Einstein's theory of gravity general relativity
transcended Newton's by offering deeper insights. It accounted
naturally, in a way that Newton didn't, for why everything falls
at the same speed, and why the force obeys an inverse square law.
The theory dates from 1916, and was famously corroborated by the
measured deflection of starlight during eclipses, and by the anomalies
in Mercury's orbit. But it took more than 50 years before there
were any tests that could measure the distinctive effects of the
theory with better than 10 percent accuracy. In the 1960s and
1970s , there was serious interest in tests that could decide
between general relativity and alternative theories that were
still in the running. But now these tests have improved so much,
and yielded such comprehensive and precise support for Einstein,
that it would require very compelling evicence indeed to shake
our belief that general relativity is the correct "classical"
theory of gravity,
New and different experiments are nonetheless currently being
planned. But the expectation that they'll corroborate the theory
is no so strong that we'd demand a high burden of proof before
accepting a contrary result, For instance, NASA plans to launch
an ultra-precise gyroscope ("Gravity Probe B") to measure tiny
precession effects. If the results confirm Einstein, nobody will
be surprised nor excited though they would have been if
the experiment had flown 30 years ago, when it was first devised.
On the other hand, if this very technically-challenging experiment
revealed seeming discrepancies, I suspect that most scientists
would suspend judgment until it had been corroborated. So the
most exciting result of Gravity Probe B would be a request to
NASA for another vast sum, in order repeat it.
But Einstein himself raised other deep questions that are likely
to attract more interest in the 21st century than they ever did
in the 20th. He spent his last 30 years in a vain (and, as we
now recognize, premature) quest for a unified theory. Will such
a theory reconciling gravity with the quantum principle,
and transforming our conception of space and time be achieved
in coming decades? And, if it is, what answer will it offer to
an another of Einstein's questions: "Did God have any choice in
the creation of the world?" Is our universe and the physical
laws that govern it the unique outcome of a fundamental
theory, or are the underlying laws more "permissive", in the sense
that they could allow other very different universes as well?
MARTIN REES is Royal Society Professor at Cambridge University
and a leading researcher in astrophysics and cosmology. His books
include Before the Beginning, Gravity's Fatal Attraction
and (most recently) Just Six Numbers.
"...a set of questions that ought to have disappeared;
questions that seek reasons for patterns that in reality are due
There is a set of questions that ought
to have disappeared, but given human psychology
probably never will do: questions that seek reasons for patterns
that in reality are due to chance.
Why is "one plus twelve" an anagram of
"two plus eleven"? Why do the moon and the sun take up exactly
the same areas in the sky as seen from Earth? Why did my friend
telephone me just as I was going to telephone her? Whose face
is it in the clouds?
The truth is that not everything has a reason behind it. We should not
assume there is someone or something to be blamed for every pattern
that strikes us as significant.
But we have evolved to have what the psychologist
Bartlett called an "effort after meaning". We have always done
better to find meaning where there was none than to miss meaning
where there was.
We're human. When we win the lottery by betting
on the numbers of our birthday, the question Why? will spring
up, no matter what.
NICHOLAS HUMPHREY is a theoretical psychologist at the Centre
for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences, London School of
Economics, and the author of Consciousness Regained, The Inner
Eye, A History of the Mind, and Leaps of Faith: Science,
Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation.
is life so full of suffering?"
disappear when they seem to be answered or unanswerable. The interesting
missing questions are the apparently answered ones that are not,
and the apparently unanswerable ones that are.
One of life's most profound questions has been thought to be unanswerable.
That question is, "Why is life so full of suffering?" Impatience
with centuries of theological and philosophical speculation has
led many to give up on the big question, and to ask instead only
how brain mechanisms work, and why people differ in their experiences
of suffering. But the larger question has an answer, an evolutionary
answer. The capacities for suffering pain, hunger, cough,
anxiety, sadness, boredom and all the res have been shaped
by natural selection. They seem to be problems because they are
so painful and because they are aroused only in adverse circumstances,
but they are, in fact, solutions.
illusion that they are problems is further fostered by the smoke-detector
principle selection has shaped control mechanisms that
express defensive responses whenever the costs are less than the
protection they provide. This is often indeed, much more often
than is absolutely necessary. Thus, while the capacities for suffering
are useful and generally well-regulated, most individual instances
are excessive or entirely unnecessary. It has not escaped notice
that this principle has profound implications for the power and
limits of pharmacology to relieve human suffering.
