Today, 125 Questions. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
For its 125th birthday, the July 1st, 2005, Science magazine
does an odd thing. People like to celebrate such landmarks by looking back at all they've
accomplished, or by trying to look forward. Well, past glory is fine, but it's gone. And
the future is unknowable. So the editors say,
"Wait a minute: science is about trying to answer questions. To take stock of science, we need to look at the questions it's struggling with."
They offer 125 thoughtful questions. These are real questions, not rhetorical ones. The
answers aren't yet known. They carefully stay in the scientific arena. A question like,
"How can we eliminate world hunger," is important; but it's not a real question. It's a
wish disguised as a question. Since no one expects an answer, it's really an
expression of hopelessness.
Instead, the editors ask a much more specific question:
"Why has poverty increased and life expectancy declined in sub-Saharan Africa?" Now there's hope!
This is about cause and effect. It's something science might answer. And it must be
answered before poverty in sub-Saharan Africa can be dealt with.
Sequence is crucial here. Chaos always results when politics or religions try to stipulate
how our universe works. Science provides the grist we need before we try to deal with
For example, ask: "How hot will the greenhouse world be?" We can talk in circles about global
warming, but talk means little until we convincingly identify the real contribution of greenhouse
gases. Or take the question,
"Who was the last universal common ancestor of all living things?" Complex organisms trace
back about a billion and a half years. Which was the last of these organisms to serve as our
genealogical ancestor -- as the historical Adam?
Legislators can't answer such questions, nor can the rich metaphorical language of our pre-scientific
scriptures. Answering them will take the patience that so many political and religious leaders fail
to demonstrate. And the virtue of patience is central to honest questioning. It's a primary
tenet of scientific inquiry.
Take the question: "What can replace cheap oil -- and when?" So many people want to answer the
question without grappling with it. Maybe they expect to replace cheap oil with more cheap oil.
Maybe they're certain of this alternative or that. But the question cannot be answered before
patience has been brought to bear upon it. A glib answer is no answer.
More questions: "Will Malthus continue to be wrong?" "What are the limits of conventional computing?"
"How far can human life be extended?" "What is the biological basis of consciousness?"
None of these will be answered in quite the way we expect. That's because they're real
questions -- questions whose answers will create our unknowable future. They are questions we must
work at with patience, diligence, honesty, and wide-eyed curiosity. These questions are, quite
simply, the lifeblood of human renewal.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Science. Vol. 309, No. 5731, 1 July, 2005.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.