THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER 2001

What Questions Have Disappeared?

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Izumi Aizu

"Who should make the truly global decisions, and how?"

As we all use the global medium, Internet, people who are running it behind is making the decisions on how to run this medium. So far so good. But not anymore.

With all the ICANN process, commercialization of Domain Name registration, expanding the new gTLDs, one can ask: who are entitled to make these decisions, and how come they can decide that way?

Despite the growing digital divide, the number of people who use the Net is still exploding, even in the developing side of the world. What is fair, what is democratic, what kind of principles can we all agree on this single global complex system, from all corners of the world is my question of the year to come.

IZUMI AIZU, a researcher and promoter of the Net in Asia since mid 80s, is principal, Asia Network Research and Senior Research Fellow at GLOCOM (Center for Global Communications), at the International University of Japan.


John Barrow

"How does a slide rule work?"

My vanished question is:"'How does a slide rule work?"' Slide rules were once ubiquitous in labs, classrooms, and the pockets of engineers. They are now as common as dinosaurs; totally replaced by electronic calulators and computers. The interesting question to ponder is: what is it that in the future will do to computers what computers did to slide rules?

JOHN BARROW is a physicist at Cambridge University.. He is the author of The World Within the World, Pi in the Sky, Theories of Everything, The Origins of the Universe (Science Masters Series),The Left Hand of Creation, The Artful Universe, and Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits.


Margaret Wertheim

"...the old question of whether our categories of reality are discovered or constructed."

One question that has almost disappeared, but which I think should not is the old question about whether our categories of reality are discovered or constructed. In medieval times this was the debate about realism versus nominalism. Earlier this century the question flared up again in the debates about the relativistic nature of knowledge and has more recently given rise to the whole "science wars" debacle, but reading the science press today one would think the question had been finally resolved — on the side of realism. Reading the science press now one gets a strong impression that for most scientists our categories of reality are Platonic, almost God-given entities just waiting for the right mind to uncover them. This hard-nosed realist trend is evident across the spectrum of the sciences, but is particularly strong in physics, where the search is currently on for the supposed "ultimate" category of reality — strings being a favored candidate. What gets lost in all this is any analysis of the role that language plays in our pictures of reality. We literally cannot see things that we have no words for. As Einstein once said "we can only see what our theories allow us to see." I would argue that the question of what role language plays in shaping our picture of reality is one of the most critical questions in science today — and one that should be back on the agenda of every thoughtful scientiist.

Just one example should suffice to illustrate what is at stake here: MIT philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller has shown in her book Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death (and elsewhere) the primary role played by language in shaping theories of genetics. Earlier this century physicists like Max Delbruck and Erwin Schrodinger started to have a philosophical impact on the biological sciences, which henceforth became increasingly "physicized." Just as atoms were seen as the ultimate constituents of matter so genes came to be seen as the ultimate constituents of life — the entities in which all power and control over living organisms resided. What this metaphor of the "master molecule" obscured was th role played by the cytoplasm in regulating the function and activation of genes. For half a century study of the cytoplasm was virtually ignored because genetics were so fixed on the idea of the gene as the "master colecule." Sure much good work on genetics was done, but important areas of biological function were also ignored. And are still being ignored by the current "master molecule" camp — the evolutionary psychologists, who cannot seem to see anything but through the prism of genes.

Scientists (like all other humans) can only see reality as their language and their metaphors allow them to see it. This is not to say that scientists "make up" their discoveries, only to point out that language plays a critical role in shaping the way we categorize, and hence theorize, the world around us. Revolutions in science are not just the result of revolutions in the laboratory or at theorists blackboards, they are also linguistic revoluttions. Think of words like inertia, energy, momentum — words which did not have any scientific meaning before the seventeenth century. Or words like quantum, spin, charm and strange, which have only had scientific meaning science the quantum revolution of the early twentieth century. Categories of reality are not merely discovered — they are also constructed by the words we use. Understanding more deeply the interplay between the physical world and human language is, I believe, one of the major tasks for the future of science.

MARGARET WERTHEIM is the author of Pythagoras Trousers, a history of the relationship between physics and religion; and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. She is a research associate to the American Museum of Natural History in NY and a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. She is currently working on a documentary about "outsider physics."


Geoffrey Hinton

"What is 'vital force'?"

Nobody asks what "vital force" is anymore. Organisms still have just as much vital force as they had before, but as understanding of biological mechanisms increased, the idea of a single essence evaporated. Hopefully the same will happen with "consciousness".

