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Feb 01 2010

If you could have the answer to any question in science, what would you ask?

This morning I received an email from a professor at Harvard (who’s currently one of my top grad school choices) that she would like to talk to me over the phone sometime this week. After much flailing of happiness, I also had to answer one preliminary question that I enjoyed so much that I had to share it with all of you:

If you could have the answer to any question in biology, what would you ask?

I would have to ask “How did life originate?” It’s probably not particularly original, but it’s simply too fascinating to ignore. We have plenty of hypotheses about the origin of life, but I would love to know exactly which one is correct. What was the biochemical process that slowly took inorganic molecules to the first cell? Are our hypotheses about an RNA world correct? Were there other “life-like” systems totally different than the cells we know today that didn’t withstand the test of time? Could this same process conceivably take place on other planets?

I guess I’m cheating a bit by asking a question that ultimately leads to many more questions, but such is the nature of science, right?

This question isn’t exactly something I would want to personally research – I’m good at chemistry, but not passionate enough about it to devote my whole life to organic and biochem. I still find it very interesting, probably because it’s human nature to wonder “why are we here?” And as an atheist, I’m always looking for the scientific explanation for things. Is there a naturalistic way that life came about on its own? Or are more “creative” ideas involving aliens or gods really true? I doubt the latter, but heck, if that really did happen, I’d want to know!

I suppose in a way it’s tangentially related to my interests in evolution. I often hear people (falsely) claiming that since scientists can’t explain the origin of life, evolution must be false. It would be nice to be able to go, “Um, actually, here’s the natural way life did come to be” and whip out a flowchart from hammerspace. Though I doubt that would convince everyone – we all know how much scientific facts affect most creationists – but at least I’d feel a bit more intellectually fulfilled.

I know everyone here isn’t a biologist, so I’ll propose the question to you a little more vaguely: If you could have the answer to any question in science, what would you ask?

68 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    How do we make a warp drive.

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    How do we make a warp drive.

  3. 3
    Jaki

    I know I would probably not be able to even comprehend the answer but I would like to know how the universe began and a difinitive defintion of Gravity. Also I think an amazing philosophical and mind blowing question to have answered is whether there exists life on other planets. Just thinking about it blows my mind into a million happy pieces.

  4. 4
    Jaki

    I know I would probably not be able to even comprehend the answer but I would like to know how the universe began and a difinitive defintion of Gravity. Also I think an amazing philosophical and mind blowing question to have answered is whether there exists life on other planets. Just thinking about it blows my mind into a million happy pieces.

  5. 5
    Yellow Hat Guy

    I'd ask for a method to create controlled fusion, but since that's a tall order, I'll settle for an ideal material for the inside of a tokamak. I drove myself to a brief stint of insanity after putting myself throught a year's worth of gedankenexperiments trying to solve the damn first wall problem.

  6. 6
    Yellow Hat Guy

    I’d ask for a method to create controlled fusion, but since that’s a tall order, I’ll settle for an ideal material for the inside of a tokamak. I drove myself to a brief stint of insanity after putting myself throught a year’s worth of gedankenexperiments trying to solve the damn first wall problem.

  7. 7
    Shawn

    Taking my lead from Asimov, I'd ask how can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

  8. 8
    Shawn

    Taking my lead from Asimov, I’d ask how can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

  9. 9
    Koszmic

    I will echo a previous comment and ask about gravity, specifically a quantum description of it. Jen's origin of life is very compelling as well. And life on other planets would do more to flip our worldview as a species more than anything else I could imagine! Hey, all these suggestions are great! Awesome post.

  10. 10
    Koszmic

    I will echo a previous comment and ask about gravity, specifically a quantum description of it. Jen’s origin of life is very compelling as well. And life on other planets would do more to flip our worldview as a species more than anything else I could imagine! Hey, all these suggestions are great! Awesome post.

  11. 11
    Mark

    I want the Reimann Zeta Function problem solved. We could predict the primacy or composite…ness? of numbers. It would be a fantastic boon to the field of mathematics.

  12. 12
    Mark

    I want the Reimann Zeta Function problem solved. We could predict the primacy or composite…ness? of numbers. It would be a fantastic boon to the field of mathematics.

