The techniques that will characterize or drive the fourth civilization are not difficult to discern, and it was to the major ones of these that Section II of this book was devoted. There are a number of specific issues that will likely receive a great deal of attention in the coming years, however. Some of these represent likely or potential developments in science or technology, and not all are central to the character of the fourth civilization. Also, in accord with such traditions, the technical issues raised in this section are in a series of somewhat unspecific questions and requests for action. They constitute one person's summary of some of the interesting outstanding puzzles or problems for solution by investigators over the next few years. They have been selected partly because of the impact on basic science that a solution might represent, and partly because of the magnitude of the potential effects some of them have for the integrated body of knowledge or for society in general. A few may be regarded as resolved already but perhaps are in need of reopening. Others may be answered in part by the time these lists are published.
In keeping with caveats already sounded in this chapter, some of the social issues raised here are critical, for failure to develop appropriate techniques to solve them could mean that there will be no fourth civilization, but a new dark age instead. In no case should these lists of questions be regarded as exhaustive or static; they will certainly change if there is another edition. For convenience, they are divided into categories, not all disjoint, and not all traditional. Oh, and these are not homework problems, but portions of them could become the lifelong research projects for a few readers.
o How constant are physical constants? Do any of them, such as the speed of light, change, say, decay?
o Does the proton decay?
o Develop a grand unification theory (GUT, also known as a Theory of Everything or TOE) to incorporate gravity. Is a practical antigravity device feasible?
o How does superconductivity work? For that matter, how is electricity conducted, really? Make a room-temperature superconducting material that can be drawn into a wire.
o Is there an effective way travel faster than the speed of light, or to avoid the problem, as assumed by so much science fiction?
o Does quantum mechanics imply that alternate universes exist or that the behaviour of particles can be determined by what takes place with paired particles even when these are at great distances? If the latter, what practical use does this have? Build a working quantum computer.
o Devise a practical method for molecular-level data storage. Build a Drexlerian assembler (nanomachine) and employ this in both manufacturing and medical applications.
o Build a commercially viable lightweight battery or fuel cell and eliminate petroleum use from transportation applications (forecast the political implications).
o Of what class of phenomena is time? Is it a physical phenomenon, or does it even have an existence independent of the physical world. Or is it a mental construct devised by humankind to accommodate a limited perception of some more fundamental phenomenon?
o What is the most fundamental particle of matter? The quark, or something else (smaller)? Is it really a particle? Define "particle."
o Demonstrate the existence of a black hole close enough at hand to run experiments with (i.e., closer than those hypothesized to exist at the centres of some galaxies). Is it possible to use one?
o If the universe is closed and does contain enough mass so that it will eventually contract, where is the mass? It is not sufficient to hypothesize "dark matter" that cannot be perceived.
o Settle the question of whether the neutrino is massless.
o Revise the nuclear model for the Sun, or find the neutrinos it ought to emit under the present one.
o Find an actual, not just a hypothesized, source for comets and solar system dust.
o What is the mechanism whereby the earth's magnetic field is produced and maintained?
o Is any substantial portion of natural gas or coal produced directly by earth processes (e.g., outgassing from the core) rather than being of organic origin?
o Predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions with a high degree of reliability. Do the same for hurricanes; for the weather generally.
o Devise a cohesive cosmology that is substantially different from the standard big bang theory and that can worthily compete with it or even replace it. Pay particular attention to a mechanism for galaxy formation and the large-scale structure of the universe.
o Is the Earth getting hotter or cooler? Whatever it is doing, is the process naturally cyclical, or do man's activities have much to do with it? Do something about it, without making an even worse mess than the one you think already exists.
o Extend the detailed mapping of human DNA, to include the function of every gene. Is this all there is to life and heredity, or do other parts of the cell, such as the mitochondria, also play a role? What is it?
o Discover a way to block or remove viruses--one that can be tailored to any virus. Achieve a complete analysis of the human immune system.
o What is sleep? Is it necessary, or can it be dispensed with?
o Settle the mind-brain question. That is, is the mind something more than the brain or something less? Or are these two names for the same thing.
o Is aging a disease or perhaps a complex of diseases or malfunctions? If so, how can it be treated?
o Find a way to persuade the body to regenerate damaged organs or otherwise remove the necessity for organ banks or transplant surgery or both.
o Find a foolproof sterility drug and an antidote. Or, find some other means to eliminate nearly all abortions.
o Determine whether the earth's ozone layer is diminishing. If so, is this as part of some geological or solar cycle, or because of the activity of man, and can you do something about it without creating a worse problem?
o Find a way to stop acid rain. Solve some of the other deforestation and stream pollution problems while some of both remain alive.
o Construct new human living space for a substantial number of people without destroying farmland or extinguishing any more animal species in the process.
o Is a railway or elevator to near-earth orbit feasible? Build one. Otherwise, find a method of transporting materials to orbit at, say, one percent of the cost of space shuttle launches.
o Is there a way of preventing either the launching or the explosion of nuclear warheads by some simple and cheap method?
o Develop an automated prospecting method for coal, oil, and natural gas; for minerals.
o Develop a commercially viable, inexpensive, plentiful, safe, and publicly acceptable power source, and find a way to stop using organic fuels altogether.
o Develop a new, fast, cheap, and safe method of (computer controlled) ground transportation, solving the problem of highway massacre.
o Find a way to solve the airport bottleneck problems without raising fares, reducing competition or compromising safety.
o Simulate human vision with a computing device.
o Build the data repository and searching facilities of the academic Metalibrary. Build the PIEA.
o Build a permanent and self-supporting space station in orbit, on the Moon, or both.
o Build a holographic broadcast/receiving system with a fine resolution on each plane.
o Develop a science of history (i.e., a psychohistory) that explains historical phenomena in terms of statistical behaviour, or prove this cannot be done.
o Develop an economic calculus that can operate even in a highly complex and rapidly changing climate.
o Dismantle the statist regimes and restructure democracy without either falling into anarchy or global war. In both cases, achieve a state that concentrates on collective and networked obligations, rather than on either the demanding of fragmented rights or a hierarchical command structure.
o Find a way to prevent either science or religion from creating a societal intolerance of the other. Forge a reconciliation between the two that includes a mutual respect and use of intellectual territories.
o Find a way to overcome racial and national prejudices and avoid the establishment of a new Naziism. Establish the principle that there is only one human race.
o Find a way to rebuild the education system, making it locally relevant, but culturally and sexually integrated.
o Devise workable codes of ethics for the major professions, and a means to enforce them.
o Either legalize the use of all drugs, or find an effective way to prevent the production of the illegal ones. In either case, use the solution to reclaim both the third world governments and the inner cities of the West that are now hostage to the drug gangs.
o Solve the problem of the creation of new class structures based on the ability to use the fourth-civilization techniques. In particular, find a way to prevent the disappearance of the middle class.
o Find a way to resolve the sexual differences and gender solitudes without creating a new social extreme in the process.
The most important social problem are implied by items in the last list. The most daunting task of all is the piecing together of the fragments of the exhausted machine age civilization into a cohesive culture that has the dynamic energy to fulfil some of the potential of the information age--and doing so despite the fragment-creating momentum that still exists. The peoples who achieve these things in their nations will dominate the early years of the next era, for they will indeed be the inheritors of the fourth civilization.