GEOFFREY HINTON, is an AI researcher at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, where he does research on ways of using neural networks for learning, memory, perception and symbol processing and has over 100 publications in these areas. He was one of the researchers who introduced the back-propagation algorithm that is now widely used for practical applications. His other contributions to neural network research include Boltzmann machines, distributed representations, time-delay neural nets, mixtures of experts, and Helmholtz machines. His current main interest is in unsupervised learning procedures for neural networks with rich sensory input.


Tom Standage

"Are there planets around other stars?"

Speculation about the possibility of a "plurality of worlds" goes back at least as far as Epicurus in the fourth century BC. Admittedly, Epicurus' definition of a "world" was closer to what we would currently regard as a solar system — but he imagined innumerable such spheres, each containing a system of planets, packed together. "There are," he declared, "infinite worlds both like and unlike this world [i.e., solar system] of ours."

The same question was subsequently considered by astronomers and philosophers over the course of many centuries; within the past half century, the idea of the existence of other planets has become a science fiction staple, and people have started looking for evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. Like Epicurus, many people have concluded that there must be other solar systems out there, consisting of planets orbiting other stars. But they didn't know for sure. Today, we do.

The first "extrasolar" planet (ie, beyond the solar system) was found in 1995 by two Swiss astronomers, and since then another 48 planets have been found orbiting dozens of nearby sun-like stars. This figure is subject to change, because planets are now being found at an average rate of more than one per month; more planets are now known to exist outside the solar system than within it. Furthermore, one star is known to have at least two planets, and another has at least three. We can, in other words, now draw maps of alien solar systems — maps that were previously restricted to the realm of science fiction.

The discovery that there are other planets out there has not, however, caused as much of a fuss as might have been expected, for two reasons. First, decades of Star Trek and its ilk meant that the existence of other worlds was assumed; the discovery has merely confirmed what has lately become a widely-held belief. And second, none of these new planets has actually been seen. Instead, their existence has been inferred through the tiny wobbles that they cause in the motion of their parent stars. The first picture of an extrasolar planet is, however, probably just a few years away. Like the first picture of Earth from space, it is likely to become an iconic image that once again redefines the way we as humans think about our place in the universe.

Incidentally, none of these new planets has a name yet, because the International Astronomical Union, the body which handles astronomical naming, has yet to rule on the matter. But the two astronomers who found the first extrasolar planet have proposed a name for it anyway, and one that seems highly appropriate: they think it should be called Epicurus.

TOM STANDAGE is technology correspondent at The Economist in London and author of the books The Victorian Internet and The Neptune File, both of which draw parallels between episodes in the history of science and modern events. He has also written for the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Prospect, and Wired. He is married and lives in Greenwich, England, just down the hill from the Old Royal Observatory.


Lawrence M. Krauss

"Does God Exist?"

In the 1960's and 70's it seemed just a matter of time before antiquated notions of god, heaven, and divine intervention would disappear from the intellectual spectrum, at least in the US. Instead, we find ourselves in an era when God appears to be on the lips of all politicians, creationism is rampant in our schools, and the separation of church and state seems more fragile than ever. What is the cause of this regression, and what can we do to combat it? Surely, one of the legacies of science is to learn to accept the Universe for what it is, rather than imposing our own belief systems on it. We should be prepared to offend any sensibilities, even religious ones, when they disagree with the evidence of experiment. Should scientists be more vocal in order to combat the born-again evangelists who are propagating ill-founded notions about the cosmos?

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS is Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of Astronomy, and Chair of the Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University. He is the recipient of the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science, and this year's Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society. He is the author of numerous books, including The Physics of Star Trek.


Joseph Traub

"Have We Seen the End of Science?"
"Will the Internet Stock Bubble Burst?"

I am taking the liberty of sending two questions. (After all, the people on the list like to push the boundaries.)

"Have We Seen the End of Science?"

John Horgan announced the end of science in his book of the same title. Almost weekly the most spectacular advances are being announced and intriguing questions being asked in fields such as biology and physics. The answer was always a resounding no; now nobody asks the question.

"Will the Internet Stock Bubble Burst?"

We certainly know the answer to that one now.

On February 22, 2000 I gave a talk at the Century Association in NYC titled "Modern Finance and Computers". One of the topics that i covered was "will the internet stock bubble burst?" I said it was a classic bubble and would end in the usual way. I cited the example of an Fall, 1999 IPO for VA Linux. This was a company that had a market capitalization of 10 billion dollars at the end of the first day even though it had never shown a profit and was up against competitors such as Dell and IBM.

