Big Surprises

By Sean Carroll | February 6, 2009 11:32 am

I got to have dinner last night with Robin Hanson, who blogs at Overcoming Bias. Robin is a creative big-picture thinker, who took a twisting career path from physics through philosophy of science and artificial intelligence research to become a tenured professor of economics. He posed a question, which he just re-posed at his blog: what is the most surprising thing we’ve learned about the universe?

Obviously the right answer depends on a set of expectations; surprising to whom? I originally suggested quantum mechanics, and in particular the fact that the outcomes of experiments are not perfectly predictable even in principle. I think that was the most surprising thing to the people who actually discovered it, in the context of what they thought they understood. But what about the most surprising thing to our pre-scientific hunter-gather ancestors? I suggested the fact that the same set of rules govern living beings and inanimate matter, but if you have any better ideas feel free to chime in.

But we can ask the complementary question: what is the most surprising thing about the universe that we haven’t yet discovered, but plausibly could? Something that is not already reasonably excluded by experiments that we’ve done, but also wouldn’t be readily accommodated by a theoretical model. So “string theory is right” certainly wouldn’t count, but neither would “the proton is heavier than the neutron.”

I once discussed this with Bill Wimsatt on an episode of Odyssey (RealPlayer). I went with “reproducible violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” But there are plenty of other good possibilities; what if we discovered tachyons, or that there really was an Intelligent Designer? Suggestions welcome.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
  • http://diracseashore.wordpress.com moshe

    Past surprises, I am with you on quantum mechanics. Future ones? maybe subtle manifestations of quantum gravity on macroscopic scales. Don’t ask for details please, but we can probably all agree that would be surprising.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    That would be surprising and interesting, but — most surprising? More than tachyons, or an intelligent designer?

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    I would be very surprised to learn that our universe doesn’t allow for the evolution of life.

  • Hal

    Isn’t the second law more of a logical necessity than a physical phenomenon? More ways to have a scrambled egg than an unscrambled one (although actually, most restaurants offer more ways to have unscrambled eggs than scrambled ones).

  • Jason Pace

    The discovery of an intelligent designer would only surprise those who don’t believe in one – which is a relatively small group. The number of people mixing about with the tiny little quanta of the universe is also a small group, relatively speaking (Ha. For you Albert). So the prize for “most surprising” thing we could discover would have to surprise all of us or “most” of us, would it not?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Hal, it’s not a logical necessity. Even if there are more ways to have a scrambled egg than an unscrambled one, that doesn’t logically imply that every way is equally likely. It’s not hard to imagine irreversible fundamental dynamics that would lead entropy to decrease. (But the real world doesn’t seem to be like that.)

  • Jonathan Pace

    Maybe if scientists were able to prove mathematically that the Hokie-Pokie really IS what its all about. That would certainly blow minds.

  • http://stephanhoyer.com/ Stephan Hoyer

    My favorite is from the afterward of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact: deep in the digits of pi, we find a hidden message of overwhelming statistical significance.

    If you haven’t read it, see, e.g. http://www.priups.com/riklblog/dec06/061220-sagan.htm

    I think this falls in the category of discovery of an intelligent designer, but more specifically it is an example of what might provide truly compelling proof for someone like myself.

  • http://diracseashore.wordpress.com moshe

    Sean, I didn’t tell you which subtle effects I have in mind, so at this stage it’s not either/or situation.

  • Nigel

    Most surprising discovery-to-be: Scientific proof that the bird is NOT the word.

  • Brian

    The more I think about it, the more I’m shocked that we have yet to find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. If in 20-30 years, after putting serious effort into examining all of the stars in the solar neighborhood (perhaps within a kpc radius), we still find no compelling evidence of intelligent life, I believe this would be profound. It suggests that either we’re unique and perhaps created by a higher power (which I don’t believe), or there is something inherent about intelligent beings that makes their civilizations extremely short-lived. This, to me, would be profound. Of course, it wouldn’t be an overnight discovery, but accumulated evidence over decades.

  • metal

    I think the most surprising thing to me would be if string theory were right after all.

    That would show a distinct lack of imagination on part of the laws of physics.

  • Ja Muller

    “The more I think about it, the more I’m shocked that we have yet to find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. If in 20-30 years, after putting serious effort into examining all of the stars in the solar neighborhood”

    Really? You are surprised that we haven’t found intelligent life when we have been looking for only 10^-9 times the age of the universe?

  • GM Hurley

    Hello Sean

    How about combining your suggestion of an intelligent designer, and JasonPace’s observation that this would only surprise a tiny minority?

