Friday, July 01, 2005

Science's Ignorance

The Science magazine celebrates its 125th anniversary this July, with a set of 125 questions that Science knows that it doesnt know the answers to. "The ground rules: Scientists should have a good shot at answering the questions over the next 25 years, or they should at least know how to go about answering them. We intended simply to choose 25 of these suggestions and turn them into a survey of the big questions facing science. But when a group of editors and writers sat down to select those big questions, we quickly realized that 25 simply wouldn't convey the grand sweep of cutting-edge research that lies behind the responses we received. So we have ended up with 125 questions, a fitting number for Science's 125th anniversary." 9 out of these 125 are questions for Cognitive Science as I construe it, and they are reproduced below. The editorial board at Science expects most of these to be solved by Neuroscience. Surely Neuroscience provides us with very powerful tools, but Cognitive Science comprises of many powerful tools and methods, and the emphasis on Neuroscience is probably more indicative of the current fad that magazines like Science and Nature are following rather than anything else.

1. How Are Memories Stored and Retrieved?
Memories make each of us unique, and they give continuity to our lives. Understanding how memories are stored in the brain is an essential step toward understanding ourselves. Neuroscientists have already made great strides, identifying key brain regions and potential molecular mechanisms. Still, many important questions remain unanswered, and a chasm gapes between the molecular and whole-brain research.

2. Why do we sleep?
A sound slumber may refresh muscles and organs or keep animals safe from dangers lurking in the dark. But the real secret of sleep probably resides in the brain, which is anything but still while we're snoring away.

3. Why do we dream?
Freud thought dreaming provides an outlet for our unconscious desires. Now, neuroscientists suspect that brain activity during REM sleep--when dreams occur--is crucial for learning. Is the experience of dreaming just a side effect?

4. Why are there critical periods for language learning?
Monitoring brain activity in young children--including infants--may shed light on why children pick up languages with ease while adults often struggle to learn train station basics in a foreign tongue.

5. Is morality hardwired into the brain?
That question has long puzzled philosophers; now some neuroscientists think brain imaging will reveal circuits involved in reasoning.

6. What are the limits of learning by machines?
Computers can already beat the world's best chess players, and they have a wealth of information on the Web to draw on. But abstract reasoning is still beyond any machine.

7. What gave rise to modern human behavior?
Did Homo sapiens acquire abstract thought, language, and art gradually or in a cultural "big bang," which in Europe occurred about 40,000 years ago? Data from Africa, where our species arose, may hold the key to the answer.

8. What are the roots of human culture?
No animal comes close to having humans' ability to build on previous discoveries and pass the improvements on. What determines those differences could help us understand how human culture evolved.

9. What are the evolutionary roots of language and music?
Neuroscientists exploring how we speak and make music are just beginning to find clues as to how these prized abilities arose.

(These make for fine questions for the qualifiers :))
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