125 open science problems

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Science magazine is running a 125th anniversary specialwith 25 major open problems and 100 not-so-major ones (no subscription required). It's kind of a mixed bag:
    What Is the Universe Made Of?
  • What is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?
  • Why Do Humans Have So Few Genes?
  • To What Extent Are Genetic Variation and Personal Health Linked?
  • Can the Laws of Physics Be Unified?
  • How Much Can Human Life Span Be Extended?
  • What Controls Organ Regeneration?
  • How Can a Skin Cell Become a Nerve Cell?
  • How Does a Single Somatic Cell Become a Whole Plant?
  • How Does Earth's Interior Work?
  • Are We Alone in the Universe?
  • How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?
  • What Determines Species Diversity?
  • What Genetic Changes Made Us Uniquely Human?
  • How Are Memories Stored and Retrieved?
  • How Did Cooperative Behavior Evolve?
  • How Will Big Pictures Emerge from a Sea of Biological Data?
  • How Far Can We Push Chemical Self-Assembly?
  • What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing?
  • Can We Selectively Shut Off Immune Responses?
  • Do Deeper Principles Underlie Quantum Uncertainty and Nonlocality?
  • Is an Effective HIV Vaccine Feasible?
  • How Hot Will the Greenhouse World Be?
  • What Can Replace Cheap Oil -- and When?
  • Will Malthus Continue to Be Wrong?

None of the articles go into much depth, but they do provide an overview of some of today's interesting scientific problems--certainly enough to give you a sense of what might be interesting for further reading.

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This is really an amazingly random selection of questions. Many of them overlap, many are not particularly profound, and it also misses all the really largest questions. For example, take this related group of five questions, which I think get to the (nearly) biggest possible picture:

  • What are the fundamental laws of this universe?

  • Why these laws, and not other laws?

  • Are there other universes?

  • ...with other laws?

  • If there are other universes with other laws, are all possible mathematically consistent universes "real"?

One can probably come up with similar lists for other areas with deep questions, like minds and consciousness.

What is interesting to me is that, given the opportunity to present a systematically selected set of extremely deep questions, the folks at Science chose to just throw a seemingly random selection against the wall. They aren't all bad, but they don't show any signs of careful selection and tuning...

At least a few of these are philosophical questions, not scientific ones. For example:

Can the Laws of Physics Be Unified? Since humans have rather arbitrarily decided what the laws of physics ARE (and we've been known to change our minds), this problem could simply "go away" in some future formulation.

What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing? I think the sense of what "Conventional Computing" refers to has begun to change, so philospohpically defining our terms is going to affect the answer. Would you be satisifed with the following: Conventional Computing is any kind of computing not using a quantum computer or a living cell.

Is an Effective HIV Vaccine Feasible? This is a piece of the correct question, which should have been: In the long run, will vaccines be feasible? Or will they cease, in general, to be effective, or cease to be cost-effective?

Will Malthus Continue to Be Wrong? Finally, I'd like to add that I simply disagree with this question. I don't believe the earth can support even the current population for any length of time. We are quickly destroying environment and species to stay alive, and that cannot continue for long.
- Precision Blogger

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