The medical research field is going through a wrenching period of self-examination. Just a few days ago, Francis Collins, head of NIH, and Lawrence Tabak, the NIH principal deputy director, published a column in Nature stating that the community needs to take steps to address “a troubling frequency of published reports that claim a significant result, but fail to be reproducible.”

They list a variety of factors that lead to the lack of reproducibility:

“Factors include poor training of researchers in experimental design; increased emphasis on making provocative statements rather than presenting technical details; and publications that do not report basic elements of experimental design4. Crucial experimental design elements that are all too frequently ignored include blinding, randomization, replication, sample-size calculation and the effect of sex differences. And some scientists reputedly use a ‘secret sauce’ to make their experiments work — and withhold details from publication or describe them only vaguely to retain a competitive edge. What hope is there that other scientists will be able to build on such work to further biomedical progress?”

Collins and Tabak outline a set of measures, working in tandem with leading scientific publications such as Science and Nature, to make experiments more rigorous, tease out clubbiness in the system and emphasize actual advances in medicine rather than merely a publication record. (In other words, it’s one thing to show on your biographic sketch that you have had a bunch of studies published in Nature, but better to show that what you found has helped a live human being at some point.)

Now let me take a big step back for a second and re-address the issue of whether science is running into a new era of diminishing returns.

Earlier this week I had the great honor of meeting Rosemary and Peter Grant, the legendary evolutionary biologists who spent 40 years studying finches in the

Islands. They didn’t feel, after all those years, any sense that they were getting diminishing returns on their field work. And although it’s true that evolution as a fundamental process can only be “discovered” once (or twice, if you count Darwin and Wallace both), the process of speciation, the actual mechanism by which natural selection leads to the evolution of a new species, remains a fascinating field, with a lot of heavy lifting still to be done. The Grants would happily spend another 40 years doing their research, but they are both 77 years old and they feel it’s time to sum up their life’s work — as they have in a book coming out this spring.

Changing fields: Does anyone think that paleontology is running out of questions? Randomly, off the top of my head: What exactly caused the Permian mass extinction (Siberian vulcanism?) and why did some species survive while so many died out? Were the dinosaurs fading even before the K/T extinction event? Was it the Chicxulub impact alone that iced the Cretaceous or was it the one-two punch with the bad rock and the Deccan traps? Why did dinosaurs so thoroughly occupy the large-animal ecological niches after they began to radiate?

Moving to more recent times: We don’t even know the full narrative of human evolution, and how modern humans migrated around the world, and whether people came to the Americas in a single migration or in multiple waves by land and boat. Most of human existence was, and is, prehistoric — lost in the fog, kind of like my senior year in high school.

And then there are the really big, gnawing, possibly unknowable unknowns. Nearly 20 years ago I typed up a list of “five simple questions that many scientists might accept as a core curriculum of the unknown” (Washington Post, A1, Aug. 11, 1996):
1. Why does the universe exist?

2. What is matter made of?

3. How did life originate?

4. How does consciousness emerge from the human brain?

5. Is there intelligent life on other worlds?

I’m sure there are dozens of other unknowns, but this was my personal cheat sheet back then, and it holds up pretty well. The simplest questions are the hardest. For example, the origin of the universe isn’t something you can reproduce experimentally, to test the “why” of it — and so even if you could see through the event horizon, or singularity, at the beginning of time, you would see merely what happened and not necessarily why it happened. You would have correlation/causation issues.

On the question of the fundament of matter and energy, it seems like the physicists are making headway, thanks to the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs, but there’s something quirky about the mass of the Higgs that suggests something else is needed to keep the universe stable. You can bet there’s some “new physics” lurking out there somewhere. Here’s an unknown: What’s going to happen to the universe?

The origin of life is tricky because by the time you get anything big enough and robust enough and complex enough to form a fossil, you’re already way, way past the point of origin. How do you get the first cell? What’s the information-transfer molecule in early life? Does metabolism come before or after the genetic element? How do you get rolling with this life business?

Questions, questions. Yesterday I moderated a discussion about astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, and lobbed questions at two eminent astrobiologists, Steve Dick and David Grinspoon. Here’s one: If you were to make contact with an alien civilization, what’s the first question you’d ask?

I always thought we’d want to know what the aliens were made of — whether they had DNA, for example, and were carbon-based and water-based, and so on. But Grinspoon suggested a more practical question: How do we become sustainable?

That’s not really a science question, but it’s the one we should all be asking. It’s the question that pulls in science, technology, engineering, political science, social science, and efforts on behalf of human rights, justice and education. We’ve got a very big challenge facing the planet. So: Keep asking good questions.

Update:

Here’s an interesting email that came in over the transom this morning after I posted this item. It’s from Dr. Lew Jacobson, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

From Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner’s obituary for biochemist Fred Sanger, winner of two Nobel prizes in Chemistry (1958 and 1980):

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/343/6168/262.full

‘A Fred Sanger would not survive today’s world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977. He would be labeled as unproductive, and his modest personal support would be denied. We no longer have a culture that allows individuals to embark on long-term-and what would be considered today extremely risky-projects.’

Brenner’s view is not mere nostalgia. This change in culture — the rise to dominance of bureaucrats who are themselves fundamentally unproductive –  is a serious long-term threat to the progress of science.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · January 26