A beautiful question motivates a quest for answers. Helping students come up with quality questions is one of the most valuable skills we can help them develop, and one way to assist in this development is to show them the questions that motivate the quests of great thinkers.

John Brockman, a writer and literary agent in New York moderates Edge, a Web site where he asked leading natural and social scientists, “What is the big question you are asking yourself?”  Below are some of the fascinating responses he received.  You can find all the responses at: (http://www.edge.org).

(1) What is the crucial distinction between inanimate matter and an entity which can act as an “agent,” manipulating the world on its own behalf, and how does that change happen? — PHILIP ANDERSON, Physicist and Nobel laureate, Princeton University

(2) Is the universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident or a great thought? — JOHN D. BARROW, Astronomer, University of Sussex

(3) How can we build a new ethics of respect for life that goes beyond individual survival to include the necessity of death, the preservation of the environment and our current and developing scientific knowledge? — MARY CATHERINE BATESON, Anthropologist, George Mason University

(4) Which cognitive skills develop in any reasonably normal human environment and which only in specific sociocultural contexts? – JOHN T. BRUER, President, James S. McDonnell Foundation

(5) How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind? — WILLIAM H. CALVIN, Neurophysiologist, University of Washington

(6) Any musically aware listener will know of music that breaks out of established forms or syntax to profound effect — my personal favorites include Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony,” Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” Debussy’s “Apres Midi d’un Faune.” What is the most that we can ever say objectively about what those composers are discovering? — PHILIP CAMPBELL, Editor, Nature

(7) If ethnicity and the human use of biological cues (and cultural and linguistic cues) to indicate social identity are parts of our evolutionary legacy, it makes it that much harder to eradicate ethnocentrism and racism. Can we do it? — RACHEL CASPARI, Anthropologist, University of Michigan

(8) What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like? — RICHARD DAWKINS, Evolutionary biologist, Oxford University

(9) A crowd can empty a football stadium in minutes, solving what is an intractable computational problem and exhibiting large-scale adaptive intelligence in the absence of central direction. Why are decentralized processes ubiquitous throughout nature and society — evolution, itself, is such a process — and why do people remain so distrustful of them that they will sacrifice their autonomy and freedom for centralized solutions? — ARTHUR DE VANY, Behavioral scientist, University of California at Irvine

(10) How on earth does the brain manage its division of labor problem –that is, how do the quite specialized bits manage to contribute something useful when they get “recruited” by their neighbors to assist in currently dominant tasks? — DANIEL C. DENNETT, Philosopher, Tufts University

(11) What do collapses of past societies teach us about our own future? — JARED DIAMOND, Biologist, University of California at Los Angeles Medical School

(12) What makes a soul? And if machines ever have souls, what will be the equivalent of psychoactive drugs? Of pain? Of the physical/emotional high I get from having a clean office? — ESTHER DYSON, President, Edventure Holdings; RELEASE 1.0 newsletter

(13) What goes on inside the head of a baby? –FREEMAN DYSON, Physicist, Institute for Advanced Study

(14) As biological and traditional forms of cultural evolution are superseded by electronic (or postelectronic) evolution, what will be the differentially propagating “units” and the outcome of the natural selection among them? — PAUL EWALD, Biologist, Amherst College

(15) Will the “theory of everything” be a theory of principles, not particles? Will it invoke order from above, not below? — KENNETH FORD, Retired Director, American Institute of Physics

(16) How do intelligent beings learn to adapt successfully on their own to a rapidly changing world without forgetting what they already know? — STEPHEN GROSSBERG, Cognitive scientist, Boston University

(17) How can we reconcile our desire for fairness and equity with the brutal fact that people are not all alike? — JUDITH RICH HARRIS, Developmental psychologist

(18) What do collapses of past societies teach us about our own future? –JARED DIAMOND, Biologist, University of California at Los Angeles Medical School

(19) Is there a way to enlarge our separate tribal loyalties, to include all our fellow humans? — REUBEN HERSH, Mathematician

(20) Why is music such a pleasure? — NICHOLAS HUMPHREY, Psychologist, The New School

(21) For how long can Christianity and Islam survive the recovery of living organisms from beyond our planet by our species? Can religion exist after humans have created living entities that reproduce? — RICHARD LEAKEY, Paleoanthropologist; former director, Kenya Wildlife Service

(22) Why are religions still vital? — ELAINE H. PAGELS, Professor of religion, Princeton University

(23) Fundamentally, is the flow of time something real, or might our sense of time passing be just an illusion that hides the fact that what is real is only a vast collection of moments? — LEE SMOLIN, Physicist, Penn State University

(24) Why are most individuals and all human societies grossly underachieving their potentials? — DUNCAN STEEL, Author 

(25) Is the phenomenology of modern biology converging on a small number of basic truths or will it increasingly diverge, becoming so endlessly complex that no single human mind will be able to encompass it? –ROBERT A. WEINBERG, M.D. Biologist, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, M.I.T.

–Skip Downing, Facilitator, On Course Workshop, Skip@OnCourseWorkshop.com

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