RANDOLPH M. NESSE is Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the
Evolution and Human Adaptation Program at the University of Michigan.
He is the author, with George Williams, of Why We Get Sick:
The New Science of Darwinian Medicine.
"How fast is the Earth moving?"
A hundred years ago, one of the most fundamental questions
in physical science was: How fast is the Earth moving? Many experiments
had been performed to measure the speed of the Earth through space
as it orbits the sun, and as the solar system orbits the galaxy.
The most famous was conducted in 1887 by Albert Michelson and
Edward Morley using an optical interferometer. The result they
obtained was... zero. Today, scientists regard the question of
the Earth's speed through space as meaningless and misconceived,
although many non-scientists still refer to the concept.
Why has the question disappeared? Einstein's
theory of relativity, published in 1905, denied any absolute frame
of rest in the universe; speed is meaningful only relative to
other bodies or physical systems. Ironically, some decades later,
it was discovered there is a special frame of reference in the
universe defined by the cosmic microwave background radiation,
the fading afterglow of the big bang. The Earth sweeps through
this radiation at roughly 600 km per second (over a million miles
per hour) in the direction of the constellation Leo. This is the
closest that modern astronomy gets to the notion of an absolute
PAUL DAVIES is an internationally acclaimed
physicist, writer and broadcaster, now based in South Australia.
Professor Davies is the author of some twenty books, including
Other Worlds, God and the New Physics, The Edge of Infinity,
The Mind of God, The Cosmic Blueprint, Are We Alone? and About
Time. He is the recipient of a Glaxo Science Writers' Fellowship,
an Advance Australia Award and a Eureka prize for his contributions
to Australian science, and in 1995 he won the prestigious Templeton
Prize for his work on the deeper meaning of science.
Men and Women Differ Psychologically?"
for much of the 20th century was dominated by the view
that men and women were psychologically identical. So pervasive was this assumption that research
articles in psychology journals prior to the 1970's rarely bothered
to report the sex of their study participants. Women and men were understood to be interchangeable.
Findings for one sex were
presumed to be applicable to the other. Once the American Psychological Association required sex of participants
to be reported in published experiments, controversy erupted over
whether men and women were psychologically different. The past three decades of empirical research has resolved this issue,
at least in delimited domains. Although women and men show great psychological similarity, they
also differ in profound ways. They diverge in the sexual desires
they express and mating strategies they pursue. They differ in
the time they allocate to friends and relentlessness with which
they pursue status. They display distinct abilities in reading
other's minds, feeling other's feelings, and responding emotionally
to specific traumas in their lives.
Men opt for a wider range of risky activities, are more
prone to violence against others, make sharper in-group versus
out-group distinctions, and commit the vast majority of homicides
worldwide. The question 'Do men and women differ psychologically?'
has been replaced with more interesting questions. In what ways
do these sex differences create conflict between men and women?
Have the selection pressures that created these differences vanished
in the modern world? How can societies premised on equality grapple
with the profound psychological divergences of the sexes?
M. BUSS is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas,
Austin, and author of several books, most recently The Dangerous
Passion: Why Jealousy
is as Necessary as Love and
The New Science of the Mind , and
The Evolution of Desire:
Strategies of Human Mating.
can't we use technology to solve social problems?"
Not long after the Apollo landing, a prevalent cliche for a few
years was "If we can put humans on the moon, why can't we....[insert
prominent social problem such as starvation, epidemic, radical
inequalities, etc.]? In 1980, in his book "Critical Path," Buckminster
are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our
forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed
everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance.
We know now what we could never have known before-that we now
have the option for all humanity to "make it" successfully on
this planet in this lifetime."
In the contemporary zeitgeist, Fuller's claims seem naively utopian.
The past century saw too much misery resulting from the attempts
to build utopias. But without the belief that human civilization
can improve, how could we have arrived at the point where we can
formulate questions like these and exchange them around the world
at the speed of light?
