Enquiring into things

The questions here do not have answers yet!
These are about a hundred open-ended questions here, what-if questions, which will only have answers if you make some assumptions. You will need to decide what assumptions you wish to make. Only then will you know your answers. They will be your answers, not my answers.

The authorship of these questions is mostly but not entirely mine: some of them came from assorted teachers on the oz-teachers list, especially Paul Chandler at The Knox School in Victoria. I think Paul started the language and symbol ones, but it matters little, as we were both under the influence of Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. There were most certainly other guilty parties who contributed bits during 1995, when this topic flickered around the oz-teacher's list. When identified, they will be named!


computing and AI
earth sciences
economics and ecology
good and bad
human matters
space matters
symbols and their use
television and the media
the meaning of meaning
Other pages on this site

The questions

Space and earth

  • A comet hits the earth, and puts large amounts of dust into the atmosphere, blocking the sun's light and warmth. Where would be the best place to take refuge? Why?
  • What would happen if the earth's moon was destroyed?
    Here's a hint for you
  • What would happen if the freezing point of water became 10 degrees C?
    Here's a hint for you
  • What would happen if a large volcano erupted near the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers?
  • Which planet (or satellite of a planet) would be most interesting to explore, and why?
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  • How would you recognise true artificial (machine) intelligence? When do you think it will happen? Why?
  • What effect would it have if all the world's computers were destroyed by a super-virus?
  • If you were going to market a new computer product, what features would it have?
    Here's a hint for you
  • What good effects could the Internet have on racial prejudice and national hatreds? How could you increase this?
  • What bad effects could the Internet have on racial prejudice and national hatreds? How could you decrease this?
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Economics vs ecology

  • Economists talk about commodity value, how much you can sell something for, and amenity value, how useful (in dollar terms) something is, but they say very little about ethical or moral value. Who or what are the big losers from this limitation to economics?
  • If you were going to start up a new tourist attraction for foreigners visiting Australia, what would you include in it?
    Here's a hint for you
  • How much wealth is too much wealth? Should we take money away from rich nations and people, to give to poor nations and people?
    Here's a hint for you
  • Is your country rich or poor? How do you decide a question like this? Is it money or life-style?
  • Who in our society gets paid too much, and who is not paid enough? Why? How do you judge a question like that?
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Human matters

  • What makes a good pet? What would a really good new pet be like?
  • Why is this question under "human matters"?
  • Why are some animals cute (like baby seals) and why are some funny (like penguins).
  • What kinds of human survival strategies are
    (1) similar to those of animals and plants;
    (2) different from animals?
  • Humans have been defined as "featherless bipeds", the only animals that cook their food, as tool users, and in many other ways. Define what it means to be human.
  • If humans become extinct, what is likely to take over as the world's dominant animal? Why?
  • How do people get to be prejudiced? Are they born with it, or are they taught it? If prejudice is taught, how would you go about un-teaching it?
  • Can you design a tax system that will make it attractive for people to have neighbours from a different racial or religious group? What effect would such a tax system have?
    Here's a hint for you
  • What do you worry about most?
  • What are the causes of your worries?
  • Can any of your worries be eliminated? How?
  • Which of them might you deal with first? How do you decide?
  • Are there other people with the same problems? How do you know? How can you find out?
  • How do you want to be similar to or different from adults you know when you become an adult?
  • How much money would you need to ensure world peace? What would you spend it on?
  • As more parts of Europe join the European Union, in other parts of Europe, small groups are trying to become separate and independent. Who is in the right? Why?
  • How small can a nation be in the modern world, and still be successful?
  • What does it mean when we say that a nation is successful?
  • What seems worth living for? How did you come to believe this?
  • What, if anything, seems to you to be worth dying for? How did you come to believe this?
  • How do you think the world will end?
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  • A pun is a play on words. Why do most people groan when they hear a pun, even a brilliant pun?
  • Who makes up the new jokes? Why?
  • Think of three very funny jokes. What do they have in common? Can you use this knowledge to make up new jokes?
  • Who makes up urban myths? Why?
  • Tall tales are very much a pioneer and/or rural tradition. Most of them started in the oral tradition. Why?
  • Why are some terrible things funny? Why do we laugh at cartoon violence, as in the case where a character is squashed flat, then blown up by a bomb?
  • Why is it funny when a slapstick comedian falls over and gets hurt?
  • Why do we laugh when we are tickled?
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  • What is "change"? What is "progress"?
  • What are the most important changes that have occurred in the past ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years? In the last six months? Last month?
  • What kinds of changes are going on right now? Which are important? How are they similar to or different from other changes that have occurred?
  • What are the most obvious causes of change? What are the least apparent? What conditions are necessary in order for change to occur?
  • What will be the most important changes next month? Next year? Next decade? How can you tell? So what?
    Here's a hint for you
  • If you wanted to stop some of the changes going on in our society, which changes should be encouraged and which resisted? Why? How?
  • What would you change if you could? How might you go about it? Of those changes which are going to occur, which would you stop if you could? Why? How? So what?
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  • What are the relationships between new ideas and change?
  • Where do new ideas come from? How come? So what?
  • What is a "good idea"?
  • What do you think are some of the most important human ideas of this century? Where did they come from? Why? How?
  • Who do you think has the most important things to say today? To whom? How? Why?
  • Which of humanity's ideas would we be better off forgetting? How do you decide?
  • What are the dumbest and most dangerous ideas that are "popular" today? Why do you think so? Where did these ideas come from?
  • If you had an important idea that you wanted to let everyone (in the world) know about, how might you go about letting them know?
  • How do you know when a good or live idea becomes a bad or dead idea?
  • Where does knowledge come from?
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  • How many symbol systems do humans have? How come? So what?
    Here's a hint for you
  • Where do symbols come from?
  • Why do symbols change?
  • What are some good symbols? What are some bad symbols? What makes them good or bad?
  • What bad symbols do we have that we'd be better off without?
  • What good symbols could we use that we do not have?
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  • Where do words come from?
  • How do you explain "red" to somebody who is blind?
  • What makes a language a language? Cervet monkeys have a vocabulary of about fifteen words (see Jared Diamond -- "Rise of the Third Ape" for more) - is that a language or a symbol system?
    Here's a hint for you
  • What other "languages" do humans have besides those consisting of words?
  • How might human survival activities be different from what they are if we did not have language?
  • If you were making up a new universal world human language (like Esperanto), what rules would the language follow? Where would the words come from?
  • What functions do these "languages" serve? Why and how do they originate? Can you invent a new language? How might you start?
  • What does human language permit us to develop as survival strategies that animals cannot develop?
  • We know what people mean by "bad language", but what language is really bad? How can "good" be distinguished from "evil"?
  • Some languages (including English) have two forms for nouns: singular (just one of them) and plural (more than one). In some langiages of Micronesia, there are three forms: one, two and many. This is commonly misinterpreted as meaning that these people count "1-2-many" which is stupidly wrong, but back to the point: how would this sort of structure develop? What would be its advantages?
    Here's a hint for you
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Good, bad and meaning

