The survey included 2,000 British adults, and was commissioned to mark the launch of Science Month with the respondents asked about the scientific conundrums they would most like to see answered. The top ten scientific conundrums according to the British public were:
Are we alone in the universe? - 54%
Scientists say the universe is likely to contain many planetary systems where the conditions are ripe for intelligent life to evolve. However, we may not ever develop the technological wherewithal to reach out millions of light-years to make contact.
Will there ever be a cure for cancer? - 46%
Survival rates for different forms of cancer are improving all the time with many new treatments in the research pipeline. While it is unlikely that there will be a magic, overnight cure in the near future, patients will live for longer and longer periods.
Does God exist? - 39%
There is no empirical, measurable scientific evidence for the existence of God.
How big is space? - 33%
Some astronomers believe there is no limit to the size of the universe. Others say that since the Big Bang it has expanded to around 150 billion light years across.
How and where did life start on earth? - 30% There have been numerous theories, from various bacteria entering into symbiotic relationships to convection currents passing through the Earth's crust.
Is time travel possible? - 29%
The fabric of space time contains shortcuts called wormholes which make time travel theoretically possible. However, wormholes are unstable and to prop one open would require repulsive gravity, the existence of which has yet to be confirmed.
Will we ever colonise space? - 27%
Maybe. Some say we should take a serious look at creating colonies elsewhere in our solar system in case conditions on Earth become inhospitable. NASA has already held meetings on terraforming - the deliberate modification of the conditions on other planets or moons to make them similar to those on Earth.
What will replace oil and when? - 27%
Alternative energy sources are available but need to be made more cost efficient and reach demands in order to replace oil. There are however advances in nanotechnology that may be the answer.
How will the universe end? - 24%
Theories include that the universe will stop expanding and then collapse in on itself, that it will get colder as it expands until it is at absolute zero, and that dark energy, will eventually overcome gravity.
How long can the human lifespan be extended? - 20%
Life-span extension experiments in mice have convinced some scientists that humans may soon routinely live way beyond their hundredth birthdays.
Just missing out on the top ten were questions relating to the possibility of an effective HIV vaccine (19%), what would happen if the sun died (19%) and whether machines and robots could ever be conscious and have feelings (17%).
On a lighter note, the research also revealed some of the quirky questions that Brits wish could be answered by science. A quarter (23%) cited the classic chicken or egg conundrum as their top quirky question, with why do we rarely see dead birds? (18%) and why does healthy food taste worse that unhealthy food (16%) completing the top three. Given our poor summer so far it is perhaps not surprising that 14% of Brits want to know why it always rains in England, while 11% wonder whether the fridge light really goes off when you close the door.
The survey found that three quarters of British adults (75%) profess an interest in science, with a similar percentage (73%) stating that they wish they were better informed about scientific research and new discoveries.
When it comes to scientific knowledge respondents across the country were divided. Brits in the south of England seemed to be most concerned with matters of life and death, with 48% putting the question of extending lifespan at the top of their list, swiftly followed up by ‘Will there ever be a cure for cancer’ (40%), and ‘Do human’s face mass extinction?’ (32%).
Conversely, Northerners appeared to be pre-occupied with matters of the universe, infinity, and aliens. Respondents from Liverpool were most likely to ask whether we are alone in the universe (62%), which may well be attributed to recent UFO sightings over the mouth of the river Mersey earlier this year. Newcastle respondents were most interested in questions around the death of the sun, with 59% clearly paranoid about our future on this planet.
The recent number one blockbuster hit Prometheus appeared to play a part in influencing the interests of the Welsh, with 54% wondering whether we would ever colonise space and 33% placing questions around Artificial Intelligence and robots possessing feelings or a conscience second. Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the advanced robot David has clearly made quite an impression!
The Next Ten Years
In terms of the questions that the general public expect to be answered within the next 10 years, ‘Will there ever be a cure for cancer?’ and ‘Is an effective HIV vaccine available?’ top the list, at 30% and 29% respectively. Respondents rated questions relating to human quality of life as the most pertinent (47%), relegating answers that explain our existence (15%) or would further our technology to the bottom of the list (11%).