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October 12, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Five great unsolved mysteries of science


Science has unlocked the genetic code, harnessed the power of electricity, and uncovered the tiny particles that make up the universe. Scientific discoveries throughout history have made our lives richer, and helped us to better understand the world around us.

But science isn’t just history, science is happening all the time. There are many mysteries still to be discovered and uncovered.

Here are five of them.

A pattern to the primes

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37 …

These are the first 11 prime numbers—numbers each only divisible by one and itself. There are infinitely many prime numbers, and all other numbers can be decomposed into primes. These two facts about the primes have been known for thousands of years; they were proved by the Greek mathematician Euclid sometime around 300BC.

But although there exists a huge list of primes discovered to date (the largest of which is 243,112,609 − 1, a number with about 13 million digits), mathematicians have yet to discover a pattern to the prime numbers. There is no formula to generate prime numbers; no way to predict when the next prime occurs in the number line.

If you were to discover a pattern to the primes, your name would be remembered for a very long time.

Missing antimatter

Physicists’ leading theories of the big bang hold that the explosion at the universe’s beginning should have created matter and antimatter in equal amounts—for every particle of matter created, so too should there have been an antimatter particle (antimatter is almost identical to matter, except that antimatter particles have the opposite charge to their matter counterpart).

But there are two problems. The first is that scientists have so far found the universe to be dominated by matter, and haven’t found nearly as much antimatter as there should be. The second is that equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have destroyed each other, leaving the universe filled only with light.

A hypothetical force called the majoron might help explain these problems. This is one of the particles scientists are using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to look for.

But until then, the missing antimatter remains one of science’s greatest mysteries.

Junk DNA

A staggering 95 per cent of the human genome does not code for genes, or have a regulatory function.

In 1972, geneticist and evolutionary biologist Susumu Ohno coined the term “junk DNA” to describe this non-coding DNA.

But are we really carrying around so much “junk” in our genomes? Scientists have begun to investigate just what the function of this DNA might be. In August, American researchers found that non-coding regions on one chromosome is associated with prostate cancer risk.

The study of the function of non-coding regions of the genome is a fast moving area, and one in which new discoveries are happening all the time—a great field to start your career in if you want to solve the mysteries in our genetic code.

Life in the universe

In the 1969, astronauts visited the moon.

The 1960s was a time of scientific optimism. In shows like Star Trek humans traveled the galaxy meeting aliens in the not-too-distant future.

40 years later and human missions haven’t yet made it beyond the moon—although governments have started talking about visiting the moon again, and taking people to Mars.

It’s extremely unlikely that humans will travel far enough in our lifetimes to find other intelligent species in the universe.

Our best hope for finding another intelligence might be projects like SETI, which search for artificial electromagnetic transmissions indicative of intelligent life.

Scientists might also find less intelligent forms of life out there.

In 1996, NASA scientists suggested Martian rock samples might indicate conditions hospitable to life and could even be fossilised evidence of Martian bacteria. The scientific community remains divided about whether the evidence supports this suggestion. Further expeditions to Mars could help determine if there really is (or was) life on Mars.

And there are still plenty of unexplored places here on Earth—on the tops of mountains, in deep sea trenches, and deep in forests like those in Papua New Guinea where 50 new species were discovered earlier this year. If we don’t find life out there, there are strange new species discovered here all the time; “extremophiles” like organisms that live in deep sea hydrothermal vents at temperatures over 60 degrees.

Why we die – and whether death is escapable

We all die. Every single living creature on Earth. But why? And must we?

Futurist Ray Kurzweil recently made headlines with his prediction that we could achieve immortality via nanotechnology within the next 20 years. Kurzweil is a futurist who thinks a “technology singularity” is imminent.

Kurzweil is not as fringe as you might think—he was one of 18 influential thinkers chosen to identify the great technological challenges facing humanity in the 21st century by the US National Academy of Engineering in 2008.

Kurzweil’s ideas are predictions of what future science may bring, rather than what science can do now.

But hey, if you find a way to escape death your immortality might be more than just metaphorical, and more than your name could live on through the ages.


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  1. Dave says:

    I have no desire to live forever on this earth. Besides, while we might be able to some day create immortal bodies, we cannot stop accidents, natural catastraphies and global mass extinction events from killing all of us. Tough to say goodbye to a loved one who’s been a part of your life for a million years or so.

    As long as my daughter reamins dead there is only one way I can ever join her. And i do not want to wait one second more than I have to.

    No way to cheat death or take a short cut through life. You can only prolong the agony.

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