The NASDAQ reached its high on March 10, 2000, and the internet sector collapsed a couple of weeks later. The high for VA Linux in 2000 was $247;yesterday it closed below $10.

JOSEPH F. TRAUB is the Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He was founding Chairman of the Computer Science Department at Columbia University from 1979 to 1989, and founding chair of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academy of Sciences from 1986 to 1992. From 1971 to 1979 he was Head of the Computer Science Department at Carnegie-Mellon University. Traub is the founding editor of the Journal of Complexity and an associate editor of Complexity. A Festschrift in celebration of his sixtieth birthday was recently published. He is the author of nine books including the recently published Complexity and Information.


Karl Sabbagh

"How many angels can dance on the point of a pin?"

This question is no longer asked, not because the question has been answered (although I happen to believe the answer is e to the i pi) but because the search for knowledge about the spiritual world has shifted focus as a result of science and maths cornering all the physical and numerical answers. Along with "Did Adam have a navel?" and "Did Jesus' mother give birth parthenogenetically?", this question is no longer asked by anyone of reasonable intelligence. Those who would in the past have searched for scientific support for their spiritual ideas have finally been persuaded that this is a demeaning use for human brainpower and that by moving questions about the reality of spiritual and religious ideas into the same category as questions about mind (as opposed to brain) they will retain the respect of unbelievers and actually get nearer to an understanding of the sources of their preoccupations.

As an addendum, although I wasn't asked I would like also to answer the question "What questions should disappear and why?"

The one question that should disappear as soon as possible ­ and to a certain extent scientists are to blame for the fact that it is still asked ­ is: What is the explanation for astrology/UFOs/clairvoyance/telepathy/any other 'paranormal' phenomenon you care to name?

This question is still asked because scientists and science educators have failed to get over to the public the fact that there is only one method of explaining phenomena ­ the scientific method. Therefore, anything that people are puzzled by that has not been explained either doesn't exist or there isn't yet enough evidence to prove that it does. But still I get the impression that for believers in these phenomena there are two types of explanatory system ­ science and nonscience (you can pronounce the latter 'nonsense' if you like). When you try to argue with these people by pointing out that there isn't sufficient repeatable evidence even to begin to attempt an explanation in scientific terms, they just say that this particular phenomenon doesn't require that degree of stringency. When the evidence is strong enough to puzzle scientists as well as nonscientists, they'll begin to devise explanations ­ scientific explanations.

There's a good example of how this works currently with the interest taken in St John's wort as a possible treatment for depression. Once there was enough consistent evidence to suggest that there might be an effect, clinical trials were planned and are now under way. Interestingly, an indication that there might be a genuine effect comes from a substantial body of information suggesting that there are adverse drug interactions between St John's wort and immunosuppressive drugs taken by transplant patients. Once an 'alternative' remedy actually causes harm as well as having alleged benefits, it's claimed effects are more likely to be genuine. One argument against most of the quack remedies around, such as homoeopathy, is that they are entirely safe (although this is seen as a recommendation, by the gullible.)

The demand that phenomena that are not explainable in scientific terms should be accepted on the basis of some other explanation similar to the argument you might care to use with your bank manager that there is more than one type of arithmetic. Using his conventional accounting methods he might think your account is overdrawn but you would argue that, although the evidence isn't as strong as his method might require, you believe you still have lots of money in your account and therefore will continue writing cheques. (As like as not, this belief in a positive balance in your account will be based on some erroneous assumption ­ for example, that you still have a lot of blank cheques left in your chequebook.)

KARL SABBAGH is a television producer who has turned to writing. Among his television programs are "Skyscraper" ­ a four-hour series about the design and construction of a New York skyscraper; "Race for the Top" ­ a documentary about the hunt for top quark; and "21st Century Jet" ­ a five part series following Boeing's new 777 airliner from computer design to entry into passenger service.He is the author of six books including Skyscraper, 21st Century Jet, and A Rum Affair .


Stewart Brand

"How will Americans handle a surplus of leisure?"
"Can the threat of recombinant DNA possibly be contained?"

"How will Americans handle a surplus of leisure?"

That was a brow-furrower in the late '50s and early '60s for social observers and forecasters. Whole books addressed the problem, most of them opining that Americans would have to become very interested in the arts. Turned out the problem never got around to existing, and the same kind of people are worrying now about how Americans will survive the stress of endless multi-tasking.

