Dec 22 2017

Science in 2017

Science continues to kick ass in 2017, despite the fact that it often feels as if our species can’t get out of our own way. Obviously we need to keep our eye on important social and political issues, but it is reassuring to realize that there are many scientists quietly working away in their labs, clinics, observatories, or wherever to nudge our collective knowledge forward.

Here are some of the science news stories from 2017 that I think deserve notice and give us a good indication of what is to come.

The Age of Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is nothing new, but we seem to be on the upswing of an exponential curve with this technology. In recent years CRISPR has provided cheap and fast genetic manipulation, resulting in an explosion of research and potential applications. The technology borrows a system from bacteria used in their immune defense against viruses. It allows for the specific targeting of sequences of DNA which can then be clipped out and even replaced.

CRISPR technology continues to advance on two main fronts – improving the technology itself, and finding applications for it. This year researchers discovered how to adjust the specificity of CRISPR targeting – making it slower but more precise as desired. As powerful as this tech is, we are still on the steep part of the curve and it continues to improve.

Meanwhile applications are starting to appear. The FDA approved a cell therapy for cancer, in which a patient’s immune cells are engineered to better target cancer cells. CRISPR has also been used to alter gene mutations that cause heart disease in a human embryo.

This one gets my vote for the most likely to be a transformative technology over the next 20 years.

Human Evolution

There were several stories this year detailing fossils of protohumans. Together they demonstrate that the human evolutionary tree is more complex than previous evidence indicated. As I wrote earlier this year:

Last month I wrote about Graecopithecus, a possible human ancestor from just after the split with chimpanzees about 7 million years ago. Also last month it was reported that an analysis of new Homo naledi specimens dates the fossils from as recently as 236 thousand years ago. H. naledi share some primitive features that paleontologists thought would date to about 2 million years old, but they also have some more modern features.

In April I also wrote about the latest study of H. floresiensis (the Hobbit) showing that it is very likely this was indeed its own species.

And another find moves the date for the earliest Homo sapiens back to 315 thousand years ago. The bottom line is that we realized this year the human family tree goes back farther and has more branches than we realized. We are still at the point where new fossil finds are expanding the picture as much as filling is the details.

The Psychology of Belief

As an activist skeptic I love the fact that the science of belief continues to advance, and did so in 2017. Our brains are still the most important scientific tools we have, and the better we understand them the more effectively we can explore and understand the universe.

There were a number of studies this year that, for example, explored why people fall for conspiracy theories. It turns out, we have a desire for certainty, and a desire to feel special – both of these needs are fed by feeling that we have the inside scoop on a conspiracy.

Researchers also found that we alter our memories of our past beliefs in order to make them more consistent with our current beliefs.

Another study clarified the distinction between confirmation bias and desirability bias.

Perhaps the biggest skeptical story this year was follow up on Bem’s psi research. Essentially Bem and colleagues conducted a consensus study in which they attempted to replicate his prior finding of being able to respond to future stimuli. The study was properly rigorous, and was also dead negative.

This should be the final scientific nail in Bem’s claims. However, Bem and his fellow psi believers also showed their true pseudoscientist colors:

In their conference abstract, though, Bem and his co-authors found a way to wring some droplets of confirmation from the data. After adding in a set of new statistical tests, ex post facto, they concluded that the evidence for ESP was indeed “highly significant.”

They couldn’t resist a little post-hoc p-hacking.

Gravitational Waves

2015 saw the first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes. In 2017, however, we found the first gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars, and the third and fourth major detections total. What 2017 showed is that the detection of gravitational waves was not a fluke. It truly is the beginning of an entirely new discipline within astronomy – this year confirmed the birth of a new science.

LIGO uses precise lasers at right angles over long distances, that intersect and cause interference patterns. That interference will change even from the tiniest movements of the lasers – the sensitivity is 1/10,000th the diameter of a proton. Let that sink in.

LIGO is one of the most amazing feats of engineers in the name of science in existence.

Metallic Hydrogen

This discovery has potential, but it remains to be seen if it will truly be significant. Harvard scientists discovered how to make metallic hydrogen using high-pressure physics. That may not sound like a big deal, but it could be, if it turns out that metallic hydrogen can be stable enough to use as a new material.

The two big potential applications include being a room temperature superconductor. This is the holy grail of electronics – being able to conduct electricity without resistance could revolutionize computers, electronics, and the electric grid.

Also, molecular hydrogen could be used as a super rocket fuel, with 3-4 times the specific impulse of existing fuel. That would be huge, making rockets much more efficient and making missions to Mars and beyond far more plausible.

