Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ten Questions For Science

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was founded by King Charles II in 1660. In 2010, Britain's renowned “Royal Society”, as it is now abbreviated, celebrates 350 years of practical scientific inquiry and experimentation. Today, they act as scientific advisors to the United Nations; and their committees and policy centers finance over 700 research fellowships, and also awards annual medals accompanied by prize money intended to fuel research.

One of the milestones of the anniversary was the academy's leading thinkers compiling 10 Questions That Science Must Answer… and a very interesting set of questions it was. What are the issues of our age that need be solved or pondered by the Big Brains?

The Royal Society

I have to say, some of these surprised me in terms of simplicity, since a fair number of arguments are well-worn in their fields, but perhaps enjoyed only contested conclusions. Others will bear out in time, certainly... but still others are rather depressing question marks.

The ten questions were:

1. Kathy Sykes (Bristol University Professor of Sciences): What is consciousness?

2. Dame Joan Bakewell (BBC Journalist): What happened before the big bang?

3. Mark Miodownik (King's College Physicist): Will science and engineering give us back our individuality?

4. Tracy Chevalier (Novelist): How are we going to cope with the world's burgeoning population?

5. Marcus du Sautoy (Oxford University): Is there a pattern to prime numbers?

6. Brian Cox (LHC Physicist): Can we make scientific thinking all pervasive?

7. John Sulston (Royal Society Chair): How do we ensure that humanity survives and flourishes?

8. Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate): Can someone explain adequately the meaning of infinite space?

9. Lionel Shriver (Novelist): Will I be able to record my brain like I can record a program on television?

10. Piers Sellers (Astronaut): Can humanity get to the stars?

I was gratified to see they included one of the eminent European Astronauts in their published list (three-time Shuttle veteran), who asked what I considered to be the most pressing question… but I realize I'm quite biased. One other of their chosen essayists also mentioned space as a necessity:

Ten Questions For Science
Various European news outlets have reprinted these with detailed paragraphs of the asked questions, and hefty biographies of the ASCIIs (hat tip to whomever gets that joke). It's definitely a time investment to read the entire article, but well worth it.

Except for #8, as one suspects that Mr. Motion wasn't taking this endeavour altogether too seriously. Amusing, but he might have picked a less solemn forum to discuss his theories about his cat.