  13. 13
    Ryan

    What is the best way to sustainably manage global food supplies (fishing and farming) and how do we get everyone to agree with the answer? Two questions, I know, but they are pretty closely related, so I figured I could get a pass.

  14. 14
    Ryan

    What is the best way to sustainably manage global food supplies (fishing and farming) and how do we get everyone to agree with the answer? Two questions, I know, but they are pretty closely related, so I figured I could get a pass.

  15. 15
    James

    I would want to know how to clone every aspect of one's brain (all its memories, thought patterns, etc.) so we could have eternal life. Possibly instead it would be helpful to know how to create an android complete with all the perks of being human to achieve the same end.

    Basically, I want eternal life somehow. No, I would not get bored, and what's more, I would be able to solve all the questions posted here in the comments myself. Living is kind of a bummer when you know your life will pass in the blink of an eye, you'll be forgotten, and nothing of your consciousness will remain.

  16. 16
    James

    I would want to know how to clone every aspect of one’s brain (all its memories, thought patterns, etc.) so we could have eternal life. Possibly instead it would be helpful to know how to create an android complete with all the perks of being human to achieve the same end.Basically, I want eternal life somehow. No, I would not get bored, and what’s more, I would be able to solve all the questions posted here in the comments myself. Living is kind of a bummer when you know your life will pass in the blink of an eye, you’ll be forgotten, and nothing of your consciousness will remain.

  17. 17
    LR

    Would have to ask if our ideas about the sub atomic world are actually accurate descriptions or just effective models, ie do quarks really exist or is something else entirely happening when we get down to that level?

    And more likely to be answered: is there a Higgs?

  18. 18
    LR

    Would have to ask if our ideas about the sub atomic world are actually accurate descriptions or just effective models, ie do quarks really exist or is something else entirely happening when we get down to that level?And more likely to be answered: is there a Higgs?

  19. 19
    Jessie

    how can we make hammerspace a reality?

    yea i'm weird.

  20. 20
    Jessie

    how can we make hammerspace a reality?yea i’m weird.

  21. 21
    atrophia

    I'd want to know how the universe began. I mean, with life itself, it's pretty much just narrowing down, isn't it? Either it's "lightning striking our planet plus the combination of early molecules eventually led to organic life" or "some aliens or something replicated this process", and I don't necessarily have to know the mechanics of how this occurred to be satisfied with either proposition, whichever turns out to be accurate, even though it's a great question and one I'd be very interested in having answered. But the big question for me is how did the universe begin? Is it an oscillating universe, different each time? Or will it eventually give out one day? Are universes part of some macro-process we haven't yet fathomed? Is this process a smaller process of some macro-system or even macro-organism?

    I also agree with James.

  22. 22
    Atrophia

    I’d want to know how the universe began. I mean, with life itself, it’s pretty much just narrowing down, isn’t it? Either it’s “lightning striking our planet plus the combination of early molecules eventually led to organic life” or “some aliens or something replicated this process”, and I don’t necessarily have to know the mechanics of how this occurred to be satisfied with either proposition, whichever turns out to be accurate, even though it’s a great question and one I’d be very interested in having answered. But the big question for me is how did the universe begin? Is it an oscillating universe, different each time? Or will it eventually give out one day? Are universes part of some macro-process we haven’t yet fathomed? Is this process a smaller process of some macro-system or even macro-organism?I also agree with James.

  23. 23
    teachingsapiens

    I would go for how to effectively convince people to change their behavior for the long run. Huge increases in health and wellness, etc etc. Its a core question in public health and toxicology.

    Robert B / @RobsterFCD

  24. 24
    teachingsapiens

    I would go for how to effectively convince people to change their behavior for the long run. Huge increases in health and wellness, etc etc. Its a core question in public health and toxicology.Robert B / @RobsterFCD

  25. 25
    mcbender

    As an engineer, I think I have to agree with Shawn and Dr. Asimov. The Last Question it is…

  26. 26
    mcbender

    As an engineer, I think I have to agree with Shawn and Dr. Asimov. The Last Question it is…

  27. 27
    atrophia

    Oh, one more, to tangent off from what James said. I would love to know the mechanics/specifics of how memories and dreams get passed from organism to organism, and how much is retained through each successive evolution or mutation. I'm actually more interested in this question, but would find the knowledge of my previous question more ultimately satisfying, I think, if I could only find out one and got to choose.

