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See Inside March 2008

Looking Both Ways

The past and the future can be equally hard to interpret

Predicting the future is usually a sucker’s bet. Conversely, making bets might be an unusually sound way of predicting the future. That prem­ise lies behind the plethora of futures markets that have sprung up in recent years, inspired by the success of commodities markets at determining the best time to go long on soybeans. Some political observers have begun to trust that if futures markets can anticipate the price of pork bellies, they should foresee the outcome of congressional races, too—possibly better than traditional polls can. Yet these markets are still far from infallible, so theoreticians continue trying to determine how to design smarter, more reliable markets. Senior writer Gary Stix writes about the efforts to turn price tickers into crystal balls.

When physicist Lawrence M. Krauss and cosmologist Robert J. Scherrer peered into the future—the fantastically distant future, to be sure—they recognized that any sentient beings of that time might be in the grip of an insoluble mystery. Today’s astronomers have been able to reconstruct how the universe arose by looking deep into space and finding telltale evidence of a big bang 13.5 billion years ago. The expansion and evolution of the universe are gradually erasing that evidence, however: a billion centuries from now, naive astronomers would see no reason to doubt that they lived in a small, empty, almost unchanging cosmos. Should we count ourselves privileged to live in an era when the facts are still accessible to us? Or should we ponder whether unsuspected truths about the origins of space and time are already lost to us, too?

Even when the facts relevant to a problem still exist, finding them amid the flotsam of confounding information and assembling them into a cogent argument can be forbiddingly tough. That challenge is at the heart of the story written by investigative reporter Carole Bass, “Solving a Massive Worker Health Puzzle”.

Since 2001 various authorities have been looking into a statistically unusual cluster of brain cancer cases among employees of a manufacturing plant in Connecticut. Determining whether those cancers had a shared industrial cause is a type of problem with which epidemiologists, industrial chemists and other specialists are increasingly tasked, because such answers are the basis for safety regulations, not to mention legal findings of culpability. As Bass’s account demonstrates, however, the scale of the problem—which involves a quarter of a million people experiencing unmeasured exposures to unidentified chemical and radiological agents over decades—can be overwhelming.

Sometimes better instruments can help scientists past obstacles; sometimes they can’t. In recent years the emerging technology of quantum computing has become a lodestone for the hopes of many people looking for solutions to problems in cryptanalysis and other fields that would be literally or effectively impossible for normal computers. As a result, quantum computing has started to acquire a popular reputation as a nearly magical method for solving any conceivable problem. Nevertheless, it is not, as Scott Aaronson describes in “The Limits of Quantum Computing”. Some answers will stay beyond easy reach for a long time to come; that remains a safe bet. 

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