Vital Problems

In case you hadn’t noticed there is a petition brewing – Science Is Vital. The arguments against cutting the science budget are well made, and there is a rally planned next Saturday. Volume of public protest does matter : sign up.

Amongst other things, the web site  stresses that science is not so much a fixed body of knowledge but an incomplete project. What don’t we know ? As a postgrad I was inspired by Ginzburg’s “Key Problems in Astrophysics”. I can’t promise to be that good, but here is my personal pick of Top Ten Big Problems. Probably on the obvious side. I’d love to hear your vote.

  1. Why is the Universe accelerating ?
  2. What is the dark matter ?
  3. Why did the Universe start in such a low entropy state ?
  4. Why are galaxy formation and quasar formation so closely linked ?
  5. Are Earth-like planets normal or weird ?
  6. Does the Oort cloud really exist  ?
  7. How is the solar corona heated ? (Time this one went…)
  8. Where did Life originate ?
  9. What causes gamma ray bursts ?
  10. How do relativistic jets form (Time this one went..)

Next up, some practical issues related to Astronomy

  1. Can we predict CMEs ?
  2. Can we find all the potentially dangerous NEOs ?

And some niggly worries

  1. Why are quasar metallicities the same at all redshifts ?
  2. Supernova models must surely be right, but don’t work (I hear).
  3. Quasar accretion disc models must surely be  right, but don’t work.
  4. How come the star formation radio-FIR relation is so constant ? Too good to be true.

I note that the niggling worries are closer to home for me. Probably there are lots of others I just don’t know about ….

23 Responses to Vital Problems

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jennifer L. Rohn and Paul Crowther, Andy Lawrence. Andy Lawrence said: New blog post : Vital Problems My go at the #scienceisvital "what don't we know" challenge […]

  2. telescoper says:

    But the heating of the solar corona is the most exciting problem in modern astrophysics!

    Or so I’m told.

  3. Astronomovie says:

    Hmm, I think an exciting problem is the Cosmic Web and Missing baryons, because it sound mysterious. Where are those baryons hidden and how do they fuel galaxies i.e. how does galaxy evolution actually work….
    But than again my opinion might be slightly biased by personal interest:)

  4. Maybe on the niggling side, but how about “what the #^%£ are Type Ia supernovae?” Bothers me that we don’t know if the progenitors are single- or double-degenerates. Bothers me that it depends on binary stars at all – what sets the binary fraction / distribution of separations etc in a given star-formation region? Bothers me that we use iron abundance as proxy for metallicity, but don’t know where the iron comes from. Even bothers me slightly that we use these things to do cosmology.

  5. Alan Penny says:

    “Are there extra-terrestrial intelligencies?”

      • Alan Penny says:

        Your proof?

      • andyxl says:

        I think the onus of proof is on you. As Fermi said, where are they ?

      • Alan Penny says:

        I suggested a question for your list of “what we do not know” questions. Unlike you, I do not know the answer. I think that in fact nobody knows the answer and that is why I suggested the question.

        If you want to learn a little about the Fermi Paradox, a good introduction at the popular level is Stephen Webb’s “Where is Everybody?”. This goes through some 49 of the suggested hypotheses in which the Paradox permits the existence of ETI.

        My own stance on the Paradox is that we know very little indeed about the nature of any ETI and thus the absence so far of evidence is not evidence of absence.

      • andyxl says:

        Alan – thanks for taking the bait.

        Of course its a good question.

      • Alan Penny says:

        “thanks for taking the bait”?

        What does this mean?

      • andyxl says:

        Err… I responded to your perfectly reasonable suggestion in a teasing manner, which made you give me an essay on the Fermi Paradox.

  6. John Peacock says:

    At a job interview in 1983, Bob Fosbury asked me how the solar corona was heated. I assumed this was some classic piece of standard astrophysics that I should have known, and felt bad about not giving a good answer. I suppose today I should be asking postdocs to explain how the mass of the proton arises in string theory…

  7. Alex M says:

    A good list. I’m slightly surprised by a couple of omissions though… nothing on gravity waves (or even gravity), or inflation. I’m pleased to see the Oort cloud question though – I’ve mentioned this in talks and the vast majority of astronomers (it seems to me) are unaware its existence isn’t ‘fact’. Curious. As for no. 2, ok, my turn to be biased, but if you believe the theorists, we’re close. I wonder if we’ll get the chance though…

  8. Mrs Trellis says:

    Dear Andre,

    Congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize for having invented graph paper.

    Yours sincerely,

    Mrs Trellis

  9. Keith Arnaud says:

    No. 8 assumes that Life has only arisen once. Perhaps “Under what circumstances does Life arise ?”.

    Not my field but isn’t there more to extrasolar planets than whether the Earth is unusual ?

  10. Aaron Robotham says:

    Surely we need to include the IMF? Is it constant, driven by star formation region mass (IGIMF) or something else entirely, if so why? It’s vital we formulate the IMF correctly, whatever it is, in order to understand the z=0 Universe- stellar mass, CSED etc. There is so much excellent, and contradictory, evidence for the IMF in different environments- it’s about time it was nailed.

    • andyxl says:

      Oh… the easy ones first, eh ?

      • Aaron Robotham says:


        I reckon #5 will be answered first in your list. Attainable goal + huge endeavour. Though I’m not sure it’s that interesting. Is this with a mind for life? I thought it was “100% certain” we’d found it on 581g…

  11. […] we know yet”, to show what questions could remain unanswered if funding is cut (check out The e-Astronomer for a good list of the outstanding astronomy problems). One group of scientists who set out to […]

  12. Don S says:

    Here is 3 1/2 years later – do you have an updated list? What’s changed?

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