"The 20 big questions in science"
"From the nature of the universe (that's if there is only one) to the purpose of dreams, there are lots of things we still don't know – but we might do soon. A new book seeks some answers. Hayley Birch, Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi.
The Observer, Saturday 31 August 2013
11 What's so weird about prime numbers?
The fact you can shop safely on the internet is thanks to prime numbers – those digits that can only be divided by themselves and one. Public key encryption – the heartbeat of internet commerce – uses prime numbers to fashion keys capable of locking away your sensitive information from prying eyes. And yet, despite their fundamental importance to our everyday lives, the primes remain an enigma. An apparent pattern within them – the Riemann hypothesis – has tantalised some of the brightest minds in mathematics for centuries. However, as yet, no one has been able to tame their weirdness. Doing so might just break the internet.
12 How do we beat bacteria?
Antibiotics are one of the miracles of modern medicine. Sir Alexander Fleming's Nobel prize-winning discovery led to medicines that fought some of the deadliest diseases and made surgery, transplants and chemotherapy possible. Yet this legacy is in danger – in Europe around 25,000 people die each year of multidrug-resistant bacteria. Our drug pipeline has been sputtering for decades and we've been making the problem worse through overprescription and misuse of antibiotics – an estimated 80% of US antibiotics goes to boosting farm animal growth. Thankfully, the advent of DNA sequencing is helping us discover antibiotics we never knew bacteria could produce. Alongside innovative, if gross-sounding, methods such as transplanting "good" bacteria from fecal matter, and the search for new bacteria deep in the oceans, we may yet keep abreast in this arms race with organisms 3bn years our senior.
13 Can computers keep getting faster?
Our tablets and smartphones are mini-computers that contain more computing power than astronauts took to the moon in 1969. But if we want to keep on increasing the amount of computing power we carry around in our pockets, how are we going to do it? There are only so many components you can cram on to a computer chip. Has the limit been reached, or is there another way to make a computer? Scientists are considering new materials, such as atomically thin carbon – graphene – as well as new systems, such as quantum computing.
14 Will we ever cure cancer?
The short answer is no. Not a single disease, but a loose group of many hundreds of diseases, cancer has been around since the dinosaurs and, being caused by haywire genes, the risk is hardwired into all of us. The longer we live, the more likely something might go wrong, in any number of ways. For cancer is a living thing – ever-evolving to survive. Yet though incredibly complicated, through genetics we're learning more and more about what causes it, how it spreads and getting better at treating and preventing it. And know this: up to half of all cancers – 3.7m a year – are preventable; quit smoking, drink and eat moderately, stay active, and avoid prolonged exposure to the midday sun.
15 When can I have a robot butler?
Robots can already serve drinks and carry suitcases. Modern robotics can offer us a "staff" of individually specialised robots: they ready your Amazon orders for delivery, milk your cows, sort your email and ferry you between airport terminals. But a truly "intelligent" robot requires us to crack artificial intelligence. The real question is whether you'd leave a robotic butler alone in the house with your granny. And with Japan aiming to have robotic aides caring for its elderly by 2025, we're thinking hard about it now." (11-15 of 20 - to be continued)