April 14, 2010
Angela Alberti
Harvard Staff Writer

Just over a century ago, one of the world’s leading mathematicians posed this question to a number of his colleagues:

What are the most important unsolved questions in mathematics?

The answers – which David Hilbert then ranked in what he believed to be their order of importance – produced a list of 23 mathematical problems that shaped mathematics for 100 years.

This past Saturday, Stephen Kosslyn, dean of Harvard’s Division of Social Science, posed a Hilbert-like challenge to a diverse group of social scientists he had spent two years gathering:

What, he asked, are the great unanswered questions in the social sciences?

Hilbert selected and ranked the final problems himself, but Kosslyn, the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James, is using technology to revolutionize, and democratize, the process. Selecting the important issues in the field isn’t just his job – it’s everyone’s.

And while Hilbert used a conference to present his list of problems, Kosslyn convened last Saturday’s Hard Problems in Social Science Symposium in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building to provide a setting in which his invited colleagues could suggest what are being termed the “hard problems” in the social sciences.

Rather than being a concluding summit, “this is actually a kick-off event,” Kosslyn explained in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is collect as many problems as we can and then have people vote on them in terms of two dimensions: that is, what’s most difficult and what’s most important, which may not be the same.

Over the next two months, the University’s Division of Social Science will collect online submissions at Hard Problems web site and at a Hard Problems Facebook page. Anyone, anywhere, regardless of their field of expertise, is encouraged to submit questions for consideration until May 31.

The conference and list were the brainchild of Harvard College graduate Nick Nash ’00, a joint chemistry and physics concentrator who has been thinking for some time about what he perceives as the need to improve awareness and understanding of the social sciences. “These are the sciences of our shared humanity,” he told a reporter. “But these sciences are much more in their infancy relative to physics or chemistry.”

“Because the social sciences are ultimately about people, we felt very strong that this be a democratic process and global process,” said Nash, who proposed the idea of creating a “Hilbert’s Questions” list for the social sciences and the conference, to Kosslyn. “We really want people around the world to view these videos, read the transcripts, and then vote on what they think is important,” said Nash, a member of the Indira Foundation, the charitable foundation that sponsored the symposium,. “and even add more questions.”

Saturday’s symposium, broadcast live via the Internet, featured 12 speakers, including, among others, experts in philosophy, medicine, history, political science, psychology, and economics from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of California, San Diego, Oxford University, New York University, and Harvard. In addition, there were about 100 attendees of diverse backgrounds, ranging from Harvard undergrads to Ridley Pledger, the grandfather of a member of Harvard’s women’s softball team. …