Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2012:
125 QUESTIONS

by John H. Lienhard

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 big questions.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Science. Vol. 309, No. 5731, 1 July, 2005.

science seeking answers

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.