The World's 20 Greatest Unsolved Problems

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9780131426436: The World's 20 Greatest Unsolved Problems

Featuring Original Contributions from Dr. Stephen Hawking

Unfold the mysteries that vex the greatest minds in science

Gain extensive knowledge of the most challenging scientific problems and learn from more than 60 of the world’s foremost scientists—among them, 40 Nobel laureates! Expand your horizons with a wide range of advanced scientific theories and techniques on problems concerning:

Permanently storing nuclear waste or eliminating it altogether
Harvesting energy from a reaction similar to that of the sun
Earthquake prediction
The creation of the universe
Comprehension of free will
The mystery of dark matter
The cosmological constant problem
The construction of a consistent quantum theory of gravity
And much more

Science has reached dazzling heights of discovery, transforming civilization in the process. And yet, some of the most fundamental questions remain unsolved! In The World’s 20 Greatest Unsolved Problems, John Vacca—together with more than 60 of the world’s most highly respected scientists—explains these problems in detail and describes the intellectual and technological hurdles to be overcome in order to solve them.

This book is indispensable for science buffs, teachers, students, and scientists who want to keep pace with the latest developments. The World’s 20 Greatest Unsolved Problems delves deep into mysteries such as the creation of the universe, dark matter, the quantum theory of gravity, protein folding, free will, consciousness, earthquake prediction, Fullerenes, the quantum mechanical vacuum, storing or eliminating nuclear waste, and more. No other resource explains science’s most compelling dilemmas with such clarity and authority, and nowhere else can you share the expertise of so many brilliant minds! You’ll find

Complex topics made intelligible, as only experts in their fields can
Coverage of the key problems expected to dominate the next 40 years of scientific research
The World’s 20 Greatest Unsolved Problems is must reading for anyone teaching science or performing scientific research. It also will fascinate the moderately technical reader or scientific novice.

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About the Author:

John R. Vacca is an information technology consultant and internationally known, best-selling author based in Pomeroy, Ohio. Since 1982, John has authored 42 books and more than 550 articles. John has a rich background in technology and science as a former configuration management specialist, computer specialist, and the computer security official (CSO) for NASA’s space station program (Freedom) and the international space station program, from 1988 until his early retirement from NASA in 1995. John was also one of the security consultants for the MGM movie AntiTrust, which was released on January 12, 2001. In addition to his many writing projects, John is a freelance editorial reviewer for online retailers.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Science has extended life, conquered disease, and offered new sexual and commercial freedoms through its rituals of discovery, but many unsolved problems remain. Although science has pushed aside many demons and demigods, and revealed a cosmos more intricate and awesome than anything produced by pure imagination, there are new troubles in the peculiar form of paradise that it has created. This has precipitated new questions about whether it has the popular support to meet the future challenges of food and water, urban sprawl, disease, pollution, security, energy, and education.

Even while the public hungers for new gadgets and drugs, it seems increasingly intolerant of grand, technical fixes. In areas like genetic engineering, germ warfare, global warming, nuclear power, and the proliferation of nuclear arms, the public has also come to fear the potential consequences of unfettered science and technology.

Due to tension between science and the public, new barriers have been thrown up to research involving deadly pathogens, stem cells, and human cloning.

With the environmental movement of the 1960s, some of the doubts about science began. Also, traditional beliefs have been disturbed by science, which has caused an even deeper unease. Stunned by the increasing vigor of fundamentalist religion worldwide on the big issues of everyday life, some scientists wonder if old certainties have rushed into a sort of vacuum left by the inconclusiveness of science.

Recent opinion surveys have also gauged disaffection with science. Recently, a Harris poll found that the percentage of Americans who saw scientists as having very great prestige had declined twelve percentage points in the last quarter-century, down to 55 from 67 percent. While half of Americans believe in ghosts and a third believe in astrology, another recent Harris poll found that most of them also believe in miracles. These results are hardly an endorsement of scientific rationality in the United States.

Research priorities have become increasingly politicized in this atmosphere of ambivalence. It seems warranted to ask a question that runs counter to centuries of Western thought: Does science really matter? Do people care about it anymore? As the world marches into a century born amid fundamentalist strife in oil-producing nations and a divisive political climate in the United States and abroad, more sophisticated scientific credos like Darwin’s theory of evolution are being challenged at every turn.

Do People Really Care about Science Anymore?

So, for a long time, science has mattered a lot. In the past century, advances in food, public health, and medicine helped raise life expectancy in the United States from roughly 50 to 82 years. Now exceeding seven billion, the world population between 1950 and 2000 has more than tripled. Biology played a large role in discovering the structure of DNA, making test-tube babies, and curing diseases. And, offering the hope of new treatments for cancer and other diseases, the decoding of the human genome is leading scientists toward a detailed understanding of how the body really works.

