5 Mysteries of Modern Science

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Scientific advances usually come one step at a time, as understanding gained by this generation builds upon the foundation of discoveries made in the past. Today, much of the “low-hanging fruit” of earlier eras has given way to tougher technical challenges that will take our collective ingenuity as a species to solve. The unknown today may well be the known tomorrow, but scientific questions will always exist. Here are the top 5 puzzling mysteries and dilemmas that drive science today.

5. Can a Machine Beat Human Intelligence?

Will machines ever be able to show human-like intelligence?

A humanoid plays table tennis in 2009 in Tokyo. Credit: HumanRobo

This is the classic question in computing and artificial intelligence. The issue was first raised in 1950, when English mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing proposed his seminal Turing Test. Turing proposed that if an individual interacting with an unidentified intelligence in a blind test could not determine if the source was human or machine, then the machine could be said to be thinking. This concept seemed farfetched then, not so much today, as computers defeat our greatest champions in chess and the TV quiz show Jeopardy.

It should be pointed out that computers already surpass us in many ways by performing mountains of calculations in a microsecond, but the feared Skynet of Terminator fame isn’t here, at least not yet. This question also gets at the root of the nature of intelligence; for example, humans are still excellent at recognizing patterns that machines are hopeless at discerning; the challenge-response method known as CAPTCHA is notoriously hard for a computer intelligence to crack. Crowd-sourcing platforms also capitalize on this, having humans sift through piles of data in their spare time looking for supernova and other astronomical features that computers have difficulty interpreting. Machine capacity and intelligence will one day probably surpass human smarts — but will it look anything like intelligence that we can recognize?


4. What is Dark Energy/Dark Matter?

Scientists are trying to find the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

A ring of dark matter surrounds galaxy cluster CL0024+17. Credit: NASA/ESA

Almost 100 years ago, Albert Einstein tweaked his General Theory of Relativity in an effort to dispel the mounting evidence that our universe is expanding. He later called his attempt to prove a static universe “my greatest error…” Ironically, Einstein’s “cosmological constant” theory turned out to be prescient, as the first mention of the mysterious dark energy that still puzzles astrophysicists today. Dark energy has been a hot topic in cosmology since 1998, when researchers found evidence that a mysterious force was causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. It’s rather embarrassing to realize that cosmologists still cannot adequately account for about 95 percent of the mass-energy budget in the universe, although exotic suspects such as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) and Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs), which include black holes, make the lineup. An array of new detectors and spacecraft may make the true nature of dark matter and dark energy known in the coming decades.


3.  How Did Life on Earth Begin?

The theory of panspermia states that life on Earth was seeded by the impact of a meteor or comet.
In 1953, biologists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted a famous experiment at the University of Chicago by simulating the chemical atmosphere of the early Earth and passing an electrical charge through the container. This experiment suggested that the organic building blocks of life were actually easy to synthesize. But how do you go from chemical compounds to proteins, DNA, and life? So far, no one has passed a charge through a container and had something come crawling out. It’s not yet clear to scientists if life here on Earth was a happy accident or an inevitable by-product of the right conditions. Some scientists have proposed the idea of panspermia, that life here was seeded by bacteria carried to a primeval Earth via asteroids or comets, but that just passes the question farther down the line as to where that life came from. The fact that we have a rather placid Sun, a single large Moon, large liquid oceans, even the presence of Jupiter and our position in the galactic plane have all been cited as factors favorable to the formation of life on Earth.


2. Is There Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe?

Is there life on other planets? If so, why haven't we found it yet?
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) began in earnest in 1960 with Project Ozma, in which astronomer Frank Drake listened for radio signals from two nearby stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. The modern emerging field of astrobiology is interdisciplinary, tying in the fields of astronomy, biology, physics, and even psychology, just to name a few. Thus far, we have far more questions than answers: How common is our brand of intelligence? How long do extraterrestrial civilizations last? Can we survive our own technical adolescence? Should we actively broadcast our presence, or merely eavesdrop? SETI gets at the core of many philosophical questions of existence.

As to why we’ve been unable to find life elsewhere, it’s conceivable that: A) Either extraterrestrials aren’t all that interested in us; or, B) When we detect a signal, we may not be able to interpret it. In the past decade, some of the factors in the Drake Equation such as the rate of star formation and the pervasiveness of exo-planets have become a little more known. Life as we know it requires carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and hydrogen, and although there’s good reason to believe this should also be true elsewhere, some scientists wonder if silicon or even arsenic might work just as well for alien species. In the coming decades, watch for the discovery of Earth-like exo-worlds and perhaps the spectral signature of chemicals such as chlorophyll (assuming that extraterrestrial life is anything like us) as key markers that perhaps something interesting is occurring on far-off worlds.


1. Can Science Keep Up With an Expanding Population?

Can science help solve the problems brought about by overpopulation.

Rio de Janeiro

This is the most pressing question of our generation: can we keep up with the energy and food requirements of a growing civilization? Can we reach a level of sustainability that assures an indefinite level of growth coupled with a good quality of life? Our planet’s population has boomed in recent years. In 1960, the Earth’s population was estimated at 3 billion. In 2010, there were almost 7 billion inhabitants, and the United Nations projects a world population of somewhere around 9 billion by the year 2050.

We’re clearly faced with two alternatives: one, we can begin to plan in terms of generations ahead; the other option is to give in to blind forces of competition and let natural selection weed things out. Science has conquered many of the natural checks on human expansion in the developed world such as disease and famine, and we’ve demonstrated this by expanding and becoming expert consumers. But is it possible to bring everyone up to the standard of living that citizens in the Western Hemisphere enjoy? Would we even want to do so? Will a new generation show self-restraint and a new culture of sustainability, or will more Draconian measures be necessary to stem growth? To deny modern problems merely postpones them. If we choose to seek a solution to growth versus sustainability, science must be part of the answer.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.