  28. 28
    Atrophia

    Oh, one more, to tangent off from what James said. I would love to know the mechanics/specifics of how memories and dreams get passed from organism to organism, and how much is retained through each successive evolution or mutation. I’m actually more interested in this question, but would find the knowledge of my previous question more ultimately satisfying, I think, if I could only find out one and got to choose.

  29. 29
    morsdei

    "How can space-time be manipulated in such a way as to allow one-way observational travel to any place/time in the universe?"

    A little specific, but we could utilize such knowledge to experience a history of the universe movie-style.

    I figure knowing that, we'd also be able to solve pretty much every evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, and cosmology problem out there…

  30. 30
    morsdei

    “How can space-time be manipulated in such a way as to allow one-way observational travel to any place/time in the universe?”A little specific, but we could utilize such knowledge to experience a history of the universe movie-style.I figure knowing that, we’d also be able to solve pretty much every evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, and cosmology problem out there…

  31. 31
    Frank Bellamy

    The origin of the Universe is a pretty good question. In particular, fine tuning. Are there really many universes with different fundamental constants? Are we just really lucky? Is there some alien intelligence that picked the constants so that life could exist? Is the universe not so well fine tuned as it appears?

    Another good question, what was the significant change or changes in the last six million years that gave us the ability to form languages and religions and cultures and science and all the other things that separate us from apes?

  32. 32
    Frank Bellamy

    The origin of the Universe is a pretty good question. In particular, fine tuning. Are there really many universes with different fundamental constants? Are we just really lucky? Is there some alien intelligence that picked the constants so that life could exist? Is the universe not so well fine tuned as it appears?Another good question, what was the significant change or changes in the last six million years that gave us the ability to form languages and religions and cultures and science and all the other things that separate us from apes?

  33. 33
    Apropos of Nothing

    Frank…separates us from other apes.

  34. 34
    Apropos of Nothing

    Frank…separates us from other apes.

  35. 35
    mcbender

    Actually, after thinking about this more… I have a difficult time deciding between the one I already mentioned and something like, "What is the nature of consciousness and how does it work?"

    It'd be nice to see an end to the monism/dualism debate, and it'd be kind of nice to understand what I am before I am no longer (wow, that sounds narcissistic, but I'll let it stand).

  36. 36
    mcbender

    Actually, after thinking about this more… I have a difficult time deciding between the one I already mentioned and something like, “What is the nature of consciousness and how does it work?”It’d be nice to see an end to the monism/dualism debate, and it’d be kind of nice to understand what I am before I am no longer (wow, that sounds narcissistic, but I’ll let it stand).

  37. 37
    Mike Brownstein

    I want to know how people realized they could control other people with religion

  38. 38
    Mike Brownstein

    I want to know how people realized they could control other people with religion

  39. 39
    WCLPeter

    I would ask:

    "How do you build a Star Trek: The Next Generation replicator?"

    With my food, clothing, and shelter needs met, thanks to quick an easy replication, money would be useless. I could quit my boring, waste of time, job and devote my life to unlocking the other mysterious questions of the universe.

  40. 40
    WCLPeter

    I would ask:”How do you build a Star Trek: The Next Generation replicator?”With my food, clothing, and shelter needs met, thanks to quick an easy replication, money would be useless. I could quit my boring, waste of time, job and devote my life to unlocking the other mysterious questions of the universe.

  41. 41
    Fordi

    "What is the best algorithm for solving the protein sequence for specific electrochemical behavior?"

  42. 42
    Fordi

    “What is the best algorithm for solving the protein sequence for specific electrochemical behavior?”

  43. 43
    Fordi

    Changing my question; I want hammerspace as well.

  44. 44
    Fordi

    Changing my question; I want hammerspace as well.

