By Sean Carroll | November 20, 2006 8:02 pm

Brilliant! New Scientist has asked over 70 of the world’s most brilliant and charismatic and modest scientists to forecast what might be the big breakthroughs in their fields over the next 50 years. Some of the many examples that might be of interest to CV readers:

  • Alex Vilenkin thinks we might find cosmic strings.
  • Gerard ‘t Hooft imagines a deterministic theory that would supercede quantum mechanics.
  • Lisa Randall hopes that the LHC will tell us something about the fundamental nature of spacetime.
  • Edward Witten thinks that string theory will be fertile, and is excited about extra-solar planets.
  • Steven Weinberg would like to see a theory of everything.
  • Max Tegmark will be printing T-shirts emblazoned with the aforementioned TOE.
  • David Deutsch looks forward to working quantum computers.
  • Rocky Kolb and Kip Thorne both predict that we’ll find gravitational waves from inflation.
  • Martin Rees wants to know if there was one Big Bang, or many.
  • Richard Gott imagines a colony on Mars.
  • Lawrence Krauss prevaricates about dark energy.
  • Frank Wilczek actually steps up to the plate, predicting superintelligent computers and abundant solar power.
  • Steven Pinker thinks it’s all just a trick to make him look foolish.

Hey, wait a minute — even I’m in there! Who knew? Here’s my prognostication:

The most significant breakthrough in cosmology in the next 50 years will be that we finally understand the big bang.

In recent years, the big bang model – the idea that our universe has expanded and cooled over billions of years from an initially hot, dense state – has been confirmed and elaborated in spectacular detail. But the big bang itself, the moment of purportedly infinite temperature and density at the very beginning, remains a mystery. On the basis of observational data, we can say with confidence what the universe was doing 1 second later, but our best theories all break down at the actual moment of the bang.

There is good reason to hope that this will change. The inflationary universe scenario takes us back to a tiny fraction of a second after the bang. To go back further we need to understand quantum gravity, and ideas from string theory are giving us hope that this goal is obtainable. New ways of collecting data about dark matter, dark energy and primordial perturbations allow us to test models of the earliest times. The decades to come might very well be when the human race finally figures out where it all came from.

[Here you can imagine some suitably aw-shucks paragraph in which I appear to be vaguely embarassed at all this talk of “brilliance,” which might be appropriate in describing Weinberg and Witten and ‘t Hooft but certainly doesn’t apply to little old me, who would never have made the cut if it weren’t for my blogging hobby, although I’m not quite sure how Max got in there either, and hey, if anyone wants to protest that I certainly do belong, that’s what comment sections are for. Don’t have time to construct it just now, but you know how it would go.]

Anyone else want to predict what the biggest breakthrough in the next 50 years will be?

  • lab lemming

    Congratulations, you are now up there with Borat’s cousin:

    I have to say, a lot of y’all seem awfuly sure of having today’s hypotheses remaining valid. Did anyone suggest things like:
    -consigning string theory to the same dustbin as ether and phogistron
    -proving the proton is stable.
    -demonstrating that 5 of the 6 solar system bodies with a history of surface or subsurfce water are lifeless (I was tempted to say all 6 dead, but finging life on just enceladus or just Ceres would be way more interesting, scientifically, than either all or none).

    What is the most widespread scientific hypothesis from the mid 50’s that is now discredited? From my perspective, I’d say that pre-plate theories on continental tectonics take top spot for “gosh, they were silly back then.” The granite moon runs a close second.

  • graviton383

    Here’s a few:

    (i) Quarks and leptons will be found to be composite objects at the LHC and our assumptions about the basic building blocks of matter will be proved wrong.

    (ii) There will be a breakthrough in accelerator technology allowing the construction of multi-TeV pp and e+e- colliders with a linear size below 1 km. (These will be need to study quark/lepton compositeness!)

    iii) Dark Matter will be found to have multiple components.

  • Eugene

    That male-female physicist ration will be about 1:1 and we all can go have a drink and sing a song of happiness.

  • anon

    Particle experimentalists will be considered for inclusion on lists of the most brilliant and charismatic and modest scientists. (Well, we can dream.)

  • Jeff

    we’ll find life or evidence of life beyond Earth in the universe. Maybe microbes on encealadus or clear atmospheric signatures on an exoplanet. Oh, and cool stuff about dark energy and matter will get done too, of course.

  • anonymous too

    Anon writes:

    Particle experimentalists will be considered for inclusion on lists of the most brilliant and charismatic and modest scientists. (Well, we can dream.)

    Did you miss Art McDonald, who is on the list?

  • JustAnotherInfidel

    If we’re talking public excitement then I’d have to say that if SETI turns something up (as Jeff said), there will be a fundamental shift in the way we see the universe.

    For physicicsts, if we find proton decay at KEK or another gauge group at LHC we will all be very giddy. Or, the condensed matter guys could finally figure out low temperature superconducting.

    Finally, we’re about due for another superstring revolution, so perhaps some intelligent grad student (or Witten) will find a vacuum selection mechanism and silence the string critics once and for all.

