The 20 big questions in science

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From the nature of the universe (that’s if there is only one) to the purpose of dreams, there are lots of things we still don’t know – but we might do soon. A new book seeks some answers

What’s at the bottom of a black hole? See question 17. Photograph: Alamy

1 What is the universe made of?

Astronomers face an embarrassing conundrum: they don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of. Atoms, which form everything we see around us, only account for a measly 5%. Over the past 80 years it has become clear that the substantial remainder is comprised of two shadowy entities – dark matter and dark energy. The former, first discovered in 1933, acts as an invisible glue, binding galaxies and galaxy clusters together. Unveiled in 1998, the latter is pushing the universe’s expansion to ever greater speeds. Astronomers are closing in on the true identities of these unseen interlopers.

2 How did life begin?

Four billion years ago, something started stirring in the primordial soup. A few simple chemicals got together and made biology – the first molecules capable of replicating themselves appeared. We humans are linked by evolution to those early biological molecules. But how did the basic chemicals present on early Earth spontaneously arrange themselves into something resembling life? How did we get DNA? What did the first cells look like? More than half a century after the chemist Stanley Miller proposed his “primordial soup” theory, we still can’t agree about what happened. Some say life began in hot pools near volcanoes, others that it was kick-started by meteorites hitting the sea.

3 Are we alone in the universe?

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Perhaps not. Astronomers have been scouring the universe for places where water worlds might have given rise to life, from Europa and Mars in our solar system to planets many light years away. Radio telescopes have been eavesdropping on the heavens and in 1977 a signal bearing the potential hallmarks of an alien message was heard. Astronomers are now able to scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for oxygen and water. The next few decades will be an exciting time to be an alien hunter with up to 60bn potentially habitable planets in our Milky Way alone.

4 What makes us human?

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Just looking at your DNA won’t tell you – the human genome is 99% identical to a chimpanzee’s and, for that matter, 50% to a banana’s. We do, however, have bigger brains than most animals – not the biggest, but packed with three times as many neurons as a gorilla (86bn to be exact). A lot of the things we once thought distinguishing about us – language, tool-use, recognising yourself in the mirror – are seen in other animals. Perhaps it’s our culture – and its subsequent effect on our genes (and vice versa) – that makes the difference. Scientists think that cooking and our mastery of fire may have helped us gain big brains. But it’s possible that our capacity for co-operation and skills trade is what really makes this a planet of humans and not apes.

5 What is consciousness?

We’re still not really sure. We do know that it’s to do with different brain regions networked together rather than a single part of the brain. The thinking goes that if we figure out which bits of the brain are involved and how the neural circuitry works, we’ll figure out how consciousness emerges, something that artificial intelligence and attempts to build a brain neuron by neuron may help with. The harder, more philosophical, question is why anything should be conscious in the first place. A good suggestion is that by integrating and processing lots of information, as well as focusing and blocking out rather than reacting to the sensory inputs bombarding us, we can distinguish between what’s real and what’s not and imagine multiple future scenarios that help us adapt and survive.

6 Why do we dream?

We spend around a third of our lives sleeping. Considering how much time we spend doing it, you might think we’d know everything about it. But scientists are still searching for a complete explanation of why we sleep and dream. Subscribers to Sigmund Freud’s views believed dreams were expressions of unfulfilled wishes – often sexual – while others wonder whether dreams are anything but the random firings of a sleeping brain. Animal studies and advances in brain imaging have led us to a more complex understanding that suggests dreaming could play a role in memory, learning and emotions. Rats, for example, have been shown to replay their waking experiences in dreams, apparently helping them to solve complex tasks such as navigating mazes.

7 Why is there stuff?

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You really shouldn’t be here. The “stuff” you’re made of is matter, which has a counterpart called antimatter differing only in electrical charge. When they meet, both disappear in a flash of energy. Our best theories suggest that the big bang created equal amounts of the two, meaning all matter should have since encountered its antimatter counterpart, scuppering them both and leaving the universe awash with only energy. Clearly nature has a subtle bias for matter otherwise you wouldn’t exist. Researchers are sifting data from experiments like the Large Hadron Collider trying to understand why, with supersymmetry and neutrinos the two leading contenders.

