To celebrate the launch of its new publication Mosaic the Wellcome Trust asked leading scientists, journalists and thinkers what they thought was the biggest question remaining in science. These are what they came up with.
1. How does the brain generate consciousness?
Mo Costandi, neuroscientist and writer.
Scientists might never be able to explain what consciousness is. But scientists have somewhere to start in determining how it comes about by looking at neurological patients whose injuries have changed their consciousness – for example, damage to some structures in the brainstem leaves people in a coma.
2. What are the limits of human life and physiology?
Kevin Fong, space medicine expert.
At the moment, astronauts that go up to the International Space Station are limited to spending six months in space at a time because of the effects of microgravity on the human body. But from March 2015 astronaut Scott Kelly is going to spend a year in orbit. And his twin, astronaut Mark Kelly, will be staying on Earth. Nasa hopes this unique twin study will give us some insight into how we can counteract the damaging effects of space on our bodies.
3. Can we replace damaged brain parts with computational devices?
Vaughan Bell, author.
We already have prosthetic limbs but “neural prostheses” to replace or bypass damaged brain tissue are a bit further away, because the brain is so complicated.
4. What happens when you die?
Jane Goodall, primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace.
There are at least two well understood stages of dying: clinical death, when a person stops breathing and their heart stops pumping blood, and biological death, where cells begin to degenerate and organs including the brain shut down. But we’re pretty in the dark about what happens afterwards.
5. What are the cures for the world’s biggest health problems, like cancer, heart disease and dementia?
Annabel Bentley, consumer health expert.
We know that there’s no such thing as a single cure for cancer, but finding ways to treat these ailments is a huge issue for science and medicine today.
6. Will we ever reconcile the nature versus nurture debate?
David Bradley, science journalist.
In other words, how much is who you are influenced by your genes versus factors from the environment? Some traits are almost exclusively genetic, like hair or eye colour. But for others like life expectancy, environment plays a big role.
7. Is ageing inevitable?
Claudia Hammond, author and presenter.
Since the turn of the 20th Century life expectancy has risen dramatically, from 45 years to 78 in the U.S. But we still age at the same rate. Scientists have long thought aging is the result of molecular damage building up over time, but we still don’t understand exactly how it happens in enough molecular detail to be able to do anything about it. And it’s not clear that if we did we’d be able to stop it anyway.
8. Will we ever be able to predict the future of economic, political and other social systems?
Tim Harford, economist and journalist.
Some economists did foresee problems with specific parts of the financial system before the crisis. But an experiment by psychologist Philip Tetlock showed that experts are not very good at predicting what will happen to the big picture in social systems.
9. What is life?
Roger Highfield, author, museum executive and science journalist.
We know what distinguishes living things from inorganic matter, but scientists may never know where life actually comes from and how it began.
10. How can we put evidence into practice perfectly, in medicine: harnessing all the data we have on our patients, and meshing it with all the research data, for the best care?
Ben Goldacre, physician, academic and science writer.
We can save lives if we learn how to harness the data from millions of health records, but the implementation is crucial – and that seems to be where things have gone wrong with the recent care.data project.
11. Is there a limit to how smart individuals and communities can be?
Imran Khan, chief executive at the British Science Association.
Brain power should increase if we increase the number of neurons (brain cells) in our brains, and increase their connectivity. So physical factors might affect how intelligent we can become – already our brains use around 20% of our body’s oxygen and calories, despite making up just 2% of our body weight. If we’re not at the end of the road yet, we could see diminishing returns as our brains evolve.
12. What are the possibilities for lab-grown fish and could this provide a counter to our overexploitation of the oceans?
Ruth Francis, head of communications at BioMed Central.
Overfishing is a huge problem, and as Earth’s population is on the up it seems as if its only going to get worse. Last year the world’s first lab grown burger was eaten in London. Could lab grown fish solve the problem of world hunger and overfishing at the same time?
13. What makes us “human”, and will we ever find out?
Aleks Krotoski, broadcaster and journalist.
We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, so are we really that different? Some would argue that we’re more than simply apes with big brains, and that the fact our free hands enabled us to create literature, art, music, maths and science sets us apart. Perhaps its the urge to understand that makes us different in the first place.
14. Is biology as universal as chemistry and physics?
Ben Miller, comedian, actor and director.
As far as we know the laws of physics extend throughout the universe. Chemistry, too, seems to apply to faraway stars just as it does here. But if life has arisen in another part of the cosmos, is it based on the same molecules?
15. How are bodies able to repair themselves?
Mark Miodownik, materials scientist and engineer, broadcaster and writer.
We know how parts of our bodies, like bones, repair themselves. The more we learn, the more we’ll be able to emulate these processes in creating bionic body parts from biomaterials.
16. How does the genome allow a brain to develop that has inborn talents and tendencies – if we have an inborn fear of say, snakes, how does that get wired up in a brain?
Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist.
In an experiment, five-month-old infants spent on average 7 seconds longer looking at pictures of spiders than ones of other objects, suggesting a predisposition to viewing them in a different way. But how this predisposition comes about is not yet known.
17. Why have humans evolved music?
Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief of Guardian Newspapers.
Some think music evolved because it binds groups of people together, others that it evolved because it helps attract mates. And then there’s the idea that it came about by accident as a side effect of skills that evolved for other reasons.
18. Are we alone? Is there life in space, and if so, how is it similar or different than life here on Earth?
Philip Plait, astronomer and science writer.
We now know there are so many exoplanets it seems very likely that there is life elsewhere in the universe. Whether we will ever communicate with extraterrestrials or whether we would even be able to if we encountered them if another issue, though.
19. Does the universe have purpose and meaning?
Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.
(Your guess is as good as mine.)
20. How does the brain work and can we fix it when it goes wrong?
James Randerson, assistant national news editor at the Guardian.
We know a lot about what makes up our brains, and we’re learning more all the time, but there’s still a long way to go.
21. Is suspended animation possible for humans?
Frank Swain, science writer.
Many animals hibernate, but, as far as we know, a human never has. But it’d be useful to be able to suspend people in time if we’re ever going to do some serious space travel. One problem we might encounter is that animals don’t appear to sleep when they’re hibernating, so actually have to ‘wake up’ from hibernation to get some kip.
22. Can we look forward to sustainably supporting a stable human population on this planet, and how can we protect biodiversity at the same time?
Alice Roberts, professor and presenter.
The population of Earth passed seven billion around the end of 2011 and, though the UN is predicting steadily declining population growth over the next few years, global population expected to become around 9.6 billion by 2050.
23. Is sexuality genetic?
Guillaume Vandame, Wellcome Trust.
A recent study claimed to show that male sexuality is influenced by genes on at least two chromosomes, though the precise mechanism is unclear.
24. What question has not yet been formulated by anyone?
Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health.