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7 Questions No One Can Answer

By Michael Hanlon
Author of
10 Questions Science Can't Answer (Yet)

Put yourself in the shoes of our ancestors, 3,000 years ago, and look around you. Raise your eyes towards that big, bright disc in the sky which goes up and down, once a day.

What is it, what causes it to shine? No idea. No idea what goes on inside the body, either.

Our forebears' ignorance was profound. Today, of course, we know what the sun is, and exactly how our bodies work. Science seems to have answered all the big questions.

And yet, maybe we shouldn't be so cocky. For just as we have solved a hundred riddles about the natural world, so a thousand more have come to take their place.

That is why, in a new book, I argue that though many scientists think we are on the verge of knowing everything, they are wrong.

Here are some of the most intriguing questions science has not yet answered or, in some cases, even really addressed.

DO DOGS HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR?

I have always championed the cause of those brave men and women who risk injury and even death at the hands of animal rights terrorists by performing vivisection experiments that could save thousands of lives (including the lives of animals).

And yet, the more that scientists discover about the workings of the animal mind, the more they are forced to conclude that our fellow beasts are not mindless automata driven purely by instinct, but conscious, thinking entities capable of suffering and anticipation - and even humour - just like us.

Researchers have discovered, for instance, that elephants can recognise themselves in a mirror (something that very young children cannot do). Apes (and perhaps some birds) can learn the rudiments of English and make complicated tools. If crows can fashion hooks out of wire to help them fish food out of a jar, is it really right to conduct painful experiments upon them?

Some people say this is woolly thinking; that there cannot be animal rights without responsibilities. But this ignores the fact that we are happy to give many humans rights with no responsibilities.

The very young, the senile, the mad are given a legal status denied to any animal yet are also exempt from criminal and other sanctions.

HOW DID LIFE REALLY BEGIN?

If you want to discomfit a biologist, ask him how life began.

Darwin, 150 years ago, speculated about the primordial soup from which all life sprang but that is, to date, all we have: speculation.

We don't know how life started, where it started, when it started, whether it began just once or restarted many times. Maybe Darwin was right - life began as the result of some complex chemical reactions on our planet's early, warm seas.

Other scientists believe life began deep underground, or maybe around volcanic vents. Maybe life arrived, ready-formed, on meteorites or comets from space.

Some believe that one single microbe was the ancestor of all life on Earth, having arrived here on pieces of rock blasted off the planet Mars more than three billion years ago, when Mars may have been warm and wet, and Earth a hellish desert. In which case, we are all Martians.

None of these theories has been proved, and none has been discounted.

Life, its genesis and true nature, may turn out to the Universe's most profound secret.

AM I THE SAME PERSON I WAS A MINUTE AGO?

What a strange question! Yet this goes to the heart of one of the most vexed questions in the whole of science and philosophy - that of identity. On the face of it, the answer is obvious: of course I am. But think again.

Ten minutes ago, every cell in your brain was doing something different to what it is doing now. Every few years, your body is mostly replaced. If it is possible to rebuild the burned Cutty Sark, using new timbers, and many other new parts, is it really the same ship that plied the seas 150 years ago?

Purists say "No". But if that is the case, then you are certainly not the same person you were when you were a child or a baby.

This question shows that the way we think about ourselves runs contrary to what is actually happening. And it has practical implications: Should people be held responsible for crimes they committed decades previously? How do we establish someone's identity? Is it DNA or something more nebulous?

For what it is worth, I conclude that our identity is largely a fiction. We are the same person through time only in the same way that a river is the same river as it flows down the same course. But of course the water, the ripples and eddies, change every second.

HOW CAN WE BE SURE THE PARANORMAL IS BUNKUM?

Most scientists dismiss the paranormal because it flies in the face of the rational and testable. For the most part, I agree with this. But can we be sure things like crystal healing (using crystals to allegedly bring the body's "bio-magnetic field" back into "balance and harmony") and telepathy are bunkum?

By "paranormal", I mean the whole litany which encompasses religion, "psychic" powers, the mumbo-jumbo of the New Age, astrology, tarot and homoeopathy.

There are very good reasons to dismiss the paranormal as gobbledegook. For a start, scientists ask us to look at the people involved and compare them with those working in science.

Many of these crystal therapists, healers, astrologers and even diet gurus wear silly clothes, spout gibberish and seek fame and money above all else. Scientists, on the other hand, are reasonable people who submit their findings to respected journals so as to be rigorously judged by their peers.

But while crystal healing and astrology are certainly entertainment rather than science, what about telepathy, acupuncture and hypnotism? These deserve scientific study. Yes, telepathy will probably turn out to be bunkum but, who knows? It would be a shame not to try to find out for sure.

WHAT, EXACTLY IS TIME?

If you want to annoy a physicist ask him this question. Because the answer is, we simply do not know.

Time, goes the joke, is Nature's way of stopping everything happening at once. Time defines our lives, it is how we measure our very being. Yet as to what it is, we are as in the dark as the ancients.

That is not to say that we do not understand what time does. Physicists such as Albert Einstein have come up with some great insights as to the properties of time. We give it a symbol and plug it into various equations and it works very well.

But that, again, does not tell us what time actually is. Is it a "river", which flows from past to future? If so, a river of what? What causes it to flow, and what sets the rate at which it flows?

Would it be possible to swim, as it were, upstream, and travel through time? Could we stop the river flowing altogether?

Science fiction writers say all this is possible, as, surprisingly, do most physicists. But before we build a time machine, we will need to get a grip on what this most elusive and slippery thing actually is.

Ultimately, all these mysteries will be solved. But you can guarantee that they will be replaced by many more.

The only consolation is perhaps, that the day after we finally solve the last mystery - if that day ever comes - will be a very dull day indeed.

WHY ARE WE GETTING SO FAT?

The obesity crisis is unprecedented in human medical history. Almost no one was obese 100 years ago. In 100 years' time, if current trends continue, we will all be grossly overweight.

The reason is clear: too much food, too little exercise. But it may not be as simple as that.

For a start, few realise that in the West, in the most "obese" countries like the U.S., people actually consume fewer calories now than they did 50 years ago.

And while we certainly walk less and drive more than we did in the 1950s, we don't do much less exercise than we did in 1980 - which is when the obesity epidemic started to take off.

Many scientists believe that there may be a deep mystery behind the obesity epidemic. Some have suggested that a virus is responsible. Or genetics. It may not be as simple, in fact, as calories in, calories out.

CAN I LIVE FOR EVER?

Possibly, but not yet. Ageing - and particularly ways of stopping the process - is one of those issues that many scientists would rather not talk about because it raises disturbing moral and ethical questions.

For a start, on a practical level, we do not know what ageing really is. We take it for granted that our bodies wear out as we grow older, yet this is not really the case.

For the first 20 years of our lives, our bodies grow stronger, more efficient, more resistant to disease. It is only later that things start going wrong. Why?

According to the evolutionary theory of ageing, our bodies start to fail us because in the "wild" we would expect to die anyway, at the age of 30-50, from cold, starvation, an attack by sabre-toothed tigers and so on. There was no point in our having evolved to cope with the diseases of old age, if we were never going to live that long anyway.

But that doesn't really tell us what is going on when we age, what drives the genetic "clock" that makes skin dry, our hair go grey and our bones brittle. Only when we understand what truly drives these processes will we stand a chance of combating them.

And then, of course, we will be faced with a huge moral problem: do we really want to live in a world where some people will never grow old? Or in a world where (inevitably) only a lucky elite will be able to afford the treatments to allow this to happen?

Michael Hanlon is the author of Ten Questions Science Can't Answer (Yet)

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