  • Count Iblis

    ‘t Hooft’s proposal is the most interesting

    The theory, or model, would have to be “deterministic”. It should describe certainties, not probabilities. I put deterministic between quotation marks because it would not enable intelligent creatures in that universe to predict the future, since nothing inside that universe can calculate things faster than the universe itself.

    In such a model, all that is needed are the local laws, the boundary conditions and the initial state. The rest is mathematics. Most of my colleagues have good reasons to suspect that such a model cannot exist. That’s why its discovery would be a breakthrough. I for one think it might be possible, but at present we do not understand how to do the maths.

    Curently we don’t understand quantum mechanics in all it’s aspects. We only understand it as an effective theory where observers are classical. That’s clearly not the most general case. I find it hard to believe that we could have a theory of everything and still not understand quantum mechanics fully.

  • Elliot

    1. We will come to understand that QM and gravity are intertwined by an radically new approach that utilizes information theory for its characterization.

    2. Dark energy will emerge as a natural consequence some form/interpretation of the holographic principle.


  • onymous

    Composite quarks and leptons at the LHC? That would be kind of difficult, given the multi-TeV LEP bounds on four-fermion operators….

  • anon

    Practical fusion power.

  • Thomas Larsson

    It is notable that ‘t Hooft, a father of the holographic principle, is so concerned about locality, i.e. anti-holography, that he is willing to look for an underlying deterministic theory. It is even more remarkable in view of the social stigma associated with hidden variables (10 crackpoints for item number 9).

    Personally, I strongly feel that giving up QM on the fundamental level is misguided, but the quest for locality is not. There are a few quantum gravities where we can do everything explicitly and all the way, and most of them are local rather than holographic.

    I am of course thinking about the free bosonic string in D dimensions, which may be regarded as a bona fide theory of 2D gravity coupled to D scalar fields. When D=26, this theory is consistent and holographic. However, when D &lt 26, the theory is still consistent (according to the no-ghost theorem, the Hilbert space has a positive-definite inner product, cf GSW chapter 2), but now correlators depend on separation, i.e. locality.

  • graviton383

    onymous: THe LHC discovery reach for composite fermions is about 10 times greater than LEP..only the ILC can compete.

  • anon

    @anonymous too:

    Indeed I had missed him. Interesting choice.

  • Dumb Biologist

    A sensitive space telescope, perhaps of a multiocular interferometer design, will make spectrographic readings of the atmosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet or exomoon, and determine from the abundance of chemicals therein, that the planet probably harbors life.

  • Alex

    Surely it has to be a revolutionary way to solve global warming or the energy crisis? Atleast I hope that’s what it might be.

    This is all so physics, or have I missed something, what about stem cells, AIDS, malaria and cancer?

  • Brett

    Here are several:

    Dark matter and dark energy will be understood an manifestations of the same phenomenon.

    Extra dimensions will be constrained to be smaller than Planck size.

    The absolute masses of neutrinos will be measured precisely.

    CPT will be observed to be violated.

  • Allen

    All this can be done only if we solve the water problems.

  • WeemaWhopper

    Interesting that a few of the 6 particle theorists mention the LHC, while the one particle experimenter mentions non-LHC detection of dark matter.

    Another interesting point about theorists and the LHC: for much of the past 15 or so years, very basic predictions for the LHC, like for the inclusive missing energy spectrum, were poorly computed, and off by an order of magintude or so. So while most of the theory community has been having a bloody good time inventing all sorts of fun stuff, the basic tools needed to evaluate/confirm/deny an LHC discovery sat underdeveloped.

    Or course it may be that new signals at the LHC will be so obvious that careful work on background estimation will not be required. But that is unlikely, and what is sometimes considered obvious turns out to be less obvious in retrospect… after all, supersymmetry was already discovered in the 1980’s at the SppS, but whoops, turned out it was just background.

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  • JustAnotherInfidel

    Didn’t some participant at the SLAC summer institute mention a breakdown of unitarity instead of a higgs particle a few months back? That would be interesting.

  • Keith

    You are all too conservative. How about…

    The world’s best known physicist will be an AI.

  • Sean

    That’s what we like to see! I suspect that something like that will happen down the road — but not in fifty years.

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  • sbar

    I am surprised on how narrowly focused the Science News 50 list predictions are. Each maven sees a little further but only in their field.
    For better predictions see Kurzweil. He sees the rate of progress accelerating sharply.The 21st century is equal to 1000 times more progress than the 20th. The singularity is in 2045.

  • Thomas Larsson

    The world’s best known physicist will be an AI.

    This reminds me of my time at a now-defunct AI company, which had the motto:

    Artificial intelligence is better than none.

  • fh

    Biggest breakthrough? Mind Machine Interfaces are perfected eventually allowing the uploading of human minds to computers. The ensuing social revolution is comparable to that of the invention of language.

  • fh

    Incidentally the distinction between artificial and natural intelligence becomes obsolete.