"Can the threat of recombinant DNA possibly be contained?"

That was the brand new bogey of the mid-'70s. At a famous self regulating conference at Asilomar conference center in California, genetic researchers debated the question and imposed rules (but not "relinquishment") on the lab work. The question was answered: the threat was handily contained, and it was not as much of a threat as feared anyway. Most people retrospectively applaud the original caution. Similar fears and debate now accompany the introduction of Genetically Modified foods and organisms. Maybe it's the same question rephrased, and it will keep being rephrased as long as biotech is making news. Can the threat of frankenfoods possibly be contained? Can the threat of gene-modified children possibly be contained? Can the threat of bioweapons possibly be contained? Can the threat of human life extension possibly be contained?

It won't be a new question until it reaches reflexivity: "Are GM humans really human?"

STEWART BRAND is founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The Well, cofounder of Global Business Network, cofounder and president of The Long Now Foundation. He is the original editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT , How Buildings Learn, and The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (MasterMinds Series).


Mark Hurst

"Do I have e-mail?"

The sudden increase in digital information, or bits, in our everyday lives has destroyed any question of permanence or scarcity of those bits. Just consider the example of e-mail.

Years ago when you first got online, you were excited to get e-mail, right? So every day, the big question when you logged in was, Will I have any e-mail? The chirpy announcement that "You've got mail!" actually meant something, since sometimes you didn't have mail.

Today there's no question. There's no such thing as no mail. You don't have to ask; you DO have mail. If it's not the mail you want (from friends or family), it's work-related mail or, worse, spam. Our inboxes may soon be so flooded with spam that we look for entirely different ways to use e-mail.

The death of that question, "Do I have e-mail?" has brought us a new, more interesting question as a result: "What do I do with all this e-mail?" More generally, what do we do with all these bits(e-mail, wireless messages, websites, Palm Pilot files, Napster downloads)? This is the question that will define our relationship with digital technology in coming years.

MARK HURST, founder of Internet consulting firm Creative Good, is widely credited for popularizing the term "customer experience" and the methodology around it. Hurst has worked since the birth of the Web to make Internet technology easier and more relevant to its "average" users. In 1999, InfoWorld magazine named Hurst "Netrepreneur of the Year", saying that "Mark Hurst has done more than any other individual to make Web-commerce sites easier to use." Over 39,000 people subscribe to his Good Experience newsletter, available for free at goodexperience.com or [email protected] nce.com.


Cliff Pickover

"Did Noah Really Collect all Species of Earthly Organism on his Ark?"

People who interpret the Bible literally may believe that a man named Noah collected all species of Earthly organisms on his ark. However, scientists no longer ask this question. Let me put the problem in a modern perspective by considering what it means to have animals from every species on an ark. Consider that siphonapterologists (experts in fleas) recognize 1,830 variety of fleas. Incredible as it may seem, there are around 300,000 species of beetles, making beetles one of the most diverse groups of organisms on earth. When biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked by a religious person what message the Lord conveyed through His creations, he responded, "an inordinate fondness for beetles."

One of my favorite books on beetles is Ilkka Hanski's Dung Beetle Ecology, which points out that a large number (about 7000 species) of the 300,000 species of beetles live off animal dung. Did Noah bring these species on the ark? If he did, did he concern himself with the fact that animal dung is often fiercely contested. On the African savanna up to 4000 beetles have been observed to converge on 500 grams of fresh elephant dung within 15 minutes after it is deposited.

Did Noah or his family also take kleptoparastic beetles on the ark? These are dung beetles known to steal dung from others. Did Noah need to take into consideration that insect dung communities involve hundreds of complex ecological interactions between coprophagous flies and their parasites, insects, mites, and nematodes (an ecology probably difficult to manage on the ark!). In South Africa, more than 100 species of dung beetle occur together in a single cow pat. One gigantic species, Heliocopris dilloni resides exclusively in elephant dung. A few species of beetles are so specialized that they live close to the source of dung, in the hairs near an animal's anus.

You get my point! It's quite a mystery as to what the Biblical authors meant when they called for Noah taking pairs of every animal on the Earth. Incidentally, scientists very roughly estimate that the weight of animals in the hypothetical ark to be 1000 tons. You can use a value of 10 million for the number of species and assume an average mass of 100 grams. (Insects decrease this figure for average mass because of the huge number of insect species.) There would be some increase in mass if plants were used in the computation. (How would this change if extinct species were included?)