    Wouldn’t all parties be surprised if evidence emerged, from a suitably ostentatious miracle, that God exists, but then the Deity makes it clear that either (a) there is no personal immortality for humans, or (b) there is personal immortality, but God is malicious, not benign.

    Hume thought he was undermining the argument from design by arguing that the state of the universe indicated a remarkably incompetent or malign Creator. Suppose this turns out not to be a joke, but a (by chance) correct inference, well founded on the available data?

  • http://cognitionandevolution.blogspot.com/ Michael Caton

    Most suprising, I think: how un-central and un-special each of us, and people in general are, in the universe. You could say this is a more general expression of other statements here (same principles apply to living and non-living things; size of the universe.)

  • Levendis

    I would be pretty surprised if it turned out that P=NP.

    And just for fun, finding out that we really lived in The Matrix would be interesting.

  • http://cognitionandevolution.blogspot.com/ Michael Caton

    To GM Hurley: some of your questions are good cognitive exercises – I like to think of them as alternative theology. I mention a few scenarios in another blog:

    http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com/2008/12/ghosts-unicorns-and-psychics.html

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Any evidence for something we would currently consider supernatural, even as mild as parapsychology, would be a huge surprise to me.

    Truly new laws of physics make for a more interesting thought experiment, perhaps.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk/ Pieter Kok

    Past surprise: the discovery that the universe obeys a set of rules that humans can understand.

    Future surprise: if we were to discover that Earth is the only place that habours life (whatever we mean by “life”).

  • Steve Flammia

    Finding a contradiction in the axioms of mathematics (say, ZF) would be the most surprising thing. Can’t rule that one out, strangely enough, at least not within the framework of the axioms themselves.

    Finding closed time-like curves would be a close runner up, as would P=NP or =PSPACE (which actually follows from existence of CTCs).

  • Matt

    How about something as simple as if it turns out that the known laws of physics only applying in our solar system? The most basic assumption of all astronomy and cosmology has been that the laws of the universe apply equally everywhere. What we discover that once you get outside our solar system, there are, say, the strength of the gravitation force increases. Or, hell, why not that there are four large spatial dimensions?

  • http://dhyb.blogspot.com Andy Wood

    …what is the most surprising thing about the universe that we haven’t yet discovered, but plausibly could?

    How about analytic solutions of the Navier-Stokes equations for turbulent flow? Or would that be a mathematical surprise, rather than a physical one?

    Also, I’d pay good money to see anyone blow interlocking smoke rings.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I would be most surprised by any sort of faster than light travel or time travel. So basically, I agree with you on tachyons.

  • Interested

    Those who speak of Omega Point ( I associate that with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the deceased Jesuit priest who was trained as a geologist too but spent much time on paleontology, and thinks in an unconventional Catholic or Christian way, in that, where popular Christian thinking is that God comes and brings those saved to heaven, Teilhard thinks that, mankind by their own boot strapping efforts will bring themselves to God) Teilhard credits species man with a lot of potential because through his science studies, and field work, he saw the efforts of man from antiquity and how far had come by their own efforts and thus I think he projects the exponential effort to specie man who is then able to bring specie man to God.

    Somehow between “here” and “Omega Point” , something/s or many things must happen, be it leap of consciousness, deepened understanding, broader deeper knowledge, news way of perception, deepened perception, new or different ways of analysis, that, come to bear that brings us from “here” to “Omega Point”, it being another matter whether we specie man will be extinct before or at Omega Point.

    On the surface, it might be there are those who think there is or can be discovered road map/s to Omega Point, and there could be those who do not even consider directly a or any road map/s to Omega Point.
    If Teilhard de Chardin represents those who think that specie man will one day, reach Omega Point on their own boot strapping efforts, without intervention of God. Then I wonder whether Dalai Lama, thinks there is no issue of Omega Point, but nonetheless, by his teaching from the Mahayana school (of Buddhism) that it is better to delay crossing over to Nibbana till every sentient life has crossed over, and that is against the background that he thinks it will take 30,000 to 40,000 eons of personal effort through rebirths in that immense long span of time (not clear what an “eon” is) one can infer that, when that happens when all sentient life cross over to Nibbana, then Omega Point is reached.

