by Andre on 24 June 2005
Today, not for the first time, I somehow found myself reading Alan Sokal’s parody article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” and I wanted to read some of the subsequent debate in Physics Today. David Mermin was one of the people responding to the article so I went to his site looking for freely available reprints. I didn’t find anything about the Science Wars, but I did come across this gem in which Mermin discusses questions he would want to ask physicists of the future if he could travel to 2105. Even if you’re not particularly into physics I think you’ll still enjoy the introduction to the article and some of his questions.
It’s the kind of article that gets you thinking, in my case about a similar list for biophysics:
1) The first one that came to mind is consciousness, but Mermin does a pretty good job of discussing it so I won’t bother. Except to say that I don’t know why Mermin is so convinced that a computer will never be conscious. I’m no neuroscientist, but I can’t think of any brain function, other than perhaps consciousness itself, that a really complicated computer couldn’t simulate. Maybe it would need to be a computer that was capable of reconfiguring its hardware as the brain can, but I don’t think anyone knows enough to dismiss it like Mermin does. Also, I haven’t read much about it, but I can’t think of any way to test for consciousness. I’m reminded of Turing Tests and Chinese Rooms. Perhaps that’s a good way to frame the question: Have you discovered an unambiguous test to determine if something is conscious? If the answer is yes, I think its elaboration would tell us a lot about the nature of consciousness.
2) Are there now predictive quantitative laws of biological evolution? I discussed this briefly here.
3) Is there extraterrestrial life in the solar system? In the Milky Way? What about intelligence (discussed by Mermin)?
4) Have we synthesized life from scratch? How about non-DNA-based life?
5) How do complicated things like humans develop from single cells? I’m not convinced that will be an interesting question in a hundred years because I have no idea what we know about it now, but I’ve always found the process fascinating.
I can’t come up with anything else right now, but I would be really interested in what you think, so post your ideas in the comments section!