81 questions to which we have no answer

Text: Jakob Vicari

1. What does the universe consist of?

2. And where did the original matter for the Big Bang come from?

3. How did life come into being?

4. Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

5. And who or what transmitted the radio signal that the astrophysicist Jerry Ehman recorded on 15 August 1977 and which made such an impression on him that he wrote “Wow!” against it in red letters?

6. What does the recorded Wow! signal “6EQUJ5” mean?

7. And what colour was the sender?

8. And why were they so big?

9. How did humans raise themselves above other animals?

10. What part did culture play in the process?

11. Why do human beings only have about 25,000 genes, hardly more than the nematode roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans?

12. And are that worm’s 302 neurons and 6,400 chemical synapses sufficient for a rudimentary consciousness, as conjectured by the neurologist Cornelia Bargmann?

13. Can machines have a consciousness?

14. What is consciousness anyway?

15. Why is there two-gender sexual procreation when it reduces evolutionary fitness by 50% compared with asexual procreation as practised by nematodes and many other forms of life?

16. Did the Neanderthals die out because, unlike Homo sapiens, they were not much into procreation?

17. It must be the world’s biggest act of copulation: the mating of two blue whales. But it has never been recorded. How does it take place?

18. If knowledge is based on true facts, can something also be termed knowledge if we have formed a true opinion by drawing conclusions from false premises, something the philosopher Edmund Gettier casts doubt on?

19. How far can we raise our life expectancy?

20. And how can the giant volcano sponge, Anoxycalyx joubini, live for 10,000 years, apparently dying only by accident?

21. Why do we have to die?

22. And what connection is there between ageing and dying, if any?

23. Why do Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists, who believe in a fulfilled life after death, have such long life expectancy?

24. Why is the mortality rate for rock stars especially high in the first five years of their career?

25. How is it possible that a new-born baby that can hardly see, and cannot speak or walk, can make up stories, do calculations, swim and ride a bicycle just five years later?

26. And why does our brain no longer learn at this speed when we have grown up?

27. How can the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture on the rank of elliptic curves be proved, this being the first of seven Millennium Prize Problems listed by the Clay Mathematics Institute (CMI) for the proof of which the institute has offered a prize of $1m?

28. Can, and this is the second Millennium problem in mathematics, the substructures of high-dimensional figures, be described by means of polynomial equations, as surmised by William Vallance Douglas Hodge?

29. Are there really problems for which proposed solutions would be easy to check but extremely hard to find, as described in the fourth Millennium problem, P versus NP?

30. What is the answer to the fifth Millennium problem, which concerns the distribution of prime numbers as conjectured by the mathematician Bernhard Riemann as far back as 1850?

31. Is it really true, and this is the sixth Millennium problem, that the so-called Yang-Mills equations describing elementary particles are incomplete for particles with a small mass, as is suggested by experiments?

32. Why do we help one another?

33. And why is it that far more often others don’t help us?

34 Does it make sense to lock people up in prison?

35. Can there ever be eternal peace?

36. And do we need more or fewer weapons to bring it about?

37. Why do the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich?

38. Why do markets fail?

39 And why is state intervention after a market failure so rarely successful?

40. Why does digital technology not make us more productive?

41. Why do we keep on making the same mistakes?

42. How does a language come into being?

43. How does the grammar of a language originate?

44. And why does no language have a self-contained perfectly logical grammar?

45. Why do we make music?

46. Does beauty have rules?

47. Why do we go on holiday?

48. What will replace oil?

49. And can we replace oil with renewable resources without threatening biodiversity?

50. How resilient are the oceans to chemical pollution?

51. Why do we have to sleep?

52. And why do we dream when asleep?

53. If we stopped sleeping, would we miss dreaming?

54. How do anaesthetics work?

55. Can you be infected with cancer?

56. And does Brown’s cure contain the key to a new HIV therapy?

57. Can it really be true that last year Susumu Shimoura from Tokyo University created a tetraneutron consisting of four neutrons, although that contradicts the recognised models of nuclear physics?

58. Can the laws of physics be universally generalised?

59. How do eels that have lived in Europe for 20 years find their way back to their spawning grounds south of Bermuda?

60. And how do the goats on Mount Vesuvius know about an eruption six hours in advance and before sensitive scientific instruments can detect any seismic changes?

61. Why can we walk across frozen water?

62. And what is the exact structure of water anyway?

63. How can everyone acquire access to clean water without conflict?

64. What is the meaning of life?

65. Would we be any happier if we knew the answer?

66. If we are in a shop and have to choose between mobile phones all of which we can afford, do we really buy the one that we want the most?

67. If we are in a shop and have to choose between two mobile phones, why is our decision influenced by the properties of a third device that is not an option?

68. Does God exist?

69 If we have seen the sun rise 10,000 times, what is the statistical probability that it will rise tomorrow?

70. What happened on the two-masted sailing ship Mary Celeste, which was found drifting in the Atlantic between Portugal and the Azores in 1872 with nobody on board?

71. How many people live on Earth?

72. If there really will be 11.2 billion people by 2100, as estimated by the United Nations, can they all be fed?

73. And if in 2100 there really will be only 56.9 million people living in Germany, as estimated by the UN, who is going to do all the work?

74. How can democracies be protected from becoming authoritarian regimes?

75. How can a totalitarian country return to democracy?

76. How can education put humankind into a position to solve the world’s problems?

77. And why was he then so carefully embalmed for an afterlife?

78. Will the American professor of psychology James Bedford ever give lectures again, after becoming the first person to have himself cryo-preserved in liquid nitrogen after death on 12 January 1967 so he could be brought back to life in future?

79. And if Bedford can be brought back to life, how can he be thawed out without the proteins in his cells being damaged?

80. And what about the kidney cancer he died of?

81. After it began in the Big Bang, will the universe one day start to shrink again so everything ends in a Big Crunch?