    The idea of Omega Point, seems to arise in midst of science and theism ( or even pantheism, like those who attribute pantheist to Einsten) , and the idea of all sentient life crossing over to Nibbana arises in midst of Buddhism. Whatever the terminology or conceptualization, it envisages long spans of time, as well as lot of personal and specie human effort, collective effort, and provides room for envisaging that there could arise new modes of analysis to supplement enhance old archaic modes of analysis and perception. Does it also mean some sleeping gene in our specie human will kick in? Or we will develop new functionalities or new multi dimensional analysis. I do not know.

  • Mike

    I really like someone’s remark above about finding a message in the digits of Pi. It would have to be compelling, that is clearly unlikely to arise due to arbitrary choice of decipher.

    To me this ranks among “most surprising” not because it might be seen as indicating a designer — I agree with posts above that that wouldn’t surprise most people, even if it surprises people who prioritize explanations based on their simplicity. To me it’s so surprising because it indicates the designer even designed mathematics! That is to say, not even math is above god.

    I can’t imagine how it could be “discovered,” but any clear indication that mathematics itself is not absolute, that for example it is a construct of our history and experience, should also be considered as most surprising.

  • Mike

    In terms of possibilities that I consider _plausible_ but _extremely unlikely_, I would be very surprised to learn that Earth has been visited by intelligent extra-terrestrials, or that this occurs in my lifetime.

    If we want to elevate the level of surprise, let us presume the extra-terrestrials land their UFO and out steps a creature that is indistinguishable from a modern human. To go further, let’s say this creature is a genetic clone of someone who lives here on Earth. But now I’m getting silly I guess.

    On an entirely different note, I think discovering that us, and the universe as we know it, are all part of an enormous computer simulation — this would have to compete for most surprising too.

  • Elliot Tarabour

    It would be tremendously surprising to me for us to experimentally prove that there is an continuity of our existence beyond our physical existence here on earth. Life after death. I am however highly skeptical that this will be the case.

    Another very surprising discovery would be that complex information processing is happening elsewhere in the universe in environments (i.e center of stars) that we currently consider not candidates for life.

    e.

  • Mike

    Sean:

    Regarding the most surprising thing we know about the universe, there is one that is perhaps second nature to us physicists but when you stop to think about it is really remarkable, and would surprise anyone to whom it was explained:

    The speed of a light wave is the same regardless of your motion relative the source of the wave or any other reference object moving in any way.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk/ Pieter Kok

    Mike, any message of finite length is contained in the digits of pi.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I guess this is a variant of the “intelligent designer” angle, but discovering the universe really is a simulation would certainly surprise a lot of folks, I’m guessing. Hell, it’d rock the spiritualists just as hard as the empiricists, and probably trigger a global mental meltdown. The way I suppose it would play out would be a steady build-up of increasingly implausible, yet reproducible, experimental results from our latest satellites and accelerators that no sensible physical model we can conceive of could ever accommodate. PAMELA just being the tip of the iceberg, in other words. Ultimately we figure out that we’ve discovered the limitations of our simulators’ computational power and/or handle on complexity, and are now seeing the code they couldn’t debug, or their sub-godly physics engine, or whatever.

  • http://jivlain.wordpress.com Jivlain

    Well, granted, as I understand the physics it is somewhat predicted, but… I would say that them most surprising thing we could discover about the universe would be another one.

    Peter: Sagan’s point was that the existence of a interesting message surprisingly early within pi’s digits.

  • Scott

    We could plausibly discover evidence of past civilization on Earth, say, dinosaur technology. The geological/fossil record is not perfectly fleshed out (heh!) at the level of a couple million years. Keep in mind that hominids a couple million years ago were pretty different from today.

    The fact that this past technology was lost, and went undiscovered so long, might then help explain the short lives of civilizations, and thus why we have not heard from extraterrestrials.

  • Sili

    The Riemann Hypothesis is undecidable.

    But I don’t know if that counts.

    Actually. Does anyone know of a good discussion of the consequences of the RH being false?

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    To me the biggest surprise is that the Universe is capable of generating complex enough structures that actually attempt to understand the rules that formulate them in the first place.

  • efp

    I’d be surprised if the LHC destroyed the Earth. Or unleashed a plague of radioactive zombies.

    Seriously, how about the the LHC doesn’t find the Higgs Boson? Or anything else beyond the standard model?

  • marc

    The LHC discovers a particle with a spin (in units of h-bar) of 0.36

  • Count Iblis

    Sili, if the Riemann Hypothesis is undecidable, then there can be no proof of that fact. This is because if the Riemann hypothesis is false, then there always exists a proof as you can always point out that particular root that is not on the critical line. So, the only way the Riemann hypothesis can be undecidable is if it is true. A proof of undecidability would thus be equivalent to a proof of the Riemann hypothesis itself which would contradict the undecidability.