  • How can you tell "good guys" from "bad guys"?
  • What does "meaning" mean?
  • When you hear or read or observe something, how do you know what it means?
  • Where does meaning "come from"?
  • What would happen, what difference would it make, what would humans not be able to do, if they had no number (mathematical) languages?
  • Mathematicians, scientists, statisticians and juries all have different ideas about what is "proof" of something. Which form of "proof" is the most useful? Why?
  • What are some ways to go about getting to know what is worth knowing? Which of those ways are the most useful? Why?
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  • A lot of science is "counter-intuitive" -- it goes against what "commonsense" would expect. The world looks flat, but science says it is not. Why do people still accept science when it contradicts what they would normally expect?
  • Will science ever come to an end?
  • Is there a point at which scientists will have to stop asking questions? If so, why should they stop?
  • Suppose you realise that a new Dark Ages is about to descend, and you want to write down a small set of key scientific ideas to preserve, ready for discovery at the end of the Dark Ages, to get science going again. You can engrave 1000 words on a special sheet of material. What facts, what ideas and what principles would you place on the sheet?
  • What would be the effect if a spaceship landed, and the aliens in it estimate that they are 400 years ahead of us. What would happen if they offered us all their scientific knowledge? Would it be good or bad? Why?
  • How does that handout of alien science differ from writing stuff down for the new scientists to read at the end of the Dark Ages?
  • If you had a hundred million dollars to spend on scientific research, what would you spend it on? Why? How would you spread the money out over different parts? Would your answer be different if you had a thousand million dollars?
  • People care about some death causes that affect very few, like AIDS and "mad cow disease", but nobody cares about the big killers like malaria, or heart disease, caused by eating fat sane cow meat. Why?
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  • If you set out to invent a new sport that people would really enjoy playing, what features would it have?
    Here's a hint for you
  • If you set out to make some existing sport into a megabucks crowd-pleaser, what existing sport would you use, and how would you change it to make it more popular and better-paying?
  • If you were establishing a new pop group/fast food business/fashion clothing outlet, what features would it have?
  • People go to the theatre and the movies to see realistic stories. In real life, people do not suddenly start singing to each other. So why are musicals and operas so popular?
  • If you were an alien, judging earth by what you see on TV, how would you describe Earthlings? Why?
  • Why do people watch soapies?
  • Will some of today's soapies become classics that schoolchildren in a hundred years will have to study at school?
  • Why do people watch so much sport on TV?
  • How can you tell what something "is" or whether it is?
  • What is worth knowing? How do you decide?
  • How did the dinosaurs get extinct?
  • Why alpha particles and not protons?
  • How did life arise?
  • Is there life on other planets?
  • Why are some nuclei more stable?
  • How do we measure the universe?
  • How do we measure the age of the universe?
  • How do we measure the age of rocks?
  • Where/how did insect wings evolve? Were they breathing organs that were originally developed into swimming aids (cf flying fish).
  • Why does gravity pull and not push?
  • At what temperature does toast go brown?
  • Why does toast go brown?
  • What is the nature of creativity, and how can we foster it?
  • What is the nature of tolerance, and how can we foster it?
  • What is the nature of intelligence, and how can we foster it?
  • What will humans be like in fifty thousand years time?
  • What should the history of science study?
  • I reckon we could pose more interesting questions than any of these. Let's write half a dozen and send them off to this bloke -- his e-mail address is at the end.

