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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Which Great Scientific Mysteries Are Likely to Be Solved in the Next 50 Years?

As discussed in this blog post, there are many great mysteries that baffle scientists and philosophers. But what are the chances that these mysteries will be solved in your lifetime? Let us look at particular mysteries, and estimate the chance that we will have a solution within the next fifty years.

The Mystery of the Big Bang

The main mystery involving the Big Bang is what caused it. We are extremely unlikely to ever resolve this mystery in the next fifty years. When we look to the edges of the universe, billions of light-years away, we are looking back in time. But no matter how powerful our telescopes might be, we can never look back to the first 380,000 years of the universe's history. In the first 380,000 years after the Big Bang, matter was so densely packed that photons of light could not travel for more than the shortest length before colliding into a proton or electron. This basically means that light from the earliest stage of the universe is effectively blocked, and we are forbidden from looking back to the first 380,000 years of the universe's history.

We can study the cosmic background radiation, dating from this time about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. We have already launched two satellites to do this, the most recent being the Planck satellite. But the observations made by that satellite have offered no new breakthroughs. The chance that we will find the answer to the cause of the Big Bang by studying the cosmic background radiation further is almost negligible.

I estimate that there is less than 1 chance in 100 that scientists will solve this mystery in the next 50 years. Super-fast computers will be of no help in solving this mystery. 

 

The Mystery of Dark Energy

Dark energy is the mysterious energy that is believed to make up about 68% of the universe's mass-energy. Scientists have no clear idea of what it is, although they have a vague suspicion that it may have to do with virtual particles created in the vacuum of space.

The hugely expensive Large Hadron Collider has not got us any closer to unraveling the mystery of dark energy. Next year the LHC will begin new activity that will greatly increase the energy of its collisions. It is still very unlikely that this will produce anything helping to solve the mystery of dark energy.

As discussed here, there are plans for a 60-mile long successor to the Large Hadron Collider, one that will be completed in 2035. There is not much reason to be hopeful that this will solve the mystery of dark energy, although it may shed some light on it.

Super-fast computers will be of little help in solving this mystery. I estimate that there is less than 1 chance in 10 that scientists will solve the dark energy mystery in the next 50 years.

The Mystery of Dark Matter

Dark matter is believed to be a mysterious type of matter that makes up more of the universe than ordinary matter. The problem with dark matter is that it cannot be directly observed through ordinary methods. So it is very unlikely that we will understand it very well any time in the next few decades. About the most we can hope for are some type of observations that clearly nail down the fact that it really exists.

I estimate that there is less than 1 chance in 3 that scientists will solve the dark matter mystery in the next 50 years, in the sense of getting a clear idea of what type of particles it is made of. 
 
The Origin of Life

Very little progress has been made in discovering exactly how life originated on Earth billions of years ago. There was a ray of hope when Stanley Miller did his famous experiments back in the 1950's, but since then progress has been very slow.

The prospect of vast strides in supercomputers offers some hope that some progress may be made in helping to solve this mystery. Conceivably vastly improved supercomputers might do some kind of simulation involving billions or trillions of chemical combinations, a simulation that might throw new light on the mystery of the origin of life and the origin of the genetic code. We can also imagine that there might be robotized chemistry laboratories that might help to resolve the issue.

I can optimistically estimate that there might be as much as 1 chance in 3 that this mystery will be solved in the next fifty years.

The Mystery of Existence

The mystery of existence is the age-old mystery of why there exists something rather than nothing. It is a perplexing problem, because nothing seems more natural and plausible than simplicity, and the simplest possible state of existence is complete nonexistence – no God, no matter, no energy, no universe, just absolutely nothing, forever and ever. So why didn't such a perfectly simple state of existence (complete eternal nonexistence) occur?

I see no real chance that any new scientific observations can solve this problem, and it isn't likely that supercomputers will help us solve it. There is some chance that we might be able to resolve this mystery by increasing our intelligence, and increasing our ability for philosophical reasoning. We might then be able to understand some reason for existence that we failed to grasp before.

