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10 Great Unsolved Problems

Jamie Frater

In various fields of human study there are problems that have never been solved. Some theories have been put forward, but not one fully satisfies the question. So put on your thinking cap and see if you can solve any of the ten unsolved problems listed here:

10. What caused the great depression?


The Great Depression was a dramatic, worldwide economic downturn beginning in some countries as early as 1928. The beginning of the Great Depression in the United States is associated with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday. The depression had devastating effects in both the industrialized countries and those which exported raw materials. International trade declined sharply, as did personal incomes, tax revenues, prices and profits. Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries.

What turns a usually mild and short recession or “ordinary” business cycle into a great depression is a subject of debate and concern. Scholars have not agreed on the exact causes and their relative importance. The search for causes is closely connected to the question of how to avoid a future depression, and so the political and policy viewpoints of scholars are mixed into the analysis of historic events eight decades ago. The even larger question is whether it was largely a failure on the part of free markets or largely a failure on the part of governments to prevent widespread bank failures and the resulting panics and reduction in the money supply. Those who believe in a large role for governments in the economy believe it was mostly a failure of the free markets and those who believe in free markets believe it was mostly a failure of government that exacerbated the problem.

You can read some theories about the origins of the depression here.

9. What is the origin of language?

300Px-Confusion Of Tongues

The origin of language (glottogony) is a topic that has attracted considerable speculation throughout human history. The use of language is one of the most conspicuous and diagnostic traits that distinguish Homo sapiens from other species. Unlike writing, spoken language leaves no trace. Hence linguists have to resort to indirect methods in trying to decipher the origins of language. At some stage of human evolution, one or more systems of verbal communication emerged from proto-linguistic or non-linguistic means of communication. Chimpanzees and humans split from a common ancestor some six million years ago, a terminus post quem for linguistic evolution. Since then all other hominids, who may have given clues as to how language developed, have gone extinct.

Many theories have been put forward to explain the origins of language, you can read some here.

8. What started the Industrial Revolution?


The Industrial Revolution was a period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation had a profound effect on socioeconomic and cultural conditions in Britain and subsequently spread throughout the world, a process that continues as industrialisation. The onset of the Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in human social history, comparable to the invention of farming or the rise of the first city-states; almost every aspect of daily life and human society was eventually influenced in some way.

The causes of the Industrial Revolution were complex and remain a topic for debate, with some historians seeing the Revolution as an outgrowth of social and institutional changes brought by the end of feudalism in Britain after the English Civil War in the 17th century. As national border controls became more effective, the spread of disease was lessened, therefore preventing the epidemics common in previous times. The percentage of children who lived past infancy rose significantly, leading to a larger workforce.

One question of active interest to historians is why the industrial revolution occurred in Europe and not in other parts of the world in the 18th century, particularly China, India, and the Middle East, or at other times like in Classical Antiquity or the Middle Ages. Numerous factors have been suggested, including ecology, government, and culture.

7. How is language acquired?


Language acquisition is the process by which the language capability develops in a human. First language acquisition concerns the development of language in children, while second language acquisition focuses on language development in adults as well. Historically, theorists are often divided between emphasising either nature or nurture (see Nature versus nurture) as the most important explanatory factor for acquisition.

One line of debate is between two points of view: that of psychological nativism, i.e., the language ability is somehow “hardwired” in the human brain, and that of the “tabula rasa” or Blank Slate, i.e., language is acquired due to brain’s interaction with environment.

6. What are numbers?


The question here is: what are numbers, sets, groups, points, etc.? In mathematics, a structure on a set, or more generally a type, consists of additional mathematical objects that in some manner attach to the set, making it easier to visualize or work with, or endowing the collection with meaning or significance. Are they real objects or are they simply relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? Although many disparate views exist regarding what a mathematical object is, the discussion may be roughly partitioned into two opposing schools of thought: neo-platonism, which asserts that mathematical objects are real, and formalism, which asserts that mathematical objects are merely formal constructions.

5. Paradox of the heap


Also known as the sorites paradox, the paradox of the heap is a paradox that arises from vague predicates. The paradox of the heap is an example of this paradox which arises when one considers a heap of sand (or a haystack), from which grains are individually removed. Is it still a “heap” when only one grain remains? The problem is essentially one of philosophy of language, wherein terms may be relative and indefined, as opposed to problems in mathematics – wherein all terms by nature have some definition – even if it is only as a variable. Here is an example of the paradox in action:

A heap of sand is comprised of a large collection of grains. (Premise 1)
A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one less number of grains), eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand. On the face of it, there are some ways to avoid this conclusion. One may object to the first premise by denying that a large collection of grains makes a heap (or more generally, by denying that there are heaps). One may object to the second premise by stating that it is not true for all collections of grains that removing one grain from it still makes a heap. Or one may accept the conclusion by insisting that a heap of sand can be composed of just one grain.

