Five big scientific questions we don't know the answer to


There are some things we just don’t understand.

While science has come a long way in helping us understand the universe that we live in, there are some things that leave us scratching our heads in confusion and wonder. Here are just a few of the things that we just don’t understand about the world that we live in:

1.) Are we alone in the Universe?

The lasting question that everyone wants to know the answer to. Are we the only form of life in the cosmos? The Drake equation is perhaps the most famous attempt to answer the question. Taking what he thought were 7 key factors - including estimations for the number of stars in the Milky Way, and the number of planets orbiting them - Drake devised an equation to calculate the number of alien civilisations within our own galaxy. Depending upon your interpretation and the values you assign these factors, calculations have given us anything from 2 to 280 million. Of course, the existence of extra-terrestrial life is yet unknown, but NASA recently says it expects that the discovery of alien life in the universe will occur within the next 20 years. And that was a conservative estimate - especially with University of Sheffield legend, Milton Wainwright on the case!

2.) What is Dark Matter/Dark Energy?

A lot of our understanding of the universe doesn’t make sense without the unusual, poorly understood forces of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, so called because we seem unable to detect them with any scientific instruments. Yet for our understanding of the universe to make any sense, they have to be there. Our observations of the universe suggest that 90% of the mass of the universe is made up of Dark Matter, but we don’t know what it is. Without its existence, our models for how planets orbit stars, and how things spin through the universe just don’t make sense. Some scientists, like Vera Rubin, think that Dark Matter may actually not exist at all – and instead, our models for how mass works over large distances need redeveloping. Elsewhere, the search for these elusive particles continues, such as in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

3.) Is there any truth to homeopathy?

For every person who staunchly believes in homeopathy, there is a scientist dismissing it as pure pseudoscience. Homeopathy is the theory that consuming extremely dilute solutions of disease-causing material (to the point where it is almost entirely water) can cure someone of a illness as the water ‘remembers’ the disease and can help to fight it. But how can it be that thousands of people are being ‘cured’ of an ailment when they are essentially consuming nothing? Many alternative explanations have been given for this, including: the placebo effect - the, in itself poorly understood, idea that expectations of recovery actually cause recovery; regression towards the mean (you are most likely to seek care when symptoms are at their worst, therefore any improvement in symptoms will be attributed to homeopathy, even if the ailment would have naturally reduced in severity); and the obvious – non-homeopathic treatment, as the patient often receives conventional healthcare at the same time. Yet despite these objections, homeopathy continues to be quite a popular method of treatment. Madeleine Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queens University Belfast, admits that if the results turned out to be genuine, then it would have a profound effect on our understanding of health, and “we would have to rewrite physics or chemistry”.

4.) What is Morgellons Disease?

Morgellons Disease sounds like a truly terrifying condition. The problem is: we don’t understand whether it actually exists. The condition is characterised by incessant itching, aches and pains, and the disturbing feeling that you have insects under your skin. Some sufferers even claim to have found strange ‘fibres’ under or protruding from their skin! This causes them to obsessively scratch at the infected areas, causing lesions and scabbing that often isn’t left to heal. Seemingly triggered by a range of things - from eczema, insect bites and even some types of cancer - scientists are still nowhere near understanding what the condition actually is, or for that matter, whether it’s even real. Thousands of people have attested to suffering from the condition, but we don’t understand whether it’s a nervous disorder, a skin condition, or even a mental disorder. Many people have been labelled as being mentally ill, with a condition called Delusions of Parasitosis – the false believe that you are infested with insects, although many support groups exist for those who aren’t content with this diagnosis.

5.) How does the “Nocebo effect” work?

In 1970, doctors diagnosed a man with end-stage liver cancer, telling him he had, at most, two months to live. Predictably, two months later he died. However, upon performing the autopsy, the doctors discovered something strange: the man didn’t have a large tumour in his liver. In fact, it was a tiny tumour, and it had not metastasised (spread) to the rest of his body. It wasn’t enough to kill him, yet it seemed that the very fact he had been told he was terminally ill had led to his death. The so-called Nocebo effect, which can be described as any case where putting someone in a negative frame of mind can affect them physically, has been well documented, but is still not understood. If you tell someone they will suffer a lot of pain during a medical procedure, they will often suffer more pain than they would have, had they not been informed. It’s almost as though the body generates its own expected response. The so-called Nocebo effect has no scientific explanation and work continues to discover what is causing it.

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