But that would require a major increase in human intelligence, which is probably a long way off (the assurances of singularity enthusiasts notwithstanding). I therefore estimate that there is less than 1 chance in 10 that we will resolve the mystery of existence in the next fifty years.

The Mystery of Whether We Are Alone in the Universe

There are two ways in which this mystery might be resolved: negatively or positively. We would resolve this mystery negatively if we were to somehow prove that we are alone in the universe. We would resolve this mystery positively if we somehow found out that we are not alone in the universe.

There is zero chance that we will resolve this mystery negatively in the next fifty years, and zero chance that we ever resolve this mystery negatively. This is because the universe is too big. Our galaxy has billions of stars, and there are billions of galaxies. Even if we somehow create spaceships capable of traveling instantaneously (something most unlikely), it would still take millions of years to survey all the planets in our galaxy, determining that none had intelligent life. By the time such a job were finished, we still could not say we are alone in the galaxy, because during those millions of years intelligent life could have still have evolved on planets when we were not checking them. And that's just the difficulty of determining that we are alone in the galaxy – the job of determining we are alone in the universe would be billions of times more difficult.

When it comes to the possibility of resolving this mystery positively (determining that we are not alone in the universe), we have an entirely different situation. We have a decent chance of doing that in the next fifty years. All we would need to do would be to pick up a radio transmission from another civilization.

This is one area where advances in supercomputers might help. Such advances may allow us to scan millions of frequencies for radio signals more efficiently.

I therefore optimistically estimate that there is about 1 chance in 2 that we will resolve the mystery of whether we are alone in the universe in the next fifty years.

The Mystery of Cosmic Fine-Tuning

The mystery of cosmic fine-tuning is the mystery of why the universe seems to be so exquisitely calibrated to allow the existence of intelligent creatures such as us. Anyone doubting that there seems to be such fine-tuning should read this post and this post.

It is most unlikely that we will discover any final answer to this mystery in the next fifty years, as unlikely as you becoming a lottery millionaire. Despite the misguided enthusiasm of multiverse enthusiasts (who imagine a huge collection of universes, each with different characteristics), there is basically zero prospect of ever being able to confirm such an idea – unless you wish to imagine some machine for transporting a man or a robot into different universes, an idea even more implausible than a machine for sending a man back in time.

The Mystery of Consciousness

The mystery of consciousness is the mystery of how consciousness arises from matter, something that seems to be entirely different from consciousness. Philosophers have long pondered this question. We currently have no understanding of how this occurs. There are various exotic theories, such as Roger Penrose's theory involving quantum effects in microtubules.

Some think that solving the mystery of consciousness is just a matter of increasing the resolution of brain scanners. Some optimists think that if we can only scan neurons with ever more detail, and understand more precisely the exact chemistry and physics of brain actions, we will one day understand the mystery of how the brain produces consciousness. Others think that no matter how much progress we make in understanding the brain, we will never be able to understand exactly how consciousness is produced by it. They point out that we can never imagine seeing some high-magnification photograph from an electron microscope or a diagram of a chemical reaction or a printout of brain electricity, and then really understanding how consciousness could arise from that.

Because such reasoning seems powerful, I estimate that there is no more than 1 chance in 5 that we will solve the mystery of consciousness in the next fifty years.

Conclusion

Most of the great mysteries of nature are not things we should expect to see solved in our lifetimes. Get used to living in a mysterious universe, for it is most unlikely that more than one or two of the deepest mysteries will be cleared up in your lifetime. There will be fantastic advances in computing power and robotics in your lifetime, but that will do us very little good in solving most of the great mysteries that face us.

As far as how we can best spend our money to help solve age-old mysteries, the technology with the best chance of producing results is probably not hugely expensive particle colliders costing many billions, but instead relatively inexpensive radio telescopes that can be constructed with only millions of dollars. Besides offering the hope of solving the age-old mystery of whether we are alone in the universe, such devices might allow us to receive radio signals from beings vastly older than us. Conceivably they might give us the answer to cosmic mysteries that might take us many thousands of years to solve on our own.