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Asking the Right Questions

Week of June 28, 1999

I spent a bit of time yesterday watching a movie with my daughter. In it, one of the characters is talking to a man who is new to her land, and doesn't understand its people. She sings to him, ``You'll find out things you never knew you never knew.''

I like that attitude. There's more stuff going on out there in the world and beyond than we know about, and sometimes we don't even know enough to ask the right questions.

Slight diversion: right now, predicting the future is a hot topic, especially with people so fired up about the year 2000. Experts get interviewed on TV and the radio, and they'll talk about every topic. But are they ever right? I think we've all seen the list of quotations from famous people saying things like ``By the year 2000, computers will be less than the size of a room and cost under one million dollars'' or some such. The other one is the head of the patent office saying ``Everything that can be invented has been invented.'' He said that almost 100 years ago. [D'oh! No he didn't. This turns out to be an urban legend, as I was informed by Bitesize Reader Bill Woods after this page was first posted. This legend even has its own web page! Oh well, the idea I'm pushing here is still valid; it's my example that's not so hot!]

Astronomers too are not immune to prophesying. I attended a meeting recently where there was a general discussion about the future of optical and ultraviolet astronomy. This was a sort of where-we-think-we're-going discussion, and we talked about future ideas for space telescopes and advancements on the ground. All very nuts-and-bolts. The Next Generation Space Telescope was mentioned, and somebody said that it (together with some other fancy space telescopes being planned) would almost certainly answer all the big cosmological questions we have.

I almost laughed out loud. What hubris! Just 70 years ago we didn't even understand what our own Galaxy was, and now we know everything? Or at least, we know what questions to ask?

I'll make a prediction of my own: when these new telescopes go into action, we will quickly learn that there is more to the Universe than we thought. It keeps happening. Every time a new type of telescope or detector is built, the Universe gets bigger and it gets weirder. We discover black holes, or brown dwarfs, or gamma ray bursts (which we do not understand at all). We find planets orbiting other stars, but they're much bigger than Jupiter and closer to their stars than Mercury. We find stars no bigger than a city, and other stars with 100 times the mass of the Sun. We look nearby with more detail and far away with more clarity and we find some answers, but we always find far more questions.

I am no expert on cosmology; it's not my specific field of astronomy. But I do know that the Universe is a weird place, and I am quite sure it has a few more cards up its sleeves. These new telescopes may indeed answer all the questions we have now, but what questions do we not know that we don't even know?

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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