  • Count Iblis

    Ray Kurzweil and Hugo de Garis give their views here.

    I agree with de Garis that Kurzweils view is naive.

  • Urbano

    There will be a blog called “Prespoterous Cosmic Cocktail Party” (written without a keyboard, of course) whose contributors are going to be the “little Sean” and/or “little Jennifer” + parents :-).

  • sbar

    I think Kurzweil views are more firmly grounded. he describes what logically has a good probability of happening based on historical technological trends. De Garis is deeply pessimistic and believes the luddites and the tranhumanists will fight a “gigadeath” war. This seems very overstated. The luddites historically have episodically held back progress here and there but never in a lasting significant way. As a result we’re here reading blogs instead of hunting and gathering.

  • Count Iblis


    de Garis may be exaggerating things. But what I find unrealistic is that somehow the transhumanists will care a lot about biological humans. The transhumanists will have virtually no limits to continue to develop and within a short amount of time they will be so different from us that to them there won’t be much of a difference between humans, chimps, rats etc.

    How well do we treat these animals (they are much closer related to us than the transumanist will be to us)?

  • Brad

    The broadest over-arching consequence of advances in medicine and technology in general will most likely be that organised religion will die out. I think the reason educated people are less religious is that they appreciate how much of the world is potentially under our own control. This perception will become ever more widespread over the next fifty years as more people come into contact with the consequences of modern understanding of the world around us. Religion will die out not because of any kind of reverse evangelising, but simply because it will become self-evidently stupid to most people.

  • Ijon Tichy

    First a dozen things I think we won’t see in 50 years time:

    * Interstellar space travel.
    * Mammal-level AI.
    * Insect-level robotics.
    * Practical large-scale fusion.
    * A quantum theory of gravity.
    * Long-range weather prediction.
    * Elimination of poverty and war.
    * Mind uploading.
    * Elimination or great reduction of mental illness.
    * Humans visit Mars.
    * Space elevators.
    * Middle-class space tourism.

    Five things I think we might see or are likely to see:

    * Rich people will extend their life expectancy by 20 or 30 years.
    * Among rich and middle-class people, cancer and heart disease will no longer be the major killers that they once were.
    * Dark matter will be explained for the most part, but dark energy will remain a mystery.
    * SETI will detect some very interesting signals, but scientists will not agree as to whether these signals are intelligent or not.
    * Two more Millennium prize problems solved.

    Two things I am not sure about at all:

    * Practical quantum computers.
    * Detection of gravitational waves.

    Two things I am very sure about:

    * Very unexpected and astonishing discoveries will be made.
    * Ray Kurzweil will continue to make ridiculous, outlandish predictions, and people will continue to pay him for it.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Oh, and one more I’m virtually certain about:

    * Religion will continue to have a stranglehold over the vast bulk of humanity, especially in countries where poverty is rampant, but even in rich, well-educated societies, although in the latter it will be in a less organised, less traditional form.

  • Elliot

    I expect that cancer will be unravelled over the next 50 years and the basic outcome will that preventative nutrition and other lifestyle recommendations can eliminate 90% of cancers.

  • Paul Valletta

    Having read R Penrose’s:What is reality? first, I started reading through the other “Big Questions”, having not completed all the authors writings, I was amazed by Nick Bostrom’s : Do we live in a computer simulation ?

    Things start to get complex and confusing having reached the hope’s of Alexander Vilkin, “My hope is that Cosmic strings will be discovered. Strings are relics of the hot,high-energy epoch in the early Universe. They are thin tubes of energy sweeping through space at close to the speed of light. Strings are extremely heavy;1 metre of string can weigh as much as a thousand trillion tonnes. Cosmic strings may or may not exist. They are predicted in many particle physics models.”

    If a model “predicts” something, then surely they/it exists?

    This paragraph by AV caused me some discomfort: Why is it that some models predict things that cannot be confirmed or unconfirmed? Prediction a guarantee, or merely a PROBABILITY, ie neither true or false?

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Predictions for 2056 ? there will still be people saying the practical fusion reactors are only fifty years away.
    It comes across as an unfunny version of Chevy Chase solemly reminding TV viewers that “Francisco Franco is still dead”.

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  • chemicalscum

    It is interesting to note the number of “the most brilliant and charismatic and modest scientists” included who can essentially be described as “many worlders”: Weinberg, Tegmark, Deutsch, Rees and Wilcek.

    On this I love Tegmark’s new many different TOE T-shirts theory.

  • Bugs ‘n’ Gas Gal

    Genetically modified children will be born with repairs to inherited diseases and possibly with enhancements that promote selected tendencies such as those favoring greater skill in sports, art, languages, analytical thinking, etc.

  • hack

    String theory will be fertile? Horse manure is fertile.

  • Kuas

    Kurzweil is not naive: he just puts forth naive arguments because they sell. He’s smart enough to put his predictions safely into the future.

    Now he says the singularity is 2045, seems like people yousta be predicting around 2010. Wonder if we’re ever going to catch it.

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Cosmic Variance

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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