Here are just a few hints

Where's the moon go?
My answers include the loss of Queensland's agricultural production and tourist potential within about twenty years, and the extinction of most species of crustacean. You work out why I thought that!

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Hotter ice
Think about whether the ice that formed would sink or float, and which parts of the world would be likely to freeze up permanently.

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A new computer product
You could think about what would sell really well, or you might want to think about what computers or computer users really need. Why not start by thinking about the different ways people have of travelling, from roller blades to Concordes, and all the types of cars and two-wheel transport (note: this was written before scooters and the Segway came up). What would a Volkswagen computer be like?

From another angle, think of combining some of the features of an Internet-connected PC, a PDA, a mobile phone, a digital camera, a personal music system and so on. You may find it worth checking up on the meaning of 'wearable computer'. Think voice recognition as an input and voice synthesis as an output.

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Taxing the bigots
My version is simple: increase taxes, and give rebates to anybody with a neighbour from the opposition: both neighbours benefit from each other, so they need to protect each other, and keep each other happy. Result: they get to know each other, and get prosperous, while the bigots lose all their money to taxation. Can you do better?

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New sport
Would you try to make a healthy sport, or a spectator sport with lots of large men hacking lumps out of each other, just made for television? Would you build in a bit of racial stereotyping, as they do in "professional wrestling"?

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What is wealth?
You may like to think of wealth in terms of people's health, well-being and life expectancy, or in terms of quality of life, or in terms of their energy usage.

We live at 7 kilowatts. Every second, 7 kilojoules of energy are used to maintain our lifestyles. Would we be less wealthy if we used less power to produce the same goods and services?

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Important changes
How can you decide what is important until you see where it leads? Most of the time, we look at advances in the rear-view mirror, so a motor car (short for carriage!) was originally called a horseless carriage, and radio was called 'wireless telegraphy', while television was seen as 'radio with pictures'. (An additional note at the end of 2001: people are talking about e-books but is it a mistake to think of them as electronic 'books'?) Can we take some changes like the Internet and say they are sure to be important?

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Flags are symbols, so are national anthems, logos, uniforms, old school ties, words, designer clothes, hairstyles and other fashions. Language is a potent symbol if you live in a place like Quebec or Wales. (An additional note at the end of 2001: people are talking about 'patriotic' this and that meaning pro-American, and you can get almost anything in the colours of the US flag. Why bother?)

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Suppose I (as a cervet) said the cervet version of "leopard water". How could you (as another cervet) tell if that meant I was saying:
  • there's a leopard over there by the water,
  • the leopards come when it rains,
  • it's raining leopards at the moment, or
  • let's go over and pee on that leopard?
The simple answer is that you would have no idea which meaning was correct. Language usually relies on something more than words to get a message over: part of the answer is "context", and the other part is something ending in the letter x.

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This sort of structure goes all through the language, so there are three ways of saying good morning when you eneter a room, depending on how many people you find there. Another interesting structure is having two forms of 'we', which can be found in the Austronesian languages of Indonesia and PNG. One form is "inclusive" -- it includes the person addressed, and the second is exclusive -- the person addressed is not part of the we. Consider this: "Bert, we have no food: let's ask Ernie for some. Hey, Ernie, we have no food, will you give us some?"

This structure was so strong that when the people of New Guinea developed Pidgin English, using words from English, German, and even Chinese, they kept two forms of "we": yumi and mipela. I leave it to you to guess which is which :-)

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The Tourist trade
Would you like to live in a tourist area, where passing westerners push into your funerals to photograph your quaint customs? Would you like to be a dolphin at a popular dolphin beach, or any kind of animal in a zoo? How can tourism be attractive and honest at the same time?

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This file is http://www.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/scifun/whatif.htm, first created on September 27, 1997. Last recorded revision (well I get lazy and forget sometimes!) was on December 6, 2001.
Worried about copyright? You need to go look at my fine print . Well, maybe you don't after you read the next paragraph, but do it anyhow . . .and to see some more ideas, look at the start of that same page

©The author of this work is Peter Macinnis -- macinnis@ozemail.com.au, who asserts his sole right to the product as it is packaged here, recognising that many of the ideas are common. Any non-profit educational or home use is completely acceptable without let or hindrance. Copies of this whole file or site may be made and stored or printed for personal or educational use. The work used here derives from on-going research and development which will one day lead to a book on brain food ideas.
This site had 219,000 hits on the index page from 1999 to January 2007 and an unknown number on other pages. In January 2007, a combined counter was placed on all of the pages, counting page hits which now total