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13 of the most profound questions about the cosmos and ourselves


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Science is very good at explaining the “how” – how the planets revolve around the sun on elliptical orbits, how evolution by natural selection produces the vast diversity of life forms that we see, and so on. It’s far less good at answering the “why?” – why are things as they are?

To celebrate New Scientist’s 65th anniversary, we’ll attempt to fill in that gap, plunging into the twilight zone where science meets metaphysics and philosophy as we peel back layers of understanding to find deeper truths about some of the most mysterious questions surrounding life, the universe and everything. Or, more likely, more onion.

The concept of the big bang revolutionised 20th-century cosmology. But the idea that the universe began from this point, a case of something from nothing, seems increasingly unlikely.

We are tiny specks of life in a vast, indifferent cosmos – but to say that decreases the value of our existence is to measure ourselves against the wrong thing.

Dig down, and evolution by natural selection is just about spontaneous, sustained accumulation of complexity – if life elsewhere exists, it’s likely to develop in the same way.

The one-way flow of time is one of the great mysteries of physics. It might be that we see causes and effects just because our information about reality is incomplete.

The human capacity for both good and evil has long mystified philosophers. Evolutionary biology suggests they are both offshoots of one of our oddest character traits.

Physicists have long speculated why our universe seems “just right” for life. The most complex answer might be the simplest – that every other universe also exists.

It’s easy to think human conscious experience is unique, but a better understanding of consciousness’s mysteries comes by tracing it back in the evolutionary tree.

It’s easy to think human conscious experience is unique, but a better understanding of consciousness’s mysteries comes by tracing it back in the evolutionary tree.

Quantum theory is peerless at explaining reality, but assaults our intuitions of how reality should be. It seems likely the fault lies with our intuitions.

Nothing in the cosmos can travel faster than light speed. By distinguishing cause and effect and stopping everything happening in a jumbled mess, our existence depends on it.

Myths and stories trump rational reasoning when it comes to analysing distant threats like climate change. But we have tools to combat that – and it’s a myth irrationality is on the rise.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been going on for 60 years without success. Given the hurdles to interstellar communication, that’s just a blink of an eye.

We have made huge progress in understanding some bits of the cosmos, but we’ve hit a brick wall with things like quantum theory and our own minds. Is there a way round?

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