8 Are there other universes?

Our universe is a very unlikely place. Alter some of its settings even slightly and life as we know it becomes impossible. In an attempt to unravel this “fine-tuning” problem, physicists are increasingly turning to the notion of other universes. If there is an infinite number of them in a “multiverse” then every combination of settings would be played out somewhere and, of course, you find yourself in the universe where you are able to exist. It may sound crazy, but evidence from cosmology and quantum physics is pointing in that direction.

9 Where do we put all the carbon?

For the past couple of hundred years, we’ve been filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide – unleashing it by burning fossil fuels that once locked away carbon below the Earth’s surface. Now we have to put all that carbon back, or risk the consequences of a warming climate. But how do we do it? One idea is to bury it in old oil and gas fields. Another is to hide it away at the bottom of the sea. But we don’t know how long it will stay there, or what the risks might be. Meanwhile, we have to protect natural, long-lasting stores of carbon, such as forests and peat bogs, and start making energy in a way that doesn’t belch out even more.

10 How do we get more energy from the sun?

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Dwindling supplies of fossil fuels mean we’re in need of a new way to power our planet. Our nearest star offers more than one possible solution. We’re already harnessing the sun’s energy to produce solar power. Another idea is to use the energy in sunlight to split water into its component parts: oxygen, and hydrogen, which could provide a clean fuel for cars of the future. Scientists are also working on an energy solution that depends on recreating the processes going on inside stars themselves – they’re building a nuclear fusion machine. The hope is that these solutions can meet our energy needs.

Click for the other 10

Click for the other 10


Mars Covered In Oceans Of Water


How The Red Planet Might Have Looked Billions Of Years Ago”

by Tibi Puiu
“Using combined imagery delivered by the  High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) and recent color channel data, the European Space Agency has recently discovered the vestiges of an ancient river that used to flow through Mars’ highlands. The river is 1,000 miles long and at some points 4 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep.

The images are simply stunning and it’s enough to catch a glimpse for imagination to take care of the rest. A stunning world riddled with rivers and oceans tells of a watery past, not too dissimilar from modern day Earth, possibly blossoming with life. With this in mind, I highly recommend you check these fantastic and realistic-looking renditions of how Mars might have looked like a few billion years ago.

There seems to be consisting evidence supplied both by past and recent rover missions – like the ever sturdy Opportunity, the eager newcomer Curiosity – and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – a spacecraft currently hovering over Mars – that our neighboring red planet was once most likely covered by oceans and lakes and was layered by a thick atmosphere, very much similar to Earth. Kevin Gill, a New Hampshire software engineer, digitally painted how Mars might have looked like some two billion years ago using scientific data and human imagination – the end result is strikingly provocative and stunning at the same time.

The image from above shows the western hemisphere of Mars, while the one below shows the eastern hemisphere.
Gill used an open-source geospatial program to design the terrain for the “paradisaical” Mars, while atmosphere and vegetation features were added based on NASA’s Blue Marble: Next Generation imagery. The painting’s geological features were plotted based on genuine elevation data from topographical NASA mappings. Countless surveys have revealed Mars’ surface was layered with river deltas, gullies, and oceanic coastlines. Also, previous findings suggest that Mars was once covered in a thick atmosphere, which gradually became ever thinner from the lack of a magnetic field. Concerning the vegetation, clouds and other features painted in these quite exquisite views, these were all based on Gill’s artistic impression of how Mars might have looked like in its heyday.
“There is no scientific reasoning behind how I painted it; I tried to envision how the land would appear given certain features or the effects of likely atmospheric climate. For example, I didn’t see much green taking hold within the area of Olympus Mons and the surrounding volcanoes, both due to the volcanic activity and the proximity to the equator,” Gill says. “This wasn’t intended as an exhaustive scientific scenario as I’m sure (and expect) some of my assumptions will prove incorrect,” Gill continued. “I’m hoping at least to trigger the imagination, so please enjoy!”
As presented above, Mars would definitely be capable of harboring life, although no one is currently capable of positively asserting that life was or is presented on the red planet – so far. This is what Curiosity is tasked with and this is why we’re so keen on following the rover’s every step. Maybe an even more interesting idea inevitably pops when looking at these dazzling photos – can we, humans, turn these stunning views of Mars into reality through terraforming?”

– http://www.zmescience.com/research/esa-discovers-martian-river-1000-miles-long/
– http://www.zmescience.com/space/mars-covered-in-water-photos-32332/


My source: Running ‘Cause I Can’t Fly

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