6 Scientific Developments That Are Even More Exciting Than They First Seem
Is human knowledge growing exponentially? Buckminster Fuller, one of the more fascinating theorists and inventors of the 20th century, thought that it was.
This enjoyable article argues that in fact, knowledge can only increase quadratically. But while the rate of growth might be exceptionally important for computer scientists interested in artificial intelligence, for most of us these are academic differences. The rate of growth is such that to be any kind of polymath feels virtually impossible: you can be an expert in something very small and obscure, or you can be a jack of all trades, but not both.
Whichever route you’re going down, it can be easy to forget what remarkable things are happening elsewhere. Whether you know everything there is to know about that one small thing, or you know a postcard’s worth of information on a wide range of subjects, we’ve put together this list for a quick and fun overview of the exciting things that you might have missed – and what they mean for our collective future.
1. The Tesla Powerwall
It’s hard to imagine that the tech community would get wildly excited over something that is, in essence, a battery. Or that said battery would sell out for at least a year within weeks of going on sale. Yet that’s precisely what’s happened with the Tesla Powerwall.
Produced by Tesla Motors – a company named after the inventor Nikola Tesla and run by Elon Musk, better known for his space exploration company SpaceX – the Powerwall is a nifty little thing that stores energy produced by domestic or commercial solar panels. It’s remarkable less for what it can do than for how cheaply it does it – $3,000-3,500 for a product most people were expecting would cost $10,000 or more.
Energy storage is a huge challenge for modern technology (think about how often a smartphone needs charging), but particularly for renewable energy. Fossil fuels can be burned to provide energy as and when we need it, from power stations responding to peaks and troughs in demand to throwing a bit more coal on to the fire when it gets cold at night. Renewable energy doesn’t have this flexibility; when you need a little bit more power, you can’t turn the wind up or get the sun to come out at night. This is where storage is so crucial, so that you can store extra energy when there’s a surplus (e.g. the middle of the day) and use it when you need it. That kind of storage has been very expensive – until now.
Forbes’ suggestion that the Powerwall will kill nuclear power is probably overblown, but that this represents a radical development for the energy industry as a whole is beyond question. Renewable energy is typically expensive, awkward and somewhat lacking in style. The Tesla Powerwall is inexpensive, convenient and being produced by the real-world inspiration behind the character of Iron Man. It’s worth keeping an eye on.
Cryonics (often incorrectly called cryogenics, which annoys physicists) is for most people the stuff of science fiction. Only a few hundred people have so far been cryonically preserved. We take the cryopreservation of human embryos for granted; we’ve been preserving human embryos cryonically for decades now, the first birth from a frozen embryo was in 1983 and successful births have happened from embryos preserved for up to 16 years. But “proper” cryonics – the preservation and revival of an adult organism – is mostly thought of as a cute science fiction plot device.
This may be about to change. Researchers have cryonically frozen and then revived the nematode worm C. elegans with its memories intact. Nematode worms are a typical model organism used for this kind of experiment, and were able to retain odourant imprinting (which is how researchers tested memory functions) after being frozen for two weeks – quite a long time if you’re a worm.
The science fiction dream is that a human being could die of something that we cannot treat in the present day, be cryonically preserved, and in hundreds or thousands of years’ time, be revived, cured of their ailments and left to continue their life in an unknown future. For some people, this is ‘heaven for atheists’. For others, it’s unwanted meddling into the natural cycle of life and death. These discussions remain academic, as the technology to freeze something as complicated as a grown human without major damage doesn’t yet exist (let alone the technology to revive said human at the far end!) – but with this study, it came a few exciting baby steps closer.
ITER – Latin for ‘the way’ or, more prosaically, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – is a nuclear fusion project involving 35 countries around the world. Funded by the EU, India, China, Japan, Russia, Korea and the USA, it’s noteworthy as a feat of international scientific cooperation alone. The Independent described it quite neatly as “the biggest scientific collaboration on the planet”, as only the International Space Station – not on the planet – is bigger.
Yet ITER is not merely an interesting study in international relations. It represents a huge commitment ($16 billion and counting) on the behalf of the most powerful countries in the world to nuclear fusion technology, with a reactor set to come online in 2027. Nuclear fission – what we normally think of when we think of nuclear power – has a bad reputation across most of the world. While countries like France and China are expanding their nuclear fission capacity, countries like Japan and Germany are doing the exact opposite, spooked by high-profile problems like the meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011.