There are several obvious choices for answers to the question
of why this question isn't asked any more:
1. We might have been able to put humans on the moon in 1969,
but not today. Good point. And the reason for this circumstance
lack of political will, and the community of know-how it
took NASA a decade to assemble, not lack of technical capabilities
2. Technology actually has solved enormous social problems
antibiotics, hygienic plumbing, immunization, the green revolution.
I agree with this, and see it as evidence that it is possible
to relieve twice as much, a thousand times as much human misery
as previous inventions.
3. Human use of technologies have created even greater social
problems antibiotics are misused and supergerms evolved;
nuclear wastes and weapons are threats, not enhancements; the
green revolution swelled the slums of the world as agricultural
productivity rose and global agribiz emerged.
4. There is no market for solving social problems, and it isn't
the business of government to get into the technology or any other
kind of business. This is the fallacy of the excluded middle.
Some technologies such as the digital computer and the Internet
were jump-started by governments, evolved through grassroots enthusiasms,
and later become industries and "new economies."
5. Throwing technology at problems can be helpful, but the fundamental
problems are political and economic and rooted in human nature.
This answer should not be ignored. A tool is not the task, and
often the invisible, social, non-physical aspects of a technological
regime make all the difference.
There's some truth to each of these answers, yet they all fall
short because all assume that we know how to think about technology.
Just because we know how to make things doesn't guarantee that
we know what those things will do to us. Or what kind of things
we ought to make.
What if we don't know how to think about the tools we are so skilled
at creating? What if we could learn?
Perhaps knowing how to think about technology is a skill we will
have to teach ourselves the way we taught ourselves previous new
ways of thinking such as mathematics, logic, and science.
A few centuries ago, a few people began questioning the assumption
that people knew how to think about the physical world. Neither
philosophy nor religion seemed to be able to stave off famine
and epidemic. The enlightenment was about a new method for thinking.
Part of that new method was the way of asking and testing questions
known as science, which provided the knowledge needed to create
new medicines, new tools, new weapons, new economic systems.
We learned how to think very well about the physical world, and
how to unleash the power in that knowledge. But perhaps we have
yet to learn how to think about what to do with our tools.
HOWARD RHEINGOLD is author of The Virtual Community, Virtual
Reality, Tools for Thought. Founder of Electric
Minds, named by Time magazine one of the ten best web sites
of 1996. Editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.
questions that have disappeared are eschatological."
twentieth century will be remembered as one of the most violent
in history. There were two world wars, numerous genocides, and
millions of murders conducted in the name of progress. Driving
this violence was the urge to find truth or purity. The violence
was lit by the refining fire of belief. The redemptive ideal was
called national socialism, communism, stalinism, maoism.
Today, these gods have feet of clay, and we mock their pretensions.
Global consumerism is the new world order, but global consumerism
is not a god. Market capitalism does not ask questions about transcendent
meaning. Western democracies, nodding into the sleep of reason,
have grown numb with self-congratulation about having won the
hot, the cold, and, now, the star wars.
The questions that have disappeared are eschatological. But they
have not really disappeared. They are a chtonic force, waiting
underground, searching for a new language in which to express
themselves. This observation sprang to mind while I was standing
in the Place de la Revolution, now known as the Place de la Concorde,
awaiting the arrival of the third millennium. During the French
revolution this square was so soaked in blood that oxen refused
to cross it. On New Year's Eve it was soaked in rain and champagne,
as we counted down to a display of fireworks that never materialized.
Instead, there was a Ferris wheel, lit alternately in mauve and
chartreuse, and some lasers illuminating the Luxor obelisk which
today is the square's secular center. No one staring at it knew
how to read the hieroglyphics carved on its face, but this obelisk
was once a transcendent object, infused with meaning, and so,
too, was the guillotine that formerly stood in its place.
THOMAS A. BASS, who currently lives in Paris, is the author of
The Eudaemonic Pie, Vietnamerica, The Predictors, and other
John Allen Paulos
"Don't reckon that I know."
question that has appeared this year is "What questions (plural)
have disappeared and why?" Countless questions have disappeared,
of course, but for relatively few reasons.
most obvious vanishings are connected to the passing of time.
