Does age bring wisdom? Perhaps in some ways it does, but when it comes to pondering the great cosmic questions, older folks might be just as much in the dark as their younger counterparts. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to spend time ruminating over some of the mysteries that keep today’s scientists and other thinkers awake at nights. Here, as reported by, is a quick rundown of some of these imponderables.

• How did life begin? Don’t misunderstand—evolutionary biologists have a pretty good idea how certain organisms evolved into others, but they still don’t know exactly what moment a miracle kicked it all off. How did things get from the “primordial soup” of the building blocks of life to the formation of self-replicating cells? The leading theory for the past 50 years has been that an electrical discharge led to chemical reactions that created the first amino acids, but scientists don’t all agree. Some think the causative factor was volcanic action and others think it may have been meteorites that brought life.

• Why do people dream? “Why?” might be the most difficult question for science to answer. Humans certainly do dream, as evidenced by advanced brain imaging technology, but what purpose does it serve? Why do neurons keep firing even as the body and conscious mind are at rest? Cognitive scientists theorize that memory, learning and emotions may be tied to the ability to dream, but so far they have found no conclusive links that would explain the odd little movies that brains play while people sleep.

• Is there a pattern behind prime numbers? Prime numbers are those that are divisible only by themselves and 1. Examples include the numbers 3 and 7 and 3,169. This property lets them serve as encryption keys for digital security, but it also means that mathematicians have been unable to discern a pattern for which numbers are prime, a problem known as the Riemann Hypothesis. Unlocking this puzzle could have consequences for a society like ours whose communication networks are entirely built on numbers.

• What is the cure for cancer? Sadly, humanity will never be able to find a single cure for cancer because the term “cancer” actually applies to a whole collection of diseases that are encoded into human genes. Just as people will never wipe all bacteria off the earth, humans can’t create a pill or shot that will cure all types of cancer. However, as science keeps getting better and better at both prevention and treatment, it will better understand the factors that are within human control and learn how to avoid them.

• Can people travel through time? People all, of course, travel forward through time at a regular rate, and Einstein’s theory of special relativity posits that time can be compressed such that a person going fast enough might be able to travel far into the future. Using concepts like wormholes, some physicists have even suggested that it might be possible to visit the past. But if that were the case, wouldn’t people from the future be able to live among us today? We don’t know, and these hypotheses just aren’t testable under known conditions today.

• Is this universe the only one? Interdimensional travel is another beloved sci-fi concept that seems to offer limitless potential. Are there in fact parallel universes out there, coexisting with our own? The “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics certainly thinks so. According to this theory, all possible histories and futures are real. Reality is like a tree with infinite branches, and people only get to travel down one. Sadly, it seems highly unlikely that humans can create a machine that will transport them to the universe of, for example, talking bananas.

• What exactly is consciousness? The concept of consciousness exists in the gray area where science meets philosophy. What is this quality that people have that makes them aware of themselves, that allows them to think and hope and create? If an electrical current could run through a disembodied brain such that it seemed to function just like the brain in a living person’s head, could it be said that brain is also conscious? The fact that there doesn’t seem to be any universal way to detect or measure consciousness is what makes it so frustratingly elusive.

Well, there they are: seven headscratchers to keep the curious awake at night. Ultimate answers to these and other similarly compelling mysteries may not be forthcoming anytime soon, but there’s a thrill to thinking them over anyway!

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