While listening to my iPod at work, I was fascinated to hear a story on Radiolab about a computer program nicknamed “the Eureka Machine” and how it came up with one of the basic laws of motion simply by watching a pendulum.
Soon, according to the Radiolab (entitled “Limits”), other scientists starting coming to the creators of the Eureka Machine with sets of data and asking it to analyze it for them to see what fundamental formulas it could divine.
One set of data came from a scientist studying bacteria. When all the data was input and the Eureka Machine did its thing, its output was a series of formulas.
The humorous thing is that while the scientists now have these formulas that describe the inner workings of a biological unit, they have no idea what it means.
In essence, these scientists have the answer (the formulas)…they just don’t know the question.
This is actually a concept raised much earlier by Douglas Adams in this Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series where the computer Deep Thought derives the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything…and the people are puzzled by that answer (“42“) because they don’t know what the question is.