The paradox is tricky for philosophers because they must explain why one of the two premises, or the conclusion, is wrong even though they appear to be self-evident.

4. Do black holes exist?

750Px-Black Hole Milkyway

Do black holes really exist? Do they radiate, as expected on theoretical grounds? Does this radiation contain information about their inner structure, as suggested by Gauge-gravity duality, or not, as implied by Hawking’s original calculation? If not, and black holes can evaporate away, what happens to the information stored in it? (Quantum mechanics does not allow information to be destroyed) Or does the radiation stop at some point leaving black hole remnants? Is there another way to probe their internal structure somehow, if such a structure even exists?

While general relativity describes a black hole as a region of empty space with a pointlike singularity at the center and an event horizon at the outer edge, the description changes when the effects of quantum mechanics are taken into account. Research on this subject indicates that, rather than holding captured matter forever, black holes may slowly leak a form of thermal energy called Hawking radiation. However, the final, correct description of black holes, requiring a theory of quantum gravity, is unknown.

3. Untriseptium

137 C

The name untriseptium is used as a placeholder, as in scientific articles about the search for element 137. Transuranic elements (those beyond uranium) are, except for microscopic quantities and except for plutonium, always artificially produced, and usually end up being named for a scientist or the location of a laboratory that does work in atomic physics. Because the significance of element 137 was first pointed out by the physicist Richard Feynman, element 137 is sometimes informally called Feynmanium (symbol Fy).

Any element with an atomic number of greater than 137 would require 1s electrons to be traveling faster than the speed of light. Since the early 1900′s, physicists have thought that this number (137) might be at the heart of a GUT, or Grand Unified Theory, which could relate the theories of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and most especially gravity. However, physicists have yet to find any link between the number 137 and any other physical law in the universe. It was expected that such an important equation would generate an important number, like one or pi, but this was not the case.

The question here, is what are the chemical consequences of having an element, with an atomic number above 137, whose 1s electrons must travel faster than the speed of light? Is “Feynmanium” the last chemical element that can physically exist?

2. Why do we dream?


The events of dreams are often impossible, or unlikely to occur, in physical reality: they are also outside the control of the dreamer. The exception to this is known as lucid dreaming, in which dreamers realize that they are dreaming, and are sometimes capable of changing their dream environment and controlling various aspects of the dream. The dream environment is often much more realistic in a lucid dream, and the senses heightened.

There is no universally agreed-upon biological definition of dreaming. General observation shows that dreams are strongly associated with REM sleep. REM sleep is the state of sleep in which brain activity is most like wakefulness, which is why many researchers believe this is when dreams are strongest, although it could also mean that this is a state from which dreams are most easily remembered. During a typical lifespan, a human spends a total of about six years dreaming (which is about 2 hours each night). It is unknown where in the brain dreams originate — if there is such a single location — or why dreams occur at all.

1. What are the chemical origins of life?


What are the chemical origins of life? How did non-living chemical compounds generate self-replicating, complex life forms? In the natural sciences, abiogenesis, the question of the origin of life, is the study of how life on Earth might have emerged from non-life. Scientific consensus is that abiogenesis occurred sometime between 4.4 billion years ago, when water vapor first liquefied, and 2.7 billion years ago, when the ratio of stable isotopes of carbon, iron, and sulfur points to a biogenic origin of minerals and sediments and molecular biomarkers indicate photosynthesis.

There is no truly “standard model” of the origin of life. But most currently accepted models build in one way or another upon a number of discoveries about the origin of molecular and cellular components for life. As of 2007, no one has yet synthesized a “protocell” using basic components which would have the necessary properties of life (the so-called “bottom-up-approach”). Without such a proof-of-principle, explanations have tended to be short on specifics. However, some researchers are working in this field, notably Steen Rasmussen at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Jack Szostak at Harvard University.

Sources: Wikipedia

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Jamie Frater

Jamie is the founder of Listverse. He spends his time working on the site, doing research for new lists, and cooking. He is fascinated with all things morbid and bizarre.

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