  • Jake

    How about experimental proof of CPT violation.

  • Pope Maledict XVI

    The sad truth is that, after the last few years, discovering *anything* new and really interesting would surprise me. I mean, apart from the cosmological constant, nothing really exciting has happened observationally. And theory-wise, nothing since about 1999.

  • ground

    Quarks and their friends are described at one level. At an higher level, here are the atoms. Then the molecules, the cells, the living bodies, the ecology, and so one.

    For convenience we use to describe each level using its own laws (no QM in cells description!), but everybody believe that the higher laws are in fact special cases of bottom laws.

    Imagine that’s not true, i.e. we have to introduce new laws to describe the highest levels, and that these laws do not come from the bottom. I’d be surprized. And a lot of folk too, I’d guess.

  • rww

    We discover that the universe is radically smaller than we suppose.

  • gopher65

    “reproducible violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

    That’s mine as well, kinda. I have this… ‘wish’ or ‘fancy’ I guess you could call it… that maybe the Second Law of Thermodynamics has a caveat built into it so that it doesn’t fully apply on gigantic scales.

    Probably not true, but it would be kinda cool:).

    Obviously, that would only apply if it took place within our universe. Clearly if we could open a portal to another universe, or create mini purpose-made universes that we could extract usable energy from (like the Ancients on Stargate with their Zero Point Modules:P), then it would be simple to violate the Second Law on any scale (though that probably wouldn’t be a true violation, since the law only applies within a closed system).

  • gopher65

    I also think it would be surprising if we found out that the universe was… how could you put it… um… “dimensionally consistent” maybe. IE: the 4 dimensions shrink as we go back in time, and expand as we go forward in time. So when the universe was very young and small (from our perspective), time was going very quickly, so for anything living in that era, it would appear just like the universe today.

    And as you go forward in time, and the universe experiences heat death (from our perspective) if you zoom out far enough, and speed up time far enough, you’d find out that all those little photons zooming around were actually the building blocks for reaaaaalllly big quarks and such things.

    It would mean that while our universe is finite in our 3 familiar spacial dimensions, it would be effectively infinite in the time dimension do to the compression and expansion of time (it would have to expand and contract in order for the speed of light to appear constant from any reference frame).

    Again, probably not true, but I think it would be cool. It would be nice to know that the universe wasn’t going to die a long, slow death, forever.

  • gopher65

    errr, obviously I meant “So when the universe was very young and small (from our perspective), time was going very slowly”.

  • http://www.youtube.com/ArjenDijksman Arjen Dijksman

    What came to me as a surprise is what Feynman predicted on quantum mechanics “…and you will find someday that, after all, it isn’t as horrible as it looks”. Feynman’s Epilogue in The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

  • Bahata

    A reconciliation of modern science with spiritual experience. Human culture has spawned both these directions of enquiry and discovered commonalities in both directions. Perhaps such a reconciliation leads to a totally novel aspect of human culture. Maybe the nature and structure of time becomes better understood and assimilated. (I have not distinguished between past & future items and not addressed the surprise motif, but feel that what I write has connection with the theme of discussion.)

  • haig

    Anything that would add credence to mind-body duality would and should be the most surprising and important discoveries of all time. I’m not holding my breath, but if evidence was found to show that some part of our minds were not bound by the material brain, than that would literally blow my mind.
    That would also have repercussions in everything from biology to fundamental physics to even mathematics.

  • Skeptical

    I’m sure the most surprising thing to early hunter-gatherers was motions of celestial bodies. The second most was the discovery of beer.

    I think the most startling discover in the future would be the discovery of non-human intelligence, whether it was AI or other. I think it would be more startling if intelligence was discovered in some unexpected environment.

  • anonyme

    The biggest surprise to date? How utterly predictable (and pathetic) human behavior is. Hopefully a non-human intelligence wouldn’t share the same flaws, but I doubt that WE could be the creators of such an intelligence.

  • Sili

    Oh …

    It shows that I never had a head for maths, doesn’t it?

    Thank you.

    So what if it is false? Not that I think it is, but someone must have looked at what the consequences would be in order to attempt a proof by contradiction.

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisy rose

    The biggest surprise ? That there really is a God and in the end all of us, even the worst criminals will be *saved*

    I have blown interlocking smoke rings.

  • http://opines.mythusmage.com Alan Kellogg

    That the universe is unfolding as it should, but that unfolding involves a phenomenon we are not yet aware of.

