Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Hard Scientific Problems

Much discussion of problems concerns what I defined as social and cognitive problems, e.g. wicked problems and bounded rationality. Writers like Nancy Roberts and Jerry Talley seem to dismiss analytical problems by categorizing them as “simple problems” or “basic problems” (see Kinds of Hard (ctd.) ).

To show the depth and range of analytical problems, I mined New Scientist's special anniversary feature in which “Brilliant minds forecast the next 50 years.” Some contributors explicitly posed questions, though most talked about hoped-for breakthroughs. In cases where I was able to do so, I have recast breakthroughs as questions.

The resulting list is great for staring at, and mulling over. A few questions were posed by multiple people: the nature of consciousness, life beyond the earth, details of the big bang, and dark matter. Looks like there’s most consensus among astrophysicists ... Counting the different categories of question shows a very operational/instrumental approach to science: Existence: 7; How: 19; What: 20; Why: 2. The most common preoccupations, even for big brains thinking 50 years out, were What and How questions. Very few were interested in Why...

Are the laws of physics unique and was our big band the only one? (Martin Rees)

Can we truly understand how we understand others, their intentions, desires and beliefs? (Michael Gazzaniga)

Do we mostly get along because we enjoy common reactions to similar challenges? (Michael Gazzaniga)

Does our species have a moral compass? (Michael Gazzaniga)

How are molecular aspects of memory are influenced by society and culture? (Daniel Schacter)

How are neural nets in the brain stitched together to produce mental activities that are familiar in cognitive psychology? (Dan Dennett)

How can children reliably name the class of an object? (That is, the generic object recognition problem.) (Rodney Brooks)

How can one efficiently and conveniently store a young woman's ovarian tissue or eggs to be used years later? (Carl Djerassi)

How can one visualise the connections between human organisations and technological objects? (Bruno Latour)

How can our currently fragmented theory of the physical world be synthesized into a coherent way of thinking? (Carlo Rovelli)

How can so few genes (relatively speaking) create so much complexity in the human brain? (Antonio Damasio)

How can we disentangle the feedback loop between brain development and the ancient primate tendencies that shape our societies? (Frans de Waal)

How did cooperative behavior evolve? (Robert May)

How did elementary particles acquire their mass? (Lisa Randall)

How did human spoken language evolve? (Irene Pepperberg)

How did our memory systems evolve? (Daniel Schacter)

How do human institutions work, in particular, what are the impediments to collective, cooperative activity in which all individuals pay small costs to reap large group benefits? (Robert May)

How does the brain create consciousness? (Igor Aleksander, Terry Sejnowski, Susan Greenfield)

How does evolution work in fine detail? (Bernard Wood)

How does the environment of early childhood shape how people interact with the world in which they grow up, live and work? (Michael Marmot)

How does the mind translate environmental threats into the body's stress reactions? (Michael Marmot)

How have biological and physical processes interacted over billions of years to bring us to our own evolutionary moment? (Andrew Knoll)

How long can humans live? (Francis Collins)

Is the entire universe very big but everywhere the same, or is our patch part of a “multiverse” with a great many environments, each with its own laws, particles and constants? (Leonard Susskind)

Is there life beyond earth? (Colin Pillinger, Carolyn Porco, Freeman Dyson, Monica Grady, Piet Hut, Steve Squyres)

Is searching for solutions harder than checking that the solutions are correct? (That is, the P=NP problem.) (Timothy Gowers)

To what degree are genetic and morphological change are correlated with speciation? (Niles Eldridge)

What are the causes of the major psychiatric disorders – schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders – and how are they best treated? (Charles Nemeroff)

What are the equations describing the unified physical laws of the universe? (Max Tegmark)

What are the links between genes and morphology, between animals and behaviour, and between behaviour and life history strategies? (Alan Walker)

What are the molecular pathways that render cells from long-lived animals resistant to many forms of injury? (Richard Miller)

What are the several missing links on the march between the specifications of genes, and the neural structures and operations which support behavior and cognition? (Antonio Damasio)

What happened during the first second of the big bang, and before? (Sean Carroll, Kip Thorne)

What is a general theory of imagination, consciousness and self that will be powerful and illuminating, and applicable in principle to sentient species everywhere? (Oliver Sacks)

What is life? (Paul Nurse)

What is the connection between our understanding of the function of individual brain cells or pairs of cells and of the larger-scale cognitive functions processed by multiple brain areas? (Fred Gage)

What is the general theory of what, according to the laws of physics, can or cannot be built and with what resources? (That is, the quantum theory of construction) (David Deutsch)

What is the geographic distribution of biodiversity at the species level (Edward O Wilson)

What is the mysterious dark matter that appears to make up about 25 per cent of the mass of the universe? (Lawrence Krauss, Arthur McDonald)

What is the neural basis of individual differences in memory? (Daniel Schacter)

What is the role and importance of extinctions in shaping subsequent evolution? (Niles Eldridge)

What is the role of particular cells, circuits and genes in memory formation and retrieval? (Daniel Schacter)

What is the role of isolation in evolution? (Niles Eldridge)

What is the structure of the tree of life? (Michael Benton)

What is the template that describes the distribution of the prime numbers? (Marcus du Sautoy)

What is the underlying nature of matter? (Lisa Randall)

What is the unified description of the (superficially) different forces of nature, and (superficially) different building blocks of matter? (Frank Wilczek)

Why is the weak interaction weak? (Frank Wilczek)

Why is nature such that we have a description that is so enormously successful, yet so counterintuitive? (That is, resolving the paradoxes of quantum mechanics.) (Anton Zeilinger)

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