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On the Scene

On the Scene

Three scientists, three wishes (with extras for the cosmologist)

Research luminaries reveal the questions they'd most like to see answered

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When a cosmologist, a climatologist and a systems biologist walk into a bar and the bartender asks what they want, they don’t answer with drinks. They want discoveries.

Three such scientists walked into a hotel ballroom full of science writers November 8 and articulated more specifically just which discoveries they’d really like to see.

One “modest” wish came from Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Sciences and a leading researcher in climate science. He would like to see a discovery about the dynamics of the world’s big ice formations: “What are the triggering events that will lead to big fractures and things sliding down into the ocean to make sea level rise, not just slow melting.”

Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, expressed a more ambitious desire: a discovery that would enable biologists to combine the digital information stored in DNA with information about environmental influences to predict the properties of the resulting human body.

“I think we will gain the knowledge that will let us be able to do those environmental plus digital transforms,” Hood said in New Haven, Conn., at a symposium organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. “Once we have that in place, we can go anywhere in health care and medicine that we want.”

And then there was the cosmologist, Michael Turner of the University of Chicago and director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics there. His first wish: The discovery of the identity of the dark matter that lurks unseen throughout the cosmos, but is necessary to explain the way galaxies spin and flow through space.

 “I think we’re very close … to solving this dark matter problem and I think that’s going to be stunning when it sinks in that most of the stuff in the universe is made of something other than what we are,” Turner said.
 
Wish two: The discovery of the nature of dark energy, the mysterious entity causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Turner would be especially happy if that discovery revealed that the dark energy is something other than simply the vacuum energy that ought to naturally occur in empty space.

“If we find out it’s something weirder than the energy of nothing, I think that doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s a gift to my younger colleagues, because science is all about big questions, and they need clues.”

Perhaps biggest of all is the question about whether the universe originated the way most cosmologists think it did, with a Big Bang explosion followed shortly thereafter by a quick burst of expansion known as inflation. Smoking gun evidence for inflation would come with Turner’s third wish: discovery of B mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background (obviously, but if you must know why, it’s because the B modes are signs of gravity waves from the inflationary era that would establish not only that inflation happened, but when it happened).

Of course, establishing inflation would also make it very likely that the universe inhabited by humans isn’t the only universe out there. If inflation happened once, it could happen an infinite number of times, creating more universes throughout the cosmos than rerun Law & Order episodes on cable.

Confirming inflation, by the way, would cause Turner to beg for a fourth wish: some way to get rid of all those extra universes.

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