    Related: Fundamental particles can’t vibrate.

  • Peter Shor

    That the law of conservation of energy is violated?

  • Pope Maledict XVI

    “That the law of conservation of energy is violated?”

    That wouldn’t surprise me at all, because we know for sure that it is happening right now. The vacuum energy density is constant, hence the amount of vacuum energy increases all the time as the universe expands.

  • John R Ramsden

    Regarding the digits of PI, most of the cognoscenti reckon it is normal, in that every finite digit sequence eventually occurs. I don’t think this has yet been proved; but if it is true then every conceivable message in whatever general encoding scheme one chooses to use must be there somewhere if you look far enough (although of course in practice “far enough” is almost certainly far out of reach of any conceivable calculation).

    As for the most surprising future result of science, how about a model (susceptible to experiment somehow) that presents physical interactions occurring at all scales, resulting in something akin to a logistic map where all known phenomena occur in a range of scales corresponding to a “clear” layer and the Planck scale is merely the onset of an impenetrable “chaotic layer”?

    Sounds like a kook idea now of course; but then that’s almost a prerequisite for a future surprise ;-)

  • John R Ramsden

    The links in my previous post don’t seem to work. So let’s try square brackets, and I’ll give the URLs explicitly

    [a href="http://www.economicexpert.com/a/Normal:number.htm]http://www.economicexpert.com/a/Normal:number.htm[/a]

    [a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistic_map"]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistic_map[/a]

  • http://www.yisongyue.com Yisong

    It’s been touched on earlier, but the first thing that pops into my (biased) mind is general artificial intelligence. I work in AI, and I’ve had many conversations debating whether or not it is possible to write a sentient computer program (or some other implementation). From my personal experience, it seems most people have deeply ingrained notions about what it means to be sentient. These notions appear closely tied to what it means to be human, which includes but goes beyond any religious views people might have.

  • http://theczardictates.blogspot.com CarlZ

    How about the universe turning out to be analog after all and that “information” isn’t as fundamental as we currently think? Perhaps below the Planck scale fundamental processes cease to be quantized and become continuous again? That would require revisions to all kinds of current ideas about QM, entropy, and “conservation of information” as a basic principle.

    It’s an interesting observation that in each generation we tend to view the universe as an example of the most complicated mechanism we are familiar with. In the 19th century, we saw the universe as being analogous to mechanical thermodynamical machines like steam engines. Newton and his contemporaries saw the universe in terms of clockwork. And so on.

    In that spirit, is the current preference to think of the universe as the ultimate information processor really a fundamental idea, or just us projecting our fascination with digital computers onto the universe?

  • coolstar

    I agree that “surprising” has to mean to “most” people, so anything in quantum mechanics doesn’t count. Neither does FTL, since most people believe in it anyway! So, I go either with time travel (most people don’t equate that with FTL) and ancient, advanced technological civilizations on earth. The latter obviously doesn’t violate any known laws of physics, so it has to be my top choice.

  • coolstar

    Oh, how about a couple more: 1) a communicating interstellar community (with interstellar travel by at least some of the species) and 2) another technological society in our solar system NOW (which also originated in the S.S.)

  • Chris Greene

    Johnathan Pace wrote:
    “Maybe if scientists were able to prove mathematically that the Hokie-Pokie really IS what its all about. That would certainly blow minds.”

    Babylon 5 reference?

  • Clerk

    As far as (already figured out) well I think Feynman said it best, when asked if he could pass on one message to a future generation, what would it be? He replied, “that everything is made of very small things called atoms; and they move!” (loose quote!) But I think that is very informative. . .

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    How about if it was established somehow that in principle, the human mind is capable
    of understanding our universe. That is, there is nothing that could be learned which is beyond human understanding.

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  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Most surprising thing?

    Discovery of the remains of an advanced, industrial, nuclear-capable civilization in the deep (>50 Ma) fossil record would turn a couple of heads.

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  • paradoctor

    Surprizes so far: the size and age of the universe. Surprizes in the future: Time travel, fossil evidence of high-tech dinosaurs, reproducible psi powers.

  • Gavin Flower

    Once you stop taking our existence for granted,
    I think the most surprising thing is that anything EXISTS at all!

    I know think of the Universe as a closed multidimensional (including one or more “time like” dimensions) system that no more a start point than a sphere in 3 dimensional space

  • Gavin Flower

    >>> made some obvious grammatical corrections <<<

    Once you stop taking our existence for granted,
    I think the most surprising thing is that anything EXISTS at all!

