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Holy Grails of Science

  1. Jul 22, 2011 #1
    I am preparing an inspirational list for my students in the hopes that some of them will take up these challenges. I was hoping I could get some more suggestions.

    Holy Grails of Science:
    - Grand Unified Theory
    - Featherweight Solar or wind
    - Solar Pavement
    - Beamed Power Propulsion
    - Low energy/cost desalinization of ocean water for human consumption
    - Observe or disprove the Higgs Boson
    - Growth of fully functional organs
    - Stop aging
    - Nanotechnology
    - High temperature superconductors
    - Detection of gravitational waves
    - Detection and discovery of structure of dark matter
    - Explanation of the nature of dark energy
    - Artificial photosynthesis
    - Cold Fusion
    - Artificial Intelligence
    - Cloning of a human being
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2011 #2
    There are some excellent ones on that list. Some items on the list may be related to engineering as well. Here are some more ideas:

    -Detecting/preventing/eliminating cancer
    -regenerating neurons/parts of the brain for people with traumatic brain injuries
    -curing paralysis
    -quantum computing
    -room temperature superconductor

    Maybe you should replace "cold fusion" with "fusion power," as the latter is the true goal, and the former may be held in poor regard.
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2011
  4. Jul 22, 2011 #3
    I would say GUT and Quantum computing should be on the top, I would put amongst the biological holy grails... Humans engineering our neurons to have Na channels and K channels that react to negative charge faster... may sound specific, but If we could do it it would increase our intelligence greatly... by increasing our rate of thought. This one Holy grail may make all the others realities!
  5. Jul 22, 2011 #4
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_everything" [Broken] is the holy grail, I believe.

    "Sentient computer" or "self-aware computer" AI is not necessarily that intelligent nor self-aware.

    Interstellar colonization http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_colonization" [Broken]

    "Free energy" would be wonderful, but the term has become a joke. TANSTAAFL

    Good luck!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  6. Jul 22, 2011 #5


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    This really does not seem right to me. Scientists do not talk in this way, there are active areas of research and some are more groundbreaking than others but there are no "holy grails". The only thing that I could see the term meaning is "discovery that would radically change our understanding of the universe", anything else is just a wishlist of technologies. As for the list;

    I'm not even sure what you are referring to here, sounds like an interesting idea but not exactly something the whole community is waiting for.

    This would be great but hardly something that would change science forever.

    This is not something the scientific community is pursuing.

    This makes about as much sense as saying "physics is a holy grail of science". https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php?b=3179" [Broken], it is an area of science itself. A huge one that has already made great advances to technology.

    I don't get what you mean, we detect gravity all the time. Do you mean discover the mechanism by which gravity works?

    What do you mean by "structure"?

    This is not even possible.

    Do you mean artificial sentient intelligence? We already have software that displays intelligence. Even if we did make a sentient intelligence there would be huge ethical issues.

    We already can do this but it is illegal.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  7. Jul 22, 2011 #6
    I think the list is more about technologies or discoveries that would revolutionize the world and/or our understanding of the universe and/or solve a problem that human civilization has.

    I think there is a lot of research into manipulating apoptosis, which I think encompasses this.

    Good point, I will revise this.

    These are sort of disturbances in space-time that travel as waves. Einstein predicted them but none of the detectors built have been able to measure it.

    Well this is an assumption that something with mass has structure. Perhaps I should rephrase it as to "the nature of dark matter".

    I do need to strike this term from my vocabulary. I will rephrase it as controlled fusion in which the output energy is greater than the input energy.

    Thanks, I will rephrase this.

