Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Guardian's "20 Big Questions in Science" - Biology FTW!

The Guardian is having quite a good run of late with a broad range of interesting articles and I applaud anyone giving people a daily dose of interesting science to people :)

This one tackles 20 of the big questions in science which covers cosmology, physics and things that very much concern us. Any of them would make a good platform for a sci-fi tale (may of them are already staples of sci-fi eg time travel).

It's good to see that seven of the 20 are biology-based questions including important navel-gazing "how did life begin?" and "what makes us human?". Fortunately separated from "what makes us human?" are the additional "brainy" questions of "why do we dream" and "what is consciousness?".

Then we have a few disease-based questions including the standard "can we cure cancer?" and the increasingly concerning "Can we beat bacteria/what do we do when our antibiotics stop working?". Oh, and they decide to get to the crux of all disease based questions with "can we live forever?". The ageing one always frustrates me as the tag-line is usually "if it took twice as long to reach age-related diseases wouldn't that be great?" Only in the sense you delay the problem by x amount of years. You'd need to stop ageing all together for it to have a real effect. If you do that you hit another big question on the list "how do we solve the population problem".

I'm glad this one is mentioned because much like "can we live forever?" it is at the centre of a lot of the other questions and issues. Energy, climate, mass-extinctions and wars are all largely affected by the growing number of people on the planet. No-one really likes to own up to it as most people want to have children (or have them regardless of intentions). An obvious solution would be "don't have more than two children" but we want an easy solution in terms of it not affecting our personal choice. So the answer to the question becomes more a case of using our resources in a more sustainable way and reducing our impact on our planet. Although biologists will play a huge role in that too from finding ways to feed us through to finding ways to recycle or clean up our  mess.

It always surprises me how little we know about our oceans when it makes up the majority of our planet (you could argue that's why we know less). When you add to that all the utterly weird and wonderful lifeforms down there and the potential natural medicines (deep sea antibiotic searches are now popular) you're definitely going to need a few biologists around along with your engineers, oceanographers and Flipper submarine pilots to get us down there.

You could also argue that "Are we alone in the Universe?" is a biology question in the sense you need biology to define what astronomers are looking for. Plus, if we ever find any little green men, biologists will be queueing up and necessary to work out what it all means.

So that gets biology to the half-way mark of the "20 big questions". Not a bad effort.

As a non-biologist I always find the other things potentially more interesting because I know even less about the subject in the first place. I'm truly fascinated by "what's so weird about prime numbers?" because they are so essential in our everyday lives and I still think of them as symbols (although Neal Stephenson's "Anathem" tried its best to help me reassess that attitude). The cosmology questions, while fascinating, are something I'm a bit more familiar with thanks to my geeky reading and viewing habits although I'm sure that's far removed from the actual cutting-edge science.

And of course I'm eagerly awaiting my robot slave helper. Let's just hope we don't crack consciousness first and give it to our robots. That would be particularly cruel.

Can anyone think of any other "big questions" besides the obvious "how did Sherlock survive that fall in season 2 of BBC's Sherlock?"


  1. I figure immortality would coincide with a massive drop in the birth rate, as people started delaying children for decades (or centuries), or spreading them out. They might actually have more children in the long run, but the annualized birth rate would be very low.

    1. Well, I guess it wouldn't increase unless the immortality process decreased pregnancy times. Plus,I think your scenario would only apply to planned pregnancies and there are still a lot of "happy accidents" out there.

      I'm guessing time/finances are the main limiting factor with most family sizes but with immortality, you could save up for a child and have one every 30 years or so. That's disregarding the effect of employment in a world where no-one ever needs to retire. If your children are likely to never get a job then I guess the parents have a much longer financial burden. Basically it's virtually impossible to predict the effect such technology would have on society. We still need to see how nations are going to cope with a predominantly over 65 population in the near future.

      I guess the most sustainable way would be "highlander" immortality where immortality comes with infertility. We could do without the decapitating tournaments though.