In Praise of Hard Questions

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 76-77
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.76

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  • What about the social sciences?

    I was disappointed to see so few of your 125 questions devoted to the social sciences, which hold the promise of preventing social epidemics of violence, poverty, drug abuse, and inner-city school failure. As theories, measurement tools, and trials--both randomized and longitudinal-- continue to grow in number, breadth, and rigor, there is no inherent reason to believe that the social ills that plague humankind won't one day...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Consciousness as a function of brain

    Greg Miller�s article �What is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?� (Special Section, 1 Jul., p. 79) reminded us of a point made by William James (1) in the 19th century: �thought is a function of the brain� is generally assumed to mean that thought is a production of the brain. James suggests that there are at least two other functions one could posit: a releasing or permissive function (such as that of a ha...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Re: Information Science Underepresented

    Steve DeMuth remarks that "the role of randomness in effective algorithms is very poorly explored." This may well be the result of hostility by some of the founders of Artificial Intelligence (AI). For instance, at an international meeting on AI held in western Europe in 1962 or 1963, Marvin Minsky declared flatly "there is no room for anything random in artifical intelligence." He expressed disdain for the theories of J...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Consciousness as "the remembered present"
    • Morton Nadler, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ret.)

    Gerald Edelman believes that consciousness is not causal (1), yet denies that this view is �epiphenomenological.� Edelman�s own statement that consciousness is not causal in fact does qualify it as epiphenomenal. He speaks of �entailment,� which he defines as �implication.� So consciousness is only implied in his view.

    As a neurophysiologist, Edelman describes the reentrant neural circuits that som...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Hard Questions About Human Rationality

    I enjoyed your list of hard questions and look forward to seeing many of them answered in the years to come. May I add a class of questions that likely are crucial for our continued progress as human beings:

    1. Given the great capacity of the human brain for logical thought, what are the mechanisms that cause those same humans to act in irrational ways, often with full awareness of the irrational nature of su...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • The environment and other areas

    I remember the first time I heard a U.S. President refer to "the environment" as just one of the departments of government, instead of the context in which government exists. The list of 25 questions strikes me somewhat the same way.

    Doesn't the reasonably peaceful and healthy survival of the human race supercede all others? It would be interesting for the top people investigating each of the 25 questions to d...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Can we create a self-reprogramming computer?

    Current machine learning algorithms need to be carefully altered to solve a problem, by selecting the representation to be searched and the method of searching. This forms a bias in algorithm that means it is only generally suitable for that type of problem (1).

    In order to create systems that can adapt to different types of problems, the most radical approach is to create systems that can reprogram themselve...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • How are females different from males?

    Answers to the question, "How are females different from males?" will be found at all levels of biological organization, from gene expression to social behavior, and in all physiological systems. Those answers will affect how we prevent, diagnose, and treat disease; how we understand behavior; and how we regard the societal roles of men and women (i.e., gender).

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Can cancer be understood and conquered?

    In 2005, the diverse-as-the-individual collection of diseases we refer to with the simple word �cancer� surpassed heart disease as America�s top killer of those under 85, and all developed countries in the future will certainly follow as simpler problems are eradicated.

    The unique disease entity that arises from within each individual human host and slowly evolves into a continuously diversifying alien sp...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Information Science Underepresented

    Is not the whole field of information science woefully underepresented in your list? I can think of two axes of inquiry related to information that ought to have generated several top questions each:

    First, there are deep questions in information science per se, but the list mentions only a generic "What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing?" and "What are the limits of learning by machines?" Surely NP-compl...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Quantifying Ignorance

    Siegried writes: "So when science runs out of questions, it would seem, science will come to an end. But there's no real danger of that. The highway from ignorance to knowledge runs both ways: As knowledge accumulates, diminishing the ignorance of the past, new questions arise, expanding the areas of ignorance to explore."

    So, the mischevous question arises, does the "amount" of ignorance increase or decrease o...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Re: Invitation to comment

    The list came close to my favorite question with "why is time different from the other dimensions?", but I think the real question is "what is time?". Most definitions seem to be circuitous, "time is what is measured by clocks," but immediately after the big bang there weren't any clocks, or even oscillating atoms.

    Time enters physics by means of calculus and rates of change, but quantum theory leads to the co...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • beginnings

    Everything has a beginning and an end. This will be the most challenging question that may or may not be answered. Even if the universe was created with a bang of cosmic dust, where did the dust come from?

    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Invitation to comment

    For Science's 125th anniversary, the editors selected 125 questions that point to gaps in our basic scientific knowledge. These questions form a special section in Science's 1 July issue. We are aware that 125 questions can encompass only a fraction of the scientific mysteries that scientists are working on. So we invite you to comment on our list, and to nominate topics we missed.

    Donald Kennedy


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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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