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My ignorance is an infinite source of amusement for me. It is surprising how little I know and how vast is human learning and complexity of nature. So what do I not know? The answer is like the SMS joke: What can Google not find? – ask Google! If I knew what I did not know, I can simply find out and then I would not be ignorant! But I wish life was as simple as that. Here are some of the things I don’t know or don’t understand and can’t seem to find answers (even on Google). I will highlight the problems in science that interest me as well as other questions.

  1. How did the universe begin?
  2. Are we here because mathematics is here or is mathematics here because we are here?
  3. The universe seems to be being ripped apart by a force whose source of energy is beyond our current comprehension but what is it? Also, will it really tear the universe apart into a cold uninteresting entity capable of no creation or will this too pass, and something else will emerge?
  4. We live in a universe where the electron has a certain charge and proton has a certain mass. These are called ‘fundamental constants’, but can there be other universes with other values for these constants? If so, we will never be able to communicate with them, but the question remains.
  5. Why when you look at the universe as a whole, is the universe homogenous (i.e. it has no big differences in density) and isotropic (same where ever we look)?
  6. What is time? Honestly, we have no clue. Scientists for whom time is intrinsic to whatever they do also use a very bad definition of time – time moves so that the overall disorder in the world increases with time. But this is a very poor definition, and we have no clue on how to understand time. Till Einstein came around, this was not a problem but once Einstein mixed time with space we are completely confused. We have learnt to live with that confusion but we have no clue to what this entity is. From time immemorial we have struggled with this problem. From Rig Veda to modern text books on Gravity struggle with this problem.
  7. Where did the magnetic field arise in the universe?
  8. As far as we can tell the limit put by Einstein on the fastest travel as the speed of light (which can’t even be reached by material objects). Is this truly the final limit or will we be able to transcend that? If we travel faster than light, we will also be travelling back in time. Won’t this lead to chaos?
  9. How black are the black holes in the universe? We know that light cannot escape from them as if it is reflected or emitted. But quantum mechanics says that the information can ‘leak through’, but at a very slow rate. So black holes may not be the final state of matter. So how black are black holes?
  10. We can’t seem to find stars more than 100 times the mass of the sun and the black holes we see seem to arise from either small masses – a few tens of solar masses or huge ones of millions of solar masses.
  11. How common is life in the universe?
  12. Is the kind of DNA and life we know, the only way of creating life? I suspect not. But we know that life is self-replicating and we know of no atom better than carbon so we are quite confident that all life will be carbon based. But does that mean that double helix will also be a method of coding?
  13. How much of life is deterministic and how much of it is random? We know that life system is complex and therefore given to instability and chaotic behaviour. It seems therefore life is a fine mix of determinism and sporadic changes driven by chaos and instability. But how does this mix operate?
  14. Why do we like music? One man’s music may be another’s noise. But even that other will have some favourite music. So what is going on?
  15. We know that brain, in its current form has reached its limits of capabilities. We are not getting any more intelligent. On the other hand, we are now making devices which can be implanted into the brain and the brain can be trained to use this as a new source of information and tap it. So where are we headed? Will we eventually have purely machine based humans?
  16. We are always changing. Everything we do, every experience we have, every exercise we do, even yoga and all change our personality – no one is same over any fifteen day period. But the speed and efficiency and the manner in which we can now change personalities is becoming increasingly efficient. Is this a good idea? Where are we headed?
  17. Will we be able to farm and regrow our organs based on the information in our DNA?
  18. What are the limits of sustainability of life? We know that our planet has seen extremes of weather far greater than we know now. But even these small changes are wrecking a havoc on life on earth. So the other extremes must have been worse. But they wiped out, in some cases up to 90% of life on earth. It is as if when the planet wants a change, it drives the weather to extreme. Or is it the other way round, that when the earth’s weather becomes unstable and ends up in some extreme value, life parishes on earth? Are we headed for one such extreme and if so will humans have the capacity to survive that?
  19. Will humans ever leave Earth permanently?
  20. Considering that there have been no interstellar visitors to Earth so far (no, I don’t believe any UFO claims), is such a visit only a matter of time, or is this an absolute limit? After all the radio noise generated by humans, through radio, television and communication signal transmission must have reached some 50 light years from Earth and any intelligent beings would have found this new planet with a large radio noise. So why have they not come to check. Also, despite SETI, we have not found any planet generating so much radio noise. So is life really rare?
  21. How small is small and what is the smallest object we will be able to manufacture to do something for us? So far the smallest object we have made is about 0.00000001 mm (10-8) meters or so. But we have seen objects a thousand times smaller and we suspect that the smallest objects will be a billion billion times smaller. But we lack the technology to see something that small.
