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18 August 2021

10 Existential Questions (and Their Scientific Answers)

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  1. Why is the sky blue?

    The Irish physician John Tyndall asked himself this same question over 150 years ago. In addition to a long list of scientific achievements, Tyndall studied atmospheric optics to solve the enigma surrounding the sky’s color. Read the explanation here so that you can answer when you are next asked this question.

    BBVA-OpenMind-Pablo Garcia-Rubio-Preguntas existenciales-ritam-baishya

  2. Why do we dream?

    One of the most well-known works of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), where he studies the symbology and structure of dreams and their link to our subconscious. However, despite Freud’s exhaustive psychological analysis, there is no biological consensus about the origin of dreams. Nevertheless, several scientists have studied what happens in our body while we dream as well as what our night-time imagination works on. Their findings are explained here.

    BBVA-OpenMind-Pablo Garcia-Rubio-Preguntas existenciales-inga-cichewicz-por que sonamos

  3. What happens when we die?

    It is hard for scientists to define death as a clinical state but it is even harder to find out what happens just before and just after you die. People who have lived a near-death experience (NDE) all tell of some similar feelings but… Is it possible we are influenced by our culture? Can death be reversed? How does the body react to death? Find the answers here.

    One of the visions shared by people who lived a NDE refers to going through a tunnel with a light at the end. Photo: Pxhere
  4. Why do we sneeze?

    Abdominal, pectoral, tracheal and facial muscles, in addition to our lungs, diaphragm, vocal cords and eyelids are some of the parts of our body involved in expelling air and mucus at around 150 km/h. But, what is the neurological origin of sneezing? What stimuli does it react to? Can you sneeze with your eyes open? Find all the answers about the sneezing myth here.

    Sneezing is a violent reflex of the expulsion of air that employs a large number of muscles. Credit: Tina Franklin/Flickr
  5. Will we ever find alien life?

    From ancient civilizations until the present time, human beings have fantasized about the visit (more or less positive) of aliens to our planet. In 1938, a radio-broadcast story by Orson Wells made many Americans believe we were being invaded by evil aliens from outer space.

    If alien life were ever to be found, it would probably be an achievement by a team from one of the SETI projects (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) that observe the space in search of signs of an alien civilization. Also, if you consider the opinion of leading astrophysicists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, there is a high probability that there is life in other areas of space. If you would to find out how we look for alien life, read here.

  6. Why do we need to wait so long to see a solar eclipse?

    It has been calculated that for a total solar eclipse to happen twice in the same place, you would have to wait around 375 years. As such, we are lucky if we see one in our lifetimes (as long as we don’t move). Click here to find out when they happen and why they take so long to happen.

    The United States during the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, showing the umbra, penumbra and path of totality. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
  7. Why does the rainbow have seven colors?

    Irish mythology says that at the end of the rainbow, where it (hypothetically) meets the Earth, there is a Leprechaun with a pot of gold coins for those who manage to find him. It may be difficult to find this contact point. However, science does know why rainbows happen and why they are divided into seven strips of color. José Antonio Pozas explains this phenomenon in this article.

  8. Is time travel possible?

    This is undoubtedly another recurring phantasy in science fiction, from H. G. Wells’ Time Machine to the Back to the future franchise. However, this would only be possible if we distorted the space-time dimensions, as proposed by Miguel Alcubierre. This possibility was studied later, forcing the limits of Physics itself. Can Alcubierre’s model be replicated in real life? Find out here.

    Alcubierre suggested “bending” space-time to travel through time.
  9. Can you survive a nuclear attack?

    For decades, the world lived with the fear that the USA or the Soviet Union could press the “red button” and trigger an unprecedented disaster. Fortunately, this never happened. However, some of today’s world powers still have nuclear weapons that could be used in a potential conflict. Now, would you know what to do if there was a nuclear attack? What is the emergency plan? Don’t be caught unprepared. Learn it here.

    The Nukemap application allows one to simulate a detonation of any power anywhere in the world.
  10. Are we a simulation?

    Lastly, we have a more existential question. For centuries, philosophers and thinkers have reflected on the possibility that our world is a simulation controlled by higher beings. Even Descartes’ skepticism led him to think about the reality of our own existence since we are not able to distinguish between dreams and reality. But if we live in a simulation, how can we find out? Will we one day find out we are being controlled as if we were Sims? Learn more about this theory here.

    Some experts believe we could be a simulation similar to the video game The Sims. Credit: Pixabay

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