No one asks anymore "Who's pitching tomorrow for the Brooklyn
Dodgers?" or "Who is Princess Diana dating now?"
Other disappearances are related to the advance of science and
mathematics. People no longer seriously inquire whether Jupiter
has moons, whether DNA has two or three helical strands, or whether
there might be integers a, b, and c such that a^3 + b^3 = c^3.
Still other vanished queries are the result of changes in our
ontology, scientific or otherwise. We've stopped wondering, "What
happened to the phlogiston?" or "How many witches live in this
The most interesting lacunae in the erotetic landscape, however,
derive from lapsed assumptions, untenable distinctions, incommensurable
mindsets, or superannuated worldviews that in one way or another
engender questions that are senseless or, at least, much less
compelling than formerly. "What are the election's exact vote
totals" comes to mind.
that I've clarified to myself the meaning of "What questions have
disappeared and why?" I have to confess that I don't have any
particularly telling examples. (Reminds me of the joke about the
farmer endlessly elucidating the lost tourist's query about the
correct road to some hamlet before admitting, "Don't reckon that
JOHN ALLEN PAULOS, bestselling author, mathematician, and public
speaker is professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia.
In addition to being the author of a number of scholarly papers
on mathematical logic, probability, and the philosophy of science,
Dr. Paulos books include Innumeracy - Mathematical Illiteracy
and Its Consequences, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper,
and Once Upon a Number.
definition of life and consciousness?"
Some scientific questions cannot be resolved, but rather are dissolved,
and vanish once we begin to better understand their terms.
This is often the case for "definitional questions". For instance,
what is the definition of life? Can we trace a sharp boundary
between what is living and what is not living? Is a virus living?
Is the entire earth a living organism? It seems that our brain
predisposes us to ask questions that require a yes or no answer.
Moreover, as scientists, we'd like to keep our mental categories
straight and, therefore, we would like to have neat and tidy definitions
of the terms we use. However, especially in the biological sciences,
the objects of reality do not conform nicely to our categorical
expectations. As we delve into research, we begin to realize that
what we naively conceived of as a essential category is, in fact,
a cluster of loosely bound properties that each need to be considered
in turn (in the case of life: metabolism, reproduction, autonomy,
homeostasy, etc..). Thus, what was initially considered as a simple
question, requiring a straightforward answer, becomes a complex
issue or even a whole domain of research. We begin to realize
that there is no single answer, but many different answers depending
on how one frames the terms of the question. And eventually, the
question is simply dropped. It is not longer relevant.
I strongly suspect that one of today's hottest scientific question,s
the definition of consciousness, is of this kind. Some scientists
seem to believe that what we call consciousness is an essence
of reality, a single coherent phenomenon that can be reduced to
a single level such as a quantum property of microtubules. Another
possibility, however, that consciousness is a cluster of properties
that, most of the time, cohere together in awake adult humans.
A minimal list probably includes the ability to attend to sensory
inputs or internal thoughts, to make them available broadly to
multiple cerebral systems, to store them in working memory and
in episodic memory, to manipulate them mentally, to act intentionally
based on them, and in particular to report them verbally. As we
explore the issue empirically, we begin to find many situations
(such as visual masking or specific brain lesions) in which those
properties break down. The neat question "what is consciousness"
dissolves into a myriad of more precise and more fruitful research
Any biological theory of consciousness, which assumes that consciousness
has evolved, implies that "having consciousness" is not an all-or-none
property. The biological substrates of consciousness in human
adults are probably also present, but only in partial form, in
other species, in young children or brain-lesioned patients. It
is therefore a partially arbitrary question whether we want to
extend the use of the term "consciousness" to them. For instance,
several mammals, and even very young human children, show intentional
behavior, partially reportable mental states, some working memory
ability but perhaps no theory of mind, and more "encapsulated"
mental processes that cannot be reported verbally or even non-verbally.
Do they have consciousness, then? My bet is that once a detailed
cognitive and neural theory of the various aspects of consciousness
is available, the vacuity of this question will become obvious.
STANISLAS DEHAENE, researcher at the Institut National de la Santé,
studies cognitive neuropsychology of language and number processing
in the human brain; author of The Number Sense: How Mathematical
Knowledge Is Embedded In Our Brains.