Questions for the Next Million Years; September 2012; Scientific American Magazine; by Davide Castelvecchi; 6 Page(s)
A lifetime is very long relative to the picosecond it takes for two atoms to form a molecule, but it is the blink of an eye compared to many natural phenomena, from the rise of mountain chains to the collisions of galaxies. To answer questions that take more than a lifetime to resolve, scientists hand their efforts down from one generation to the next. In medical science, for example, longitudinal studies often follow subjects well after the original researchers have passed; some studies that are still ongoing started as far back as the 1920s. The record for the most extensive sequence of uninterrupted data gathering in history may belong to the ancient Babylonians' Astronomical Diaries, which contain at least six centuries' worth of observations from the first millennium B.C.; those records have revealed recurring patterns in such events as solar and lunar eclipses.
In most fields of scientific research, however, some of the most interesting and fundamental questions remain open because scientists simply have not had enough time to pursue them. But what if time were no object? I recently spoke with leading researchers in various fields about the problems they would attack if they had 1,000 years—or 10,000 or even a million—to make observations or perform experiments. (To keep the focus on the science rather than on futurology, I asked them to assume they could use only technology that is state of the art today.) Condensed versions of their intriguing replies follow.