Nuclear fusion is a remarkable alternative technology. If developed successfully, it would provide energy that is both cheap and clean, via essentially the same mechanism that powers the sun. Rather than combating climate change by reducing global demand for energy – a task that seems impossibly challenging – the development of effective nuclear fusion would solve the world’s energy demands while averting climate catastrophe. Unfortunately, nuclear fusion that produces more energy than it consumes isn’t yet a reality. If ITER can achieve this, it would go a long way towards solving two of the world’s greatest problems – climate change and a limited supply of energy with growing demand – in a single strike.
The progress that has been made over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries in tackling disease has been vast. As this cartoon puts it, the heroes of Biology have slain one of the four horseman of the apocalypse. This is an area of progress that shows no sign of stopping.
One such development is CRISPR-Cas, the best-known of several new genome-editing tools. With it, scientists may be able to edit specific bits of DNA. To put it another way, previous genome-editing techniques were a little like trying to fix someone’s grammar by throwing a collection of apostrophes at a sentence and hoping that one would land in the right place. CRISPR-Cas allows the placement of the edit exactly where it’s needed. Experiments are already being run involving sickle cell anaemia, HIV and cystic fibrosis. 70,000 people globally have cystic fibrosis, with a life expectancy of less than 40 years. Sickle cell anaemia kills around 175,000 people annually. HIV kills around 1.5 million.
In the long term, CRISPR-Cas and similar technologies could allow us to edit DNA like a proofreader edits a book. That is probably a long way in the future. But in the next ten or twenty years, it could ensure that diseases that were once life-threatening become survivable – and in the case of genetic conditions like sickle cell anaemia, ultimately eliminated entirely.
5. Gene drives
In conjunction with techniques like CRISPR-Cas, gene drives allow designed genes to be inserted into organisms. These genes are customised to appear more often than normal genes would do in offspring. For instance, it could be possible to ensure that a particular gene appears in offspring 50% of the time – so after only a few generations, it would appear in almost every organism. Normal genes continue to reappear if they are beneficial to the organism’s survival over many generations. Gene drives could allow a gene to appear that does not have any obviously beneficial effects, or even one that is harmful to the organism.
The range of uses to which this could be put if developed to its full potential is obviously vast, but for now, there’s one main target that almost always comes up when technology of this kind is discussed: malarial mosquitoes.
Only female mosquitoes of certain species of the Anopheles genus can transmit malaria. A gene drive that caused those species of mosquito to produce vastly more male than female offspring would reduce the population of malarial mosquitoes very rapidly. In Africa, a child dies every minute from malaria. There are around 200 million cases of malaria every year, and around half a million of those are fatal. Aside from its horrific death toll, malaria has significant side-effects as one of the biggest hindrances to economic development in the developing world.
The possible consequences of using gene drives to combat malaria are frightening – the possibility of the target gene escaping into a different population, for instance, as well as unknown ramifications for the ecosystem as a whole. Yet if gene drives could be used to tackle malaria safely, we would be a major step closer to solving one of humanity’s biggest and most neglected problems.
6. 3D printing
3D printing sometimes seems a little bit like 3D cinema. It seems like it would be a very cool development, but in reality it’s gimmicky and a little bit tacky: characters lurching out of the screen for a cheap shock in 3D cinema, and plasticky little creations that don’t seem to offer any real improvement on their mass-produced equivalents in 3D printing.
Whether there’s any real future for 3D cinema remains to be seen (my bet would be that it will collapse entirely once immersive virtual reality of the kind promised by Oculus Rift becomes commercially available) but 3D printing has the possibility to be much more exciting.
One such example is in the construction industry. Last year, the Chinese company Winsun 3D-printed 10 concrete houses in a day – which cost only around £3,000 each and had half the construction costs of a conventionally built house. It’s true that the houses are not beautiful, but that’s an issue with the design, not the technology. One great advantage of 3D printing is that every design can be individually customised without increasing the costs of construction – something that has huge utility for anyone with a disability for whom a customised house would conventionally be a sizeable expense.
The consequences of bad housing are far-reaching, affecting mental and physical health and leading to higher rates of crime. Britain has a housing shortage that requires 250,000 houses to be built every year. Making the production of housing cheaper and quicker is unglamorous, but could make a real difference to the lives of thousands.
If that sounds too prosaic, consider that 3D printing is a proposed solution for the challenges of building a colony on Mars. It might allow us to build using the materials already there, rather than transporting them 228 million kilometres at enormous expense. The stuff of science fiction? Yes, but 20 years ago, so was the idea of printing a house.
We’ve only covered a small fraction of the amazing developments in modern science, technology and engineering in this article. If you have any others to share, please tell us about them in the comments!