Breakthroughs in physics produced discoveries in digital electronics and in the subatomic world. American ingenuity won the space race, put men on the moon, probed distant planets, and lofted hundreds of satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope. However, major problems arose quite quickly: for example, deactivation of the Hubble Space Telescope; acid rain; environmental toxins; the Bhopal chemical disaster in India; nuclear waste; global warming; the ozone hole; fears over genetically modified food; the fiery destruction of two space shuttles; not to mention the curse of junk e-mail (spam). Such troubles are only the tip of the iceberg, but nonetheless, they have helped feed social disenchantment with science.

The physical sciences began to lose luster and funding when the Cold War ended. After spending $3 billion, Congress killed physicists’ pre-eminent endeavor, the Superconducting Super Collider, an enormous particle accelerator.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), industry spending on research soared to three times that of the federal government, about $290 billion in 2003. One result of all this, is that Americans see less news about the fundamental building blocks and great shadowy vistas of the universe, and more about drugs, cell phones, advanced toys, innovative cars, and engineered foods.

The main exceptions to the downward trend in the federal science budget are for health and weapons. In 2003, spending on military research hit $69 billion, higher in fixed dollars than during the Cold War.

In the meantime, other countries are spending more on research. This is taking some of the glory that America once monopolized. According to CHI Research, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea now account for more than a quarter of all American industrial patents. Countries that make up the European Union are working together on what will be the world’s most powerful atom smasher. The British recently flew the first probe in a quarter century to look for evidence of life on Mars. (However, the United States recently landed two Mars rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, whose mission is to look for water and signs of life in the Martian soil and rocks.)

Threats and Challenges

Cancer and the AIDS epidemic still darken many lives, despite the explosion in the life sciences. Furthermore, the flowering of biotechnology has fed worries about genetically modified foods and organisms, as well as the pending reinvention of what it means to be human. Many people worry that the growing power of genetics will sully the sanctity of human life.

Recently, the Bush administration’s Council on Bioethics issued a report warning that biotechnology in pursuit of human perfection could lead to unintended and destructive ends. Science experts worry about terrorists using advances in biology for intentional harm, perhaps on vast new scales.

The physical sciences seem to be adrift. Without the space race and the Cold War, and perhaps facing intrinsic limits, as well as declining budgets, the physical sciences are in a state of diminishing returns.

Scientists still top the list of 23 high-status professions, ahead of doctors, teachers, lawyers, and athletes, despite the decline in prestige recorded in the recent Harris poll. Contradictions are perennially identified by the NSF through polls. According to NSF’s latest numbers, 92 percent of adult Americans say they are very or moderately interested in science discoveries. Despite those poll results, only half of survey respondents knew that the Earth takes a year to revolve around the sun.

Drawing the Battle Lines of Evolution

About two-thirds of Americans believe that alternatives to Darwin’s theory of evolution should be taught in public schools, alongside the bedrock concept of biology itself. Many scientists are jarred by this two-thirds number. Today, the organized opposition to the mainstream theory of evolution has become vastly more sophisticated and influential than it was 28 years ago. The leading foes of Darwin espouse a theory called intelligent design. This theory holds that purely random natural processes could never have produced humans. These opponents are led by a relatively small group of people with various academic and professional credentials, including some with advanced degrees in science and even university professorships.

Backers of intelligent design say they are simply pointing out the shortcomings in Darwin’s theory. Scientists have publicly rallied in response. In 2003, they staved off an effort by the Texas State Board of Education to have intelligent design taught alongside evolution.

Actually, through the development of technologies and medicines, science has sold itself from the start as something more than a utilitarian exercise. Einstein’s theories (which often used religious and philosophical language to explain discoveries), seemed to tell humanity something fundamental about the fabric of existence.

Eye on the Future

Industry looks to short-term goals and has proven highly adept at using science to take care of itself and consumers. A far more uncertain issue is whether the federal government can successfully address issues of human welfare that lie well beyond the industrial horizon—years, decades, and even centuries ahead. Well, I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.

As oil becomes increasingly scarce, an urgent goal here is to develop new sources of energy, which will become vitally important. Another is to better understand the nuances of climate change, for instance, how the sun and ocean affect the atmosphere. Such work is in its infancy. Another is to develop ways of countering the spread of germ weapons and nuclear arms.

In areas like waste, water use, congestion, highways, hazard mitigation, and pollution control, the world will also need a new science of cities to help coordinate planning. The number of urban dwellers is expected to grow from three billion now to six billion by 2036.

There are also some worries by scientists about a significant shift in the demographics of American graduate schools in science and engineering. By 2000, according to the latest figures from the NSF, the number of foreign students in full-time engineering programs had soared so high that it exceeded, for the first time, the steeply declining number of American students.

Whether the complex challenges of today generate a new era of scientific greatness, may depend on how a deeply conflicted public answers the question of whether science still matters. Some experts warn that if support for science falters and if the American public loses interest in it, such apathy may foster an age in which scientific elites ignore the public will and global imperatives for their own narrow interests, producing something like a dictatorship of the lab coats.

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