    I disagree with this. Some animal cells do not respond well to nuclear transfer and thus we have thus far been unable to clone certain animals, humans included. It's not illegal everywhere, and if it were possible, someone would have done it because it would make them incredibly famous.
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  8. Jul 22, 2011 #7


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    I would advise you to split up this list and ask about specific topics in sub-forums. You appear to be under some misunderstandings of some topic and I question how well you could teach them without a good understanding.
  9. Jul 22, 2011 #8
    No love for math problems?? :frown:
    The Riemann-zeta hypothesis should count as a holy grail...
  10. Jul 22, 2011 #9
    I certainly don't have full understanding of many of these topics. Each topic is something that one could dedicate years of study towards. I am not going to teach these topics, but I want a list to serve as inspiration for students who might want to pursue these areas of research.
  11. Jul 22, 2011 #10


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    I would suggest focusing on active areas of real science then. It is not a criticism that you are not an expert but some of the things on your list are nonsensical (stopping ageing for example). It would be better if you could inspire the kids without using fantasy, otherwise if any of them choose a career in science they are going to be disappointed. Perhaps you should ask in individual forums what people in each field would class as a "holy grail". Or rephrase your question as "what are the holy grails of modern day science". As it is it is pretty hard to work through the list to help you.

    P.S forgot to mention last time that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apoptosis" [Broken].
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  12. Jul 22, 2011 #11

    Although we all would love some of these technologies.

    I must say after reading this post, I see a flaw with teaching students to strive after discoveries. People who are actually interested in science do not enter into the field hoping to discover something and become famous or respected... really they just want to understand the field.
  13. Jul 22, 2011 #12


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    Solar pavement would not be any scientific breakthrough, just an engineering extension of known technology. Solar roads have already been designed.
  14. Jul 22, 2011 #13
    With solar roads, dragging your muffler could be real expensive... and much sparkier.
  15. Jul 22, 2011 #14
    I am not sure how any scientist could say that stopping ageing would not be possible. It's a biological process that very likely can be manipulated - even nanotechnology might someday produce machines that are able to regenerate cells indefinitely. Something like that has incredible implications... One generation's fantasy is another's history.

    However, perhaps telling students that this is something they could achieve in this generation is probably more fantasy. Perhaps I should rephrase it closer to something like "understanding the mechanisms of ageing", which could lead to its manipulation later. I will think about this more for sure.

    Since your expertise is in nanotechnology, what would you consider holy grails in that area of science?

    Of course a scientist wants to understand the field, but they want to use their understanding to further knowledge. Otherwise, is there really a career - sounds more like a hobby? There must be some kind of genesis, not stopping at what has already been done. I completely agree with you that they should not enter the field to become famous or respected and that is not what I am trying to do here. But discovery is key to science, and I think exposing them to some ideas is not a negative thing.
  16. Jul 22, 2011 #15
    Well, maybe not stop aging. But increasing the life span by a lot is.

    Anyways, I don't think the "Holy Grails of Science" is the right way to attract students to science. I think it is best to develop curiosity by asking questions and trying to solve them. (Maybe ask some interesting questions and try to understand it together... to show that the world somewhat make sense and how there are still unknowns to be figured out.)

    As Pablo Picasso once said “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” I feel this is true for science. “All children are born scientists, the problem is to remain an scientist as we grow up.” All children are naturally curious, all teachers have to do is to not ruin it.
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2011
  17. Jul 23, 2011 #16

    Ivan Seeking

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    I have heard a great deal about this topic over the last fifteen years. For example:

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  18. Jul 23, 2011 #17
    I completely agree with you saying children are born scientists :) Certainly most of my science classes involve investigation and my students have shown in many ways they love my science classes. But (and we're talking Jr. High / Sr. High here) we of course focus on discovering what is already known! In some cases, things that have been known for hundreds of years. We get so caught up in this, that students don't realize how much there is yet to discover - that they could be part of evolving science rather than regurgitating it.

    To put what I am asking in this thread in perspective: Once a week I want to have students do a 10 minute presentation on one of these "holy grails" so that they have some inspiration and realize how much work there is left to do. I am not creating a course around "holy grails" or anything like that. It is one small aspect I am trying to create in order to fill a gap in science curricula.
  19. Jul 23, 2011 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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    I can appreciate the notion of not ruining it, but how many scientists have given credit to shows like Star Trek for inspiring them as kids? For example, the guy who managed the first ion drive project for a deep-space probe once stated that his first exposure to the idea was through Star Trek. He can still quote Scotty verbatim.

