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.

 

 

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