    I now think of the Universe as a closed multidimensional (including one or more “time like” dimensions) system, that no more has a start point than does a sphere in 3 dimensional space.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Carl,
    I think quantum mechanics predates the digital revolution by a fair ways. But Analog gravity and digital everything else would be cool.

  • Louis Archuleta

    The item that will surprise modern physics is that the present concept of time is not correct. It will be found that time is really composed of three distinct dimensions and that time really passes from the future to the past. This discovery will also change General Relativity by revising the notion of inertia being not tied to the gravitational field and being a function of the future dimension (FT) providing the extra energy that inertia requires, and that the inertial energy passes thru the present time [Time Now, TN] (which contains all of our physical universe) into the past dimension (TP). The past dimension TP is a closed dimension embedded in our present time dimension TN which expands due to the extra energy passing from the future time dimension (dark energy). Tachyons act as messinger particles from TN to TF, which orders the zero point energy (which is in the future time dimension) and allow a modified Wheeler Many Worlds scenerio in which there is only one “real” world at TN creating future worldlines which obey quantum mechanics in TF. The Time Now (TN) dimension is expanding as a consquence of the Big Bang pushing into the Future Time (TF) dimension. There are way too many ideas that are generated by having distinct time dimensions and time passing to add to this short discussion. By observation, time does pass, it does not run backward, static (block time) violates causuality and the Uncertainy Principle.

  • Rafael S. Calsaverini

    I don’t what it would be, but I’m pretty sure it won’t come from high-energy physics. There are enough fancy weird things we know about quantum fields and tiny particles. Even if we find weirder physics in this scale, it would only shock those few who understand how weird it is, and why it is unexpected.

    If we find out that there ain’t no Higgs particle and spontaneous symmetry breaking is not enough to explain a big deal of the microphysics it would of course be a surprise to many (not all…) physicists. But it wouldn’t change the world in a short time scale (like quantum mechanics did).

    The next great big surprise will come, in my opinion, from neuroscience. And it’s already happening: we are finding out that it’s not that hard to interface the brain with electronics, we are now able to make neural circuits with (very simple) specific purposes, etc, etc.

    What we now know is that there is a reasonable probability that in a few decades the next technological leap could be related to the use our brains to directly control electronic machines. This was unthinkable science-fiction garbage 15 years ago. It would be a really great surprise.

  • Rafael S. Calsaverini

    [cite] But it wouldn’t change the world in a short time scale (like quantum mechanics did). [/cite]

    I probably should have said:

    like the atomic hypothesis, together with the understanding of the microscopic quantum mechanical structure of matter did.

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  • Joel

    Ok, Ok… most surprising thing so far? Got to be quantum mechanics.

    Now, most surprising things that might turn out to be true? My list is, ahem, unsurprising:

    1. That consciousness isn’t necessarily tied to our physical brains and can be transferred and preserved to facilitate immortality.

    2. That intelligent life on earth is unique in the universe.

    3. That intelligent life on earth isn’t unique in the universe and its evidence turns out to be nearly ubiquitous, once we have the ability to properly look for it.

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  • Ahmed

    “Surprise” and discovery are essentially the same thing, since you really haven’t learned anything new if your state of info has come in accordance with your knowledge base beforehand. That’s why the biggest discoveries were the most surprising ones – QM (uncertainty in the universe), chaos (and its consequences), the invariance of the speed of light, the relationship between ‘light’ and ‘matter’, and the non-euclidean fabric of space-time. They are all Holy Crap type of things. The human mind did not evolve to fathom these things about the world.

    However, since you said ‘about the universe’ and not about physics, I would be tempted to look at mathematical side too. Math is supposedly axiomatic, so there is nothing more surprising than discovering something completely shocking and unbelievable and horrendous in a system of thought you put down *yourself*. And of course Godel sits near the top in that realm. Logic itself is inconsistent, i.e, illogical, or incomplete. Which is possibly harder to swallow. That discovery goes beyond surprise IMHO. It goes against not just what we thought but how we thought (and continue to think). We’re still doing science logically, using notions of causation and such, even though it is potentially a dead end. We have no other options, unless I am mistaken. That’s pretty damn surprising and downright scary to anyone new to science.

    Future surprises: let someone link the coupling of information and thermodynamics with either QM or fundamental mathematical logic, or both. I think I’d be spilling beers over that for a very long time . And speaking of time.. never mind :)

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] cosmicvariance.com .

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