Hardly. A survey of current researchers finds that the big problems are just starting to be solved
The End of Science. In his provocatively titled 1996 book, journalist John Horgan pronounced that all of the great problems in science have been solved. These are chilling words for a research and teaching university such as the University of Toronto, where our faculty and research staff have both the privilege and the obligation to pursue knowledge at its absolute frontiers. I know that in my own field of physics, most of the really deep problems remain unsolved. I wondered, therefore, what the situation was in other disciplines.
Accordingly, I asked some of the leading scientific researchers at the University of Toronto and elsewhere what they consider to be the major challenges in their fields that will occupy scientists in the years ahead. I cite here a few examples from the many responses I received. In general, the answers convey the excitement, inspiration and wonder experienced by researchers engaged in what they consider the unresolved fundamental scientific questions of our age. They also make it clear that most often these big questions will be solved through interdisciplinary and collaborative research; others, however, may require a solitary genius for their solution.
Many of the questions raised are indeed big. One is the attempt to characterize and understand the fundamental structure of the universe. Recent studies suggest that the visible universe is made up of about 10 times as many stars as there are grains of sand in all the world. Amazingly, however, these stars and other normal matter constitute less than five per cent of the matter in the universe; mysterious entities known as dark matter and dark energy appear to account for the other 95 per cent. When the universe was created there were equal amounts of matter and anti-matter; we are the matter. What happened to the anti-matter? Is there an “anti-matter University of Toronto” somewhere out there in a distant anti-matter galaxy? For that matter, do we inhabit the only universe?
Solving such grand problems as these requires the use of very sophisticated, high-speed computers. Many people believe that in the 21st century no university will be able to excel in any single field unless it has outstanding computer science. Computer scientists themselves see computational modelling of physical, biological and medical processes as one of the great intellectual frontiers of the 21st century. They estimate that we will require petacycle-level (1,000,000 GHz) machines with incredibly complex software to deal with the fine detail needed to simulate these processes accurately.
Digital computers will undoubtedly play a central role in helping us understand the greatest computer of them all, the human brain. In the opinion of many scientists I consulted, understanding the human brain is the single greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century. The brain is composed of some 100,000 billion cells (called neurons), each of which interacts with thousands of other neurons in incredibly complicated interconnections. The challenge for researchers in neuroscience is to grasp the brain’s complexity, beginning at the level of individual molecules and ultimately achieving an understanding of learning and memory, cognition and function, emotions and consciousness. To serve humanity appropriately, we need to understand the brain well enough to be able to reverse the effects of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). These challenges may well occupy neuroscientists for the entire 21st century.
With its incredible breadth and depth, the University of Toronto, along with its teaching hospitals, is positioned to play a leading role in addressing these grand scientific challenges of the 21st century. Importantly, our researchers will also bring this new knowledge into the classroom, thus providing our students with the best education possible.
Obviously, the significant intellectual challenges facing humanity in the 21st century are not confined to the natural sciences. For this reason, I intend to query leading scholars in other disciplines, especially the humanities and social sciences, on the great issues that they face. I invite you to send in your views as well. I will report on my findings in subsequent issues of U of T Magazine.