Spring 2020 CNS Honors Seminar

The Last Unknowns

Prof. William Press (wpress@utexas.edu)
Unique: 45815
Monday 4-5pm in WCH 1.108
Office location: POB 3.258
Office hours: Email me to schedule.

Short Description

Last year, editor John Brockman asked 300 famous scientists and scholars each to submit exactly one question--their candidates for "the most important last unknowns." In this seminar we will "question the questions": Which are actually within the realm of possible scientific discovery? Can we imagine the path by which they might be answered? If so, what are first steps? Which questions are not scientific at all, but instead are societal decisions or individual ethical choices? For those, how can science contribute? And, which questions are semantically meaningless or operationally empty--and how could famous scientists have been so stupid as to ask them? (These are sometimes the most fun.)


Students must obtain a copy of Brockman, The Last Unknowns.
Link on Amazon.com: here ($10.69 when I last looked)
Used copies on Bookfinder.com: here (might be cheaper, shows prices including shipping)

Course Format

We will discuss a few questions each week, as a group or in smaller groups. Students will be asked to prepare short oral presentations at Wikipedia level, each week introducing the group to the field of science behind a question.


CR/NC based on attendance and participation in class (and preparation between classes, when assigned). There are no exams.

Course Website

For now, the website is http://wpressutexas.net. We might switch to Canvas later, if there is a good reason to.

Academic Values

The core values of the University of Texas at Austin are learning, discovery, freedom, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. Each member of the University is expected to uphold these values through integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, and respect towards peers and community.

Students can find resources for reporting violence, misconduct, harassment, or discrimination here.

The University of Austin provides upon request appropriate academic accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. For more information, contact the Office of the Dean of Students at 471-6259, 471-6441 TTY.