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Science's greatest questions revealed

Thomas Edison
American inventor Thomas Edison founded Science in 1880.

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(CNN) -- What is the universe made of? According to a new list, it is one of the most important questions of our time -- and we could conceivably know the answer in the foreseeable future.

But scientists will find they have plenty more to think about if they solve that cosmological conundrum.

Other great ponderable problems that they might wish to consider include the biological basis of consciousness, whether we are alone in the universe or the origins of life on Earth.

All are among 25 scientific mysteries picked out in a special edition of the journal Science -- along with 100 slightly less pressing issues -- to mark its 125th anniversary. (Full listexternal link)

Rather than celebrating the achievements of Science alumni such as the journal's founder Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, the list offers "a survey of our scientific ignorance," according to editors Donald Kennedy and Colin Norman.

But the questions also offer "opportunities to be exploited." All have the potential to be answered over the next 25 years and scientists already have some idea of how to go about investigating them, the journal claims.

For instance, in recent decades cosmologists have discovered that the ordinary matter that makes up stars and galaxies constitutes less than five percent of everything there is.

The race is on to discover the nature of the "dark matter" and "dark energy" that makes up the rest of the universe.

"Today, science's most profound questions address some of the largest phenomena in the cosmos and some of the smallest. We may never fully answer some of these questions, but we'll advance our knowledge and society in the process of trying," said Kennedy, Science's editor-in-chief.

"As Science celebrates its 125th birthday, we've recognized that an examination of science's outstanding mysteries also reflects its tremendous accomplishments."

While discovering the composition of the universe may not have practical implications, other questions have been chosen for their potential social significance.

Whether human life spans can be significantly extended, how hot the planet will become as a consequence of global warming and the prospects of discovering a cheap replacement for oil or an effective HIV vaccine all have immediate implications.

Genetic issues also command attention. Following the discovery that we have just 25,000 genes -- four times fewer than was originally imagined -- scientists are urged to investigate how so few genes can account for the intricacies of human biology, and to consider the nature of the genetic changes made us human.

"Some of the questions were naturals, just really fascinating, others we chose based on how fundamental they are -- whether answering them would provide insights across several areas in science. Some were central to current social policy, for example relating to HIV or climate change," said Norman.

In an introduction to the list, science journalist Tom Siegfried said that great questions were the engine of scientific discovery.

"Science's greatest advances occur on the frontiers, at the interface between ignorance and knowledge, where the most profound questions are posed," wrote Siegfried.

"There's no better way to assess the current condition of science than listing the questions that science cannot answer."

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