Even if Noah took ten or twenty of each kind of mammal, very few would be alive after a thousand years because approximately 50 individuals of a single species are needed to sustain genetic health. Any small population is subject to extinction from disease, environmental changes, and genetic risks — the gradual accumulation of traits with small but harmful effects. There is also the additional problem of making sure that there is both male and female offspring surviving. Today, species are considered endangered well before their numbers drop below fifty. (Interestingly, there's a conflicting Biblical description in the story of Noah that indicated God wanted Noah to take "seven pairs of clean animals... and a pair of the animals that are not clean... and seven pairs of the birds of the air also.")

The Biblical flood would probably kill most of the plant life on Earth. Even if the waters were to recede, the resultant salt deposits would prevent plants from growing for many years. Of additional concern is the ecological effect of the numerous dead carcasses caused by the initial flood.

Various authors have noted that if, in forty days and nights the highest mountains on Earth were covered, the required incredible rate of rain fall of fifteen feet per hour would sink the ark. All of these cogitations lead me to believe that most scientifically trained people no longer ask whether an actual man named Noah collected all species of Earthly organism on his ark. By extension, most scientifically trained people no longer ask if the Bible is literal truth.

CLIFF PICKOVER is author of over 20 books, his latest being Wonders of Numbers: Adventures in Math, Mind, and Meaning. His web site, www.pickover.com, has received over 300,000 visits.


George B. Dyson

"What does the other side of the moon look like?"

This can be elaborated by the following anecdote, from an interview (2.99) with Herbert York:

"Donald Hornig, who was head of PSAC [President's Science Advisory Committee, during the Johnson Administration] was not imaginative. I can give you an example of this. I was very enthusiastic about getting a picture of the other side of the moon. And there were various ways of doing it, sooner or later. And I argued with Hornig about it and he said, 'Why? It looks just like this side.' And it turned out it didn't. But nevertheless, that was it, and that's the real Hornig. 'Why are you so enthused about the other side of the moon? The other side of the moon looks just like this side, why would you be so interested to see it?'"

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, has been excavating the history and prehistory of the digital revolution going back 300 years. His most recent book is Darwin Among the Machines.


David Haig

"questions that were asked in extinct languages"

All those questions that were asked in extinct languages for which there is no written record.

DAVID HAIG is an evolutionary geneticist/theorist at Harvard who is interested in conflicts and conflict resolution with the genome, with a particular interest in genomic imprinting and relations between parents and offspring. Hiscurrent interests include the evolution of linkage groups and the evolution of viviparity.


James J. O'Donnell

"the old Platonic questions about the nature of the good and the form of beauty"

Metaphysical questions.

Metaphysical answers haven't disappeared: the new agers are full of them, and so are the old religionists.

Cosmological questions haven't disappeared: but scientists press them as real questions about the very physical universe.

But the old Platonic questions about the nature of the good and the form of beauty — they went away when we weren't looking. They won't be back.

JAMES J. O'DONNELL, Professor of Classical Studies and Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.


Pamela McCorduck

"Can machines think?"

It burned through the sixties, seventies and even eighties, until the answer was, Of course. It was replaced with a different, less emotionally fraught question: How can we make them think smarter/better/deeper?

The central issue is the social, not scientific, definition of "thinking". A generation of Western intellectuals who took their identity mainly from their intelligence has grown too old to ask the question with any conviction, and anyway, machines are all around them thinking up a storm. Machines don't yet think like Einstein, but then neither do most people, and we don't question their humanity on that account.

PAMELA McCORDUCK is the author or coauthor of seven books, among them Machines Who Think, and coauthor with Nancy Ramsey of The Futures Of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century.


Marc D. Hauser

"Do animals have thoughts?"

The reason this question is dead is because traditional Skinnerianism, which viewed rats and pigeons as furry and feathered black boxes, guided by simple principles of reinforcement and punishment, is theoretically caput. It
can no longer account for the extraordinary things that animals do, spontaneously.

Thus, we now know that animals form cognitive maps of their environment, compute numerosities, represent the relationships among individuals in their social group, and most recently, have some understanding of what others know.

The questions for the future, then, are not "Do animals think?", but "What precisely do they think about, and to what extent do their thoughts differ from our own?"

MARC D. HAUSER is an evolutionary psychologist, and a professor at Harvard University where he is a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program. He is a professor in the departments of Anthropology and Psychology, as well as the Program in Neurosciences. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, and Wild Minds: What AnimalsThink.


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