  22. We divide bulk material into solid liquid and gas. But what is sand?
  23. We divide material in insulators, semiconductors and good conductors. We know that large scale structures in the Universe can be made by good conductors only, since they make truly strong large structures. Large semiconductors are brittle but are excellent for making small things where by making small changes in the current, we can make them do things. But we have found no use for insulators, except in preventing current from going where we don’t want it to go. But is there something about insulators that we have missed out?
  24. We know and can play with the entire electromagnetic wavelength – from radio to gamma rays. But are these the only signals in the universe or is there something we have no senses or technology to detect?
  25. Science often comes up with perfectly useless information. For example,we now know that if I drill a hole through the centre of Earth and throw a ball in that well, it will take 42 and not 45 minutes to go through. So? Which science information is useful and which is not? Who is to decide this?
  26. What is the smallest interval of time? We can handle timescales of a 10-9 seconds but this is certainly not the limit. So what happens on smaller time scales?
  27. Humans started with Stone Age, went on the Bronze Age, then Iron Age and entered the silicon age about 50 years ago. We have reached the limit of what silicon based technologies can do. The next revolution will probably come from Carbon and we can see early glimpses of it. But where will this take us?
  28. We have nearly exponential growth in technology and this is clearly not sustainable. But what will stop it and how? Will humans realise that we are mass producing too many untested technologies from weapons to computers and internet to disease fighting plants. Will we see this as dangerous and slow down or will some man made catastrophe stop us?
  29. Will human race die out?
  30. Human child is born premature compared to other animals and can’t look after themselves for almost five years after birth. This is probably because the brain and body size of a fully grown human baby would kill the mother in the process of being delivered. We then need to educate them for at least another 15 years to be minimally employable. Add to that the exponential rise in technology. So the education period will rise and the employment period will also rise in future. So when will we have time to be children?
  31. Fossil fuels in reality is sunlight that was stored for a few million years and we will use it up in a few centuries (starting 400 years ago) at best. In some sense we are using up the savings account of energy from earth. After that we will have to be on current account. Use whatever is being deposited in real time. This will be much less concentrated. So our efficiency will have to increase significantly to be able to manage this reduced availability of stored energy. Will we succeed?
  32. Why do people enjoy subordinating others? To me subordinating someone is to then also take responsibility for their wellbeing and that seems to be such a burden that the small pleasure of getting someone to do what you want to see done, is not worth it.
  33. Is other people’s opinion about myself more important than my own opinion?
  34. Why do people refuse to think? I don’t know if asking people to think for themselves is a crime or a sin, or both or neither.
  35. Is giving a youngster an ability to earn livelihood the only purpose of education?
  36. Is coming first so important that we are willing to scar our young ones? Is it sensible for us to push children our beyond their limit to excel because we did not?
  37. Is ignorance a bliss and is it a folly to be informed?
  38. Is ego the biggest cause of blindness?
  39. Won’t astrology never lose its charm?
  40. Why is everything that is fun, illegal, immoral or fattening?
  41. Will popular culture will always be vulgar?
  42. How many of us ever look at all the photographs we take? Are even 1% of the photographs revisited by their photographers?
  43. Is there no limit to human stupidity? Are people so easy to be triggered like a herd with no brain?
  44. Scientists tell us that our present brain size is the optimum one, make it bigger and it will become slower, make its wiring fine, and we will all become schizophrenic. So with the present design of brain (which is common to all animal), we will not get any more intelligent. So scientists are working on implanting devices into the brain. Do we understand the brain well enough to risk it?
  45. I don’t understand why people would kill their own family just for some money. Is there so much difference between living in a 500 square foot flat and a 2000 square foot flat, or living at Hanging Gardens instead of Borivali that you would kill your own for it – and end up living in Arthur Road Jail? Even Arjun doing this in Kurukshetra needed elaborate clarification before taking up arms. There it was matter of principle, here it is a matter of greed.
  46. Is being connected all the time a curse or a blessing?
  47. Are advertisements informing me of new products?
  48. I can know only a handful of languages so how much am I losing out by not being appreciated the subtleties in the lives of other cultures?
  49. Is death final?
  50. If killing (or instigating someone else to kill) within the nation is illegal, why is it legal across nations?
  51. Why is the greatness of a nation measured by its military power than its ability to provide good life for all its citizens?
  52. If some people have left their nation after taking the best of its education, shouldn’t such people be condemned for their lack of loyalty rather than be praised to the skies. Why are non-resident Indians not being made to feel outcast but being given importance? If they left their motherland yesterday for their personal comfort and you call them back, what is the guarantee that they won’t do the same again tomorrow?
  53. If all humans are so similar that we cannot even be classified as being different breeds, why is there a cast system still around?