    Give a kid a curiosity and he or she might take an interest. Inspire him or her and you might change their life forever. Most people are not inspired by ordinary challenges. Give them a chance to change the world.
  20. Jul 23, 2011 #19


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    Nanotechnology is not about the creation of tiny machines, many proposals along those lines are fundamentally flawed. Whilst it may be technically possible to stop ageing whether or not it is practically possible is an entirely different thing. The human body is a hugely complex and chaotic system. We have nowhere near the scientific understanding to even begin understanding the processes involved, to stop ageing would require us to manipulate our entire bodies on the molecular level. I'm sorry but this is pure fiction, whether or not some magic advance makes it possible in the future is irrelevant.

    However it may be possible to greatly mitigate the effects of ageing for longer but more importantly healthier life. I'm not sure what I would call a "holy grail" because my answer would be so far removed to what we have now and the field is so diverse that there is no one thing that would be brilliant. For example, currently we create nanoengineered http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tissue_engineering#Scaffolds", biochemical/mechanical cellular signalling, ECM formation and a thousand other aspects of cell biology. Then based on this understanding hopefully we can design technologies to manipulate cells in culture to become healthy organs for transplant.

    So my answer would be slightly vague. A "holy grail" could be all the knowledge necessary to manipulate cell behaviour in every possible way.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  21. Jul 23, 2011 #20
    Well, I guess I was just thinking of Feynman. Where his drive was pure curiosity rather than anything else. But yes, inspiration can go a long way.
  22. Jul 23, 2011 #21
    Exactly! It's not my job to limit them!

    I appreciate what you are saying - though I fundamentally disagree. Even though something is difficult and years away from realization, I believe it is perfectly valid to build the foundations for its realization today. It is not my job to go up and tell the students that they can never build nanobots. Based on a cursory Google search there is a lot of money and research being poured into nanobot technology, so one person's "fundamentally flawed" may well turn into someone else's realization.

    Thanks :)
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  23. Jul 23, 2011 #22


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    The fact that you can google something isn't a testament to it's validity. There is practically no money in microscopic robots, there are only a few groups on the planet that are even looking at that and all they are doing is speculating. It is not logical nor helpful to teach children to ignore the realities of something in the hope that one day it will exist. I maintain that it's far better to teach them what really exists because they will be able to actually do something about it if they want and it is far mroe likely to actually affect their lives at some point.

    EDIT: I'm not saying that it isn't possible that some day in the future we will be able to make microscopic machines that circulate around the body for medical purposes but the complexities involved are fantastic. You might as well try to inspire the kids to pursue physics by showing them Star Trek episodes.

    No problem.
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2011
  24. Jul 23, 2011 #23
    I am not sure why you chose to say this - it is insulting. You do not know how I teach... You yourself recognize these things may exist in the future in your reply. Compare the world 50 years ago to now. My students will have a good 50 years still ahead of them once they graduate, and you nor I cannot predict what will be possible in those next 50 years. The difference is you maintain that certain things are not worthwhile exploring because at present it appears that they are likely not possible in the time frame of their lives. I humbly disagree. It will only be possible if people pursue this now and build upon accomplishments. I think it is completely valid for a student to want to pursue even if they realize what the ultimate goal will likely not be reached in his or her lifetime. But he or she can build towards it. If you do not like my idea of inspiring students with likely achievable long term human goals, then we simply must agree to disagree.
  25. Jul 23, 2011 #24

    Ivan Seeking

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    Given that you have already been shown to be incorrect in previous statements in this regard, shouldn't you qualify your opinion as such?

    You flatly stated that this is not an active area of research when in fact it is. This suggests to me that you are speaking out of ignorance.
  26. Jul 23, 2011 #25


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    I did not mean to be insulting. What I meant was that one should not rely on things that may not even happen and are pure speculation at this moment.

    I did not flatly state this, I was trying to get across the message that nanotechnology is not about microscopic robots any more than physics is about interstellar space ships. I am not speaking out of ignorance however I accept that I may have communicated what I wished to communicate poorly.
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