  45. 45
    acecombat10

    An interesting question that was posed to me in my AP Bio class that I have always wondered about since: Why carbon based life forms instead of silicon or other atoms found in the Group IV of the periodic table?

  46. 46
    acecombat10

    An interesting question that was posed to me in my AP Bio class that I have always wondered about since: Why carbon based life forms instead of silicon or other atoms found in the Group IV of the periodic table?

  47. 47
    BeamStalk

    There are so many things to ask, and any answer would just lead to more questions. Several good questions have already been posted. I don't know if I would ask something about the universe itself or just about life here on our planet or maybe about life on other planets and how common sentient intelligent life is in the universe.

  48. 48
    BeamStalk

    There are so many things to ask, and any answer would just lead to more questions. Several good questions have already been posted. I don’t know if I would ask something about the universe itself or just about life here on our planet or maybe about life on other planets and how common sentient intelligent life is in the universe.

  49. 49
    Frank Bellamy

    mcbender, monism/dualism is a key example of how philosophy is anti-science. That question has long since been settled in science. We know, based on overwhelming empirical evidence, that monism, specifically materialism, is true, and dualism is false. It is only philosophers, like creationists, who will tell you that the science is wrong without any valid reason.

  50. 50
    Frank Bellamy

    mcbender, monism/dualism is a key example of how philosophy is anti-science. That question has long since been settled in science. We know, based on overwhelming empirical evidence, that monism, specifically materialism, is true, and dualism is false. It is only philosophers, like creationists, who will tell you that the science is wrong without any valid reason.

  51. 51
    mcbender

    Before anything else, I'd like to clarify: I'm not a dualist, and I know of the scientific evidence we have against it.

    That said, monism/dualism wasn't really the thrust of my question anyway. What I would really want to know is what subjectivity ('consciousness') really is, and what causes it to exist. As far as I know, that really is an unanswered question, and I think a very important one.

  52. 52
    mcbender

    Before anything else, I’d like to clarify: I’m not a dualist, and I know of the scientific evidence we have against it.That said, monism/dualism wasn’t really the thrust of my question anyway. What I would really want to know is what subjectivity (‘consciousness’) really is, and what causes it to exist. As far as I know, that really is an unanswered question, and I think a very important one.

  53. 53
    mingfrommongo

    I'm with Jaki – I want gravity defined and explained. It was the higher power to which I turned myself over in my 12-step program, so knowing more about it appeals to me.

  54. 54
    mingfrommongo

    I’m with Jaki – I want gravity defined and explained. It was the higher power to which I turned myself over in my 12-step program, so knowing more about it appeals to me.

  55. 55
    biodork

    Crap. It's like trying to name my favorite book of all time…

    Okay, In the field of medicine…How does one eradicate cancers that have already become established in patients, such that the patients have a complete recovery and no long-lasting detrimental effects? Given the multitudes of cancers, causes of cancers, and genetic predispositions to developing cancer I'm guessing that this one is still quite a ways off. I want the magic head scanner thingy that Dr. McCoy used on the neurosurgery patient in Star Trek IV.

  56. 56
    biodork

    Crap. It’s like trying to name my favorite book of all time…Okay, In the field of medicine…How does one eradicate cancers that have already become established in patients, such that the patients have a complete recovery and no long-lasting detrimental effects? Given the multitudes of cancers, causes of cancers, and genetic predispositions to developing cancer I’m guessing that this one is still quite a ways off. I want the magic head scanner thingy that Dr. McCoy used on the neurosurgery patient in Star Trek IV.

  57. 57
    Quatguy

    I would go with either the creation of the universe question or the creation of life question. Just for kicks I would also like an explanation of the speed of light beyond C=(E/M)1/2. Why is it the speed it is?

  58. 58
    Quatguy

    I would go with either the creation of the universe question or the creation of life question. Just for kicks I would also like an explanation of the speed of light beyond C=(E/M)1/2. Why is it the speed it is?

  59. 59
    Simbelmynë

    I'd like a definative and reliable answer to the question of how much impact our actions have on the earth itself. For humanity as a whole and for specific practices.

  60. 60
    Simbelmynë

    I’d like a definative and reliable answer to the question of how much impact our actions have on the earth itself. For humanity as a whole and for specific practices.