  54. Is the current rate of demand to create new wealth sustainable? Should we not be busy reducing expectations and learning to live with less rather than more?
  55. Will we be better off by not learning history?
  56. In the last 5000 years since we urbanised, can’t we think of a better system of governance than democracy, which is essentially bullying of the minority by majority? Other systems that we have invented turn out to be much worse on long term but the present system isn’t exactly a gold standard either.
  57. Over millennia all nations seem to rise and fall. Is this inevitable? Is there no good formula to make a culture last for ever?
  58. India is democratic while China is not. We both got rid of foreign rulers around the same time but both developed according to their ideals and their political system. So citizens of which nation are better off? Chinese citizens are better fed but we have more liberty. What is more important?
  59. Does science have a solution for everything? Indeed is science even capable of understanding everything?
  60. Does the world need a religion – it seems to cause more problem than solve them.
  61. If the Prime Minister is being blamed for his silence about religious violence, how come no one is blaming the God himself for the same reason?
  62. Why are people more god fearing than god loving?
  63. In this land created by god, why is there a war for land amongst humans?
  1. Is following the ritual of a religion more important than following its ideals? Is it better to ban beef or is it better to educate people to live their lives as a sense of duty and compassion to all creations of god and let them live? Isn’t ahimsa towards fellow humans, and that includes all forms of tolerance more important than ritualistic acts?
  2. I was educated under the ideals of the leaders of 1950’s and 1960’s. One thing they taught us (very convincingly) was that India was driven by unity in diversity and that India was a vast collection of people of all kinds of differences which are to be celebrated and not undermined. It still makes sense to me that India is secular, democratic republic and not a Hindu Rashtra. The government wants to revisit the issue. I don’t know why loyalty to a particular form of worship is more important than the loyalty to motherland and sensitivity to fellow human beings.
  3. Is it being faithful to a religion if you ask people of other religion to leave their motherland and settle in some strange land that they never accepted?
  4. How could ancient Indians have discovered quantum mechanics when they had no electricity or the concept of protons, electrons and atoms?
  5. Just because we have adopted the word ‘anu’ for atom does not imply that the word used in ancient time had the same meaning. Indeed that anu of the ancient literature was more like a mathematical point and not the atom of modern physics. So did we create a confusion by using this ancient term?
  6. I don’t understand as to how the government hopes to take the country forward when education is being changed from secular to that following a particular religious dictate? Can’t they see what is happening in West Asia there the followers of Islam have made their countries entirely dependent on import of not just technology, but also people to run that technology while their own citizens can’t take up any responsibility in the future of their nation? Do we really want Gita reciting students who will stumble on basic concepts of science and not understand advances in science and technology at all? Will this be progress?
  7. How can government meet the aspirations of middle class that hopes to make it big through education, if we it reduces subsidies on education and make it unaffordable?
  8. I also don’t understand that if our Prime Minister really succeeds in getting everything that he is trying to get, can we accept it? Do we have the roads, and land and trained people to absorb all? Aren’t we asking for more than what we can digest?
  9. If the government does not like to hear criticism, how will it improve?
  10. This (and the previous Congress government) has been closing Class III and Class IV jobs – unskilled and semiskilled jobs – and contracting them out. And contractors are poor paymasters. So are we not driving those who were not fortunate to be educated further into poverty – after all many of those who were not educated missed out for no fault of theirs. Aren’t we becoming less caring of the underprivileged?
  11. I don’t understand why grown up members of our parliament show a bit of mutual respect to each other and have some respect for each other’s views. These are leaders who are supposed to teach us how to get along with others and celebrate diversity. The parliament more and more seems to convey a message that might (majority) is right and bullying is a policy. It teaches us that mutual respect is overvalued and power is more important than decency and courtesy – that it is better to be shrewd than wise.
  12. I also don’t understand how building a large statue of Sardar Patel will make India great and make others want to make in India.
  13. Is our President the only voice of sanity in this cacophony of politics?
  14. I don’t understand why RSS that wants to violently impose its version of Hinduism on us is much better than some of the more violent followers of other religion that want to do the same thing.
  15. Given the rate at which humans are destroying the planet and its equilibrium, isn’t it time that we were evicted? After all dinosaurs were evicted for becoming too big for themselves.
  16. All life forms are built with an instinct to eat, not be eaten and reproduce. Have human beings overcome these instincts?
  17. If all Indians become vegetarian, will there be enough food to go around?
  18. If people remember me after I die, does it matter to me? Does it matter to Newton that the laws of motion are called Newton’s laws of motion?

And my last question, is anybody bothered by what I write or think about it?

Originally published in DNA December 31, 2015

Dr. Mayank Vahia is a scientist at TATA Institute of Fundamental Research in the department of Astronomy and Astrophysics

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