Great Science Questions

Seed has started this thing they’re calling “Ask a Science Blogger,” in which we’re supposed to take provocative questions and answer them here. You know, like those ice-breaking party games, supposed to get the social bonding thing going, foster unity, etc. Only thing is, they don’t quite get the idea yet—they’re asking the science bloggers to come up with questions to ask the science bloggers. “What’s that?” I say, “why not cut out the middleman and not ask the questions that nobody’s asking that we’re being asked to answer? Saves time.”

That’s too mean-spirited, so let’s turn it around in true weblogging fashion and ask you, the loyal readers, to invent the questions that we’ll ask the bloggers that they might then answer. These will then get passed up the corporate food chain, filtered and processed, and come back down to us in a little game of telephone. You know, you’ll ask some great question like “How does a pycnogonid eat an opisthobranch?” and the question of the week will be “How do pygmies greet the opposite rank?” and we’ll all sit here baffled. It will be great Science.

To prime the pump, here are a few questions that I thought would be fun.

  1. What’s your favorite body part, and where did you get it?
  2. How to address the help: EYE-gor or EEE-gor?
  3. How does science help you in the bedroom?
  4. Mad scientist movies: which ones get it right, and which are a kind of wishful ideal?
  5. What mutation do you wish you had?
  6. …maybe we could hybridize questions 3 and 5…
  7. What music puts you in the mood for a little lab work?
  8. When making chimeras, which manimal is best avoided?

I’m sure you can come up with much better ones. If you don’t feel like asking questions, there’s nothing stopping you from answering them!

The Seed Crystal Ball

Our Seed Overlords have submitted yet another question to their blogulous oracle, i.e., us: Will the “human” race be around in 100 years?

I don’t think it’s a particularly good question, I’m afraid. The answer is simply “yes”. If the question were about prairie chickens, cheetahs, or chimpanzees, it would be a more challenging question, but with a population of 6.5 billion of us, I don’t think there’s much doubt. We’ll be here. The only question is what state we and the world will be in. I’ll speculate a bit on possible outcomes.

  1. We keep going as we have been. The population is double what it is now or more, and resources are scarcer. We continue to tear at the planet, squabbling over what’s left, and we’re wallowing in poverty and war and desperation. That can’t last, of course: sometime beyond that century mark, or before, we hit scenario 2.
  2. There is a major resource crash. The oceans are exhausted, climate change wrecks agriculture, plagues rip through a bloated population, and there is a massive die-off of humanity. Populations drop precipitously, leaving only scattered enclaves. Civilization as we know it ends. Humanity continues, but in a barbarous state.
  3. The optimistic scenario: some cultures practice restraint, using technology to control population growth and develop sustainable food and energy resources. They work to bring about scientific and technological advances that improve their chances for survival and progress. Unfortunately, the whole world won’t do that: the gap between the haves and have nots widens. On one side, population reductions by choice and with little disruption; on the other, population reductions by starvation and suppression and war.

I don’t think there will be any significant biological changes in us. Four or five generations for a population as large as ours just isn’t enough time for major transformations. Changes populations of bacteria and viruses is another matter—humanity is one giant culture dish as far as they are concerned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some hugely traumatic disease does arise in our near future. I’d be surprised if it didn’t. Expect populations of other large and fragile organisms to continue to experience our existence as a disaster. The only real question of import is how much biodiversity will be lost before we come to our senses (unlikely) or are taken down by a few orders of magnitude by nature (much more likely).

Hey, nobody said these questions have to prompt happy stories.