Recent events have made it clear that we are suffering from a broken moral compass. People today could use some general guidance.
Since the original ten commandments seem somewhat narrow and obsolete (too much focus on livestock, servants, and jealous god issues), here is a modest first…
5 Amazing Scientific Discoveries We Don’t Know What to Do With
Every day, scientists make discoveries that change the way we live. But sometimes, just sometimes, they achieve results that are so extraordinary or unexpected that they literally don’t know what to do with them. Here are five of the most puzzling.
Mind-bending material properties
In January, a team of physicists from Rutgers and MIT published a paper in Nature describing a new property of matter. While fiddling around with a super-cooled Uranium compound, URu2Si2, they found that it breaks something called double time-reversal symmetry. Normal time-reversal symmetry states that the motion of particles looks the same running back and forth in time: magnets break that, though, because if you reverse time, the magnetic field they produce reverses direction. You have to reverse time twice to get them back to their original state.
This new material, though, breaks double time-reversal symmetry. That means you need to reverse time four times for the behaviour to get back to its original state. It’s something the scientists have dubbed hastatic order - and if you’re struggling to get your head round it, well, that’s the appropriate reaction. The scientists who discovered the phenomenon can’t explain a good physical example of what it is, how it works, or what it means.
The universe weighs less than we thought
When the world’s best scientists decided to team up and measure the mass of the universe all the way back in the 1970s, they set themselves a pretty tall challenge. Applying their best understanding of gravity and the dynamics of galaxies, though, they came up with an answer - an answer which sadly predicts our universe should be falling apart. We know that the Universe’s matter orbits a single central point and that must mean its own motion generates enough centripetal force to make that happen.
But calculations suggest that there’s not actually enough mass in the galaxies to produce the forces required to keep it moving in the way we’ve observed. So physicists scratched their heads, worried a little, then proudly stated that there must be more stuff out there than we can see. That’s the theory behind what everyone now refers to as Dark Matter. The only problem? In the past 40 years, nobody has confirmed whether it really exists or not - so, effectively, the problem thrown up by those initial calculations remains.
The placebo effect
Feed a sick man a dummy pill that he thinks will cure him and, often, his health will improve in a similar way to someone taking real drugs. In other words, a bunch of nothing can improve your health. In theory, it could be a poweful treatment technique.
But experiments have shown that the kind of nothing you deliver matters: when palcebos are laced with a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, for instance, the effect vanishes. While that proves that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical (and not just a psychological effect) we know practically nothing else about the power of placebo.
It’s real, sure. It can help people get better, agreed. But if we’re ever to make anything of the much-studied but little-understood effect, we’re going to have to unpick how the mind can affect the body’s biochemistry - and, right now, nobody knows.
Temperatures below absolute zero
It used to be that scientists all agreed that it was impossible to achieve temperatures below absolute zero. It was literally the coldest anything could ever get. Late last year, though, a team of scientists from the Max-Planck-Institute in Germany blew that out of the water: finally, they’d cooled a cloud of gas atoms to below −273.15°C. In fact, the result was as much a quirk of the definition of temperature as anything else, and the way it relies on both energy and entropy (the measure of disorder of particles). New Scientist explains:
In principle [it’s] possible to keep heating the particles up, while driving their entropy down. Because this breaks the energy-entropy correlation, it marks the start of the negative temperature scale, where the distribution of energies is reversed – instead of most particles having a low energy and a few having a high, most have a high energy and just a few have a low energy.
It’s this curious logic that allowed the Max-Planck-Institute researchers to cool a variety of atoms in a vacuum, for the the first time ever, to below absolute zero. So far, though, they haven’t managed to work out what to do with the chilled particles.
Back in 1989, a pair of scientists -Fleischmann and Pons- claimed that they’d achieved a remarkable feat: they’d successfully observed nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Momentarily, the finding was heralded as a revolutinary discovery that could transform energy production around the globe. Sadly their experiments weren’t reproducible, but they did inspire scientists to study cold fusion in more depth.
Turns out, the process is in fact theoretically possible. For two atoms to fuse together, they need to come close enough to each other to overcome their mutual electric repulsion, which is caused by the cloud of electrons that orbit them. Usually that’s made possible by super-high temperatures -like at the center of the sun- but quantum physics suggests that there is at least the possibility that atoms can fuse without the need for energy injection via high tempeatures.
And it’s that hope that means a small band of scientists still work in the shadows, trying to get cold fusion to work. Of course, while occasional results come and go, they tend to be rather dubious. Fundamentally that’s because, even though quantum theory tells us it should be possible, nobody knows how to use that understanding to actually get a fusion reaction going.
The Higgs Boson
Just kiddin’. We’ve known what to do with Higgs since forever.
- The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.
- Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb
- That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher
- That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher
- That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist
- Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society
- The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor
- Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology
- That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist
- That smart people—like those who contribute to Edge—won’t do politics. –Brian Eno, musician
- That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT
- That search engines will become arbiters of truth. —W. Daniel Hillis, physicist
Shaped a little like a loaf of French country bread, our brain is a crowded chemistry lab, bustling with nonstop neural conversations. Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag.
Any data scientist worth their salary will tell you that you should start with a question, NOT the data. Unfortunately, data hackathons often lack clear problem definitions. Most companies think that if you can just get hackers, pizza, and data together in a room, magic will happen. This is the same as if Habitat for Humanity gathered its volunteers around a pile of wood and said, “Have at it!” By the end of the day you’d be left with a half of a sunroom with 14 outlets in it.
We talk about these Vonnegut graphs all the time at Radiolab, but we usually just scribble them on the back of a coffee-stained napkin. This is much nicer.