  61. 61
    morsdei

    acecombat10:Think about the properties of the other carbon group elements for a bit.I won't give you the answer, but I can point you in the general direction.

  62. 62
    morsdei

    acecombat10:Think about the properties of the other carbon group elements for a bit.I won’t give you the answer, but I can point you in the general direction.

  63. 63
    pablo

    "An interesting question that was posed to me in my AP Bio class that I have always wondered about since: Why carbon based life forms instead of silicon or other atoms found in the Group IV of the periodic table?"

    morsdei hints at the answer, but to be fair, there are a couple of good reasons. Mostly, it comes down to thermochemistry, but that is kind of tautological. However, a more physical explanation is: double bonds. Unlike other Group 4 elements, carbon readily forms stable double bonds with other carbon atoms (silicon-silicon double bonds are known, but are highly reactive). Moreover, carbon-double bonds with other elements are not overly strong, allowing them to be sufficiently reactive (silacarbonyls are awfully tough to reduce). That actually leads me to another important property of carbon: oxidation potential. While carbon can certainly be oxidized (inhale, exhale – there, you did it) it can also be reduced back (thank you, plants!) to carbon. Getting the oxygen out of sand is not an easy process (of course, in silicon based life one would assume it would require fluorine respiration, but fluorine is such a strong oxidizer, that it becomes non-reversible, too). Meanwhile, silicon is too easily oxidized.

    Lastly, never underestimate the role of simple electronegativity. While polar, CO2 is still a covalent molecule and hence a gas, and therefore easily absorbed by plants. SiO2, however, is much more ionic, such that the crystal lattice energy drives it into the solid state, making it pretty hard to get absorbed by anything that wants to reduce it, even if it can.

    Oh, there are many reasons why we are carbon based life, so the question is easily answered. Perhaps, in return, you can answer mine: is there other life in the universe, and if so, where and what is it like?

  64. 64
    pablo

    “An interesting question that was posed to me in my AP Bio class that I have always wondered about since: Why carbon based life forms instead of silicon or other atoms found in the Group IV of the periodic table?”morsdei hints at the answer, but to be fair, there are a couple of good reasons. Mostly, it comes down to thermochemistry, but that is kind of tautological. However, a more physical explanation is: double bonds. Unlike other Group 4 elements, carbon readily forms stable double bonds with other carbon atoms (silicon-silicon double bonds are known, but are highly reactive). Moreover, carbon-double bonds with other elements are not overly strong, allowing them to be sufficiently reactive (silacarbonyls are awfully tough to reduce). That actually leads me to another important property of carbon: oxidation potential. While carbon can certainly be oxidized (inhale, exhale – there, you did it) it can also be reduced back (thank you, plants!) to carbon. Getting the oxygen out of sand is not an easy process (of course, in silicon based life one would assume it would require fluorine respiration, but fluorine is such a strong oxidizer, that it becomes non-reversible, too). Meanwhile, silicon is too easily oxidized.Lastly, never underestimate the role of simple electronegativity. While polar, CO2 is still a covalent molecule and hence a gas, and therefore easily absorbed by plants. SiO2, however, is much more ionic, such that the crystal lattice energy drives it into the solid state, making it pretty hard to get absorbed by anything that wants to reduce it, even if it can.Oh, there are many reasons why we are carbon based life, so the question is easily answered. Perhaps, in return, you can answer mine: is there other life in the universe, and if so, where and what is it like?

  65. 65
    Yellow Hat Guy

    Quatguy,

    Permitivity*Permeability=epsilon*mu=1/c^2

    The speed of light is the way it is because the concept of space itself has its own resistance to the propagation of EM radiation.

  66. 66
    Yellow Hat Guy

    Quatguy,Permitivity*Permeability=epsilon*mu=1/c^2The speed of light is the way it is because the concept of space itself has its own resistance to the propagation of EM radiation.

  67. 67
    blashimov

    You may not be able to make hammerspace real, but you can find it here: http://egscomics.com/bg/egs_bg… from http://egscomics.com/. Enjoy.

  68. 68
    Anon

    “What is the theory that can reconcile Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity?”

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