At the very least, the ability to make metallic hydrogen in the lab will be useful for physics research. I don’t know if this one will pan out to have specific applications, but it may. The rocket fuel applications seems the most plausible, and could change the future of space travel.

But wait, there’s more.

There were many more science and skeptical news stories in 2017, but these are the ones that stuck out for me. (Let me know your picks for best science 2017 in the comments.) This year also saw the March for Science. I don’t know if it accomplished anything concrete, but it was good to see thousands of people standing up in support for the critical role that science plays in our society.

I feel that science represents the best of human potential, and is our greatest collective achievement. It is difficult, messy, ridden with bias and errors, but it slowly grinds forward. It is amazing to consider what we have achieved in such a short time when we apply rigorous scientific methods to our exploration of the universe.



9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Science in 2017”

  1. bend says:

    I think you have to include the discovery of the oldest fossils from living things ever discovered (maybe). At about 4.3 billion years old, which is only about 100 million years older than the ocean and just about 200 million years older than Earth itself, it’s an indication that it mightn’t take long for life to develop.

  2. SFinkster says:

    Science is sofa king cool! I feel bad for those who need make-believe, myths, and magic to be awed.

  3. Dr Soup says:

    Maybe it doesn’t give us a good indication of what to come, but the science story that I found most affecting and memorable was Cassini’s ending into Saturn. And next year Juno gives us a similar close-up of Jupiter as it ends its mission.

  4. MaryM says:

    I know this is a good news piece–progress we’ve made. But the saddest thing to me is what’s not on the list: no progress on climate issues. And that looks pretty bleak to me.

    Another thing that became more evidence this year is that “scientific” racism and bigotry is creeping back up (did you see that politician doing sex chromosome misinformation recently? Egads).

    But I’m with you on the genetic engineering front. I think it’s incredibly exciting right now, in ways that the completion of the human genome promised. It didn’t come as quickly as we were led to believe it would, but I knew it would come. And it will be astonishing (if GMO haters don’t prevent it).

    My science highlight of the year was probably the eclipse, though. It was a great collective awareness event about our planet that I thought was really nice in an otherwise pretty retrograde year.

  5. PunctureKit says:

    MaryM. 26 May 2017 saw 15% of the UK’s power generated from renewables. Good weather and low summer demand contributed, but this is real progress. It’s been bettered in other nations I believe.

  6. PunctureKit says:

    Mary. Some more info on this.
    Scroll down to Pledges > Countries and communities.

    There are a lot of low carbon strategies in place that don’t specify carbon neutrality, some that will be implemented much better than others no doubt. Companies and local govs are doing it for themselves too.

  7. BillyJoe7 says:

    Here’s a video from the AAAS on this subject:

  8. Nema says:

    My highlights have to do with public awareness of science and objective reality. The media and people in general have pushed back against the idea of “alternative facts.” Climate change is becoming more obvious to more people, because so many firsts and biggest hurricanes, wildfires, and extreme temperatures are impossible to deny. Vaccine safety is getting more media attention, partly in response to resurgences of whooping cough, mumps and measles, and stronger school vaccination policies in some states. Finally, I see pushback against food fear-mongering and parenting fear-mongering, for example by the pro-science bloggers, the Science Moms, and by late-night comedians.

    My perspective is from a state of both woo and science, California. And I admit a lot of the progress I see is in response to the bad results of science-denial. It seems like we (humanity) are moving from arguing about whether climate change exists to arguing about what we should do about it, while we continue to cause it. But I’m encouraged by the growing public understanding of science that I (think I) see.

  9. fearofphysics says:

    I just want to point that a good deal of skepticism should be injected into to claim that metallic Hydrogen has been observed. Since it’s original publishing in Science in January, it has received many good criticism from the physical community (I am a condensed matter theoretical physicist myself). Firstly and most importantly, their optical determination (increase of reflectivity) does not guarantee that the sample is metallic (could be related to other states hence the Drude free electron analysis of the reflectivity is maybe unwarranted) or that the enhancement in reflectivity actually comes from the sample (it could come from surface physics of the alumina used to protect the diamond anvils from the Hydrogen). Secondly, even the determination of the pressure in the anvil is under debate since the Raman spectrum presented does not match the claimed pressure.

    Since then the experimenters lost the sample (when the containment broke) preventing further analysis. In the intervening 10 months, the experiment has not been replicated by the authors or other groups even though the vied to do so in only a few weeks. So, as befits this excellent blog, we must reserve our judgment and remain skeptical of metallic Hydrogen.

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