Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review, Part Two

[Part One of 2009 in Review can be found here, and Part 1.5 can be found here.]

It's been a very interesting year in science and technology. Of course, just about any year is these days. So much is happening, and in so many fields, that it's literally impossible for one person to keep up with it all. My list will be slanted by my own prejudices and interests. If you feel that I have omitted anything important, please feel free to add to the list in the comments below. Also, this list is in no particular order of importance. I'm not sure I'm qualified to assign that kind of importance, anyway.

The Limits of Peer Review: Peer review is an important part of the modern scientific method. When done right, it enforces logical rigor and correct methodology. It can expose important errors before they reach print. And it can keep a scientist from the embarrassment of stating something in public that turns out to be complete nonsense. But, like any other human institution, it's not perfect. Once a view, any view, has achieved "consensus" status, it's very expensive to a scientist's reputation to hold a contrary opinion. Peer review can then become institutionalized group-think. This is when the role of the contrarian can become most important. The health of science itself depends upon the professional heretic. We need to periodically review the things we believe to be true. We need to re-examine assumptions that may have heretofore been unquestioned. This needs to be done not once but continually, so that new evidence can be inspected and interpreted. My main point here is that a consensus isn't a destination, it's a temporary way-point. The fact that you have one doesn't mean that you can stop asking questions.

Polywell Marches On: There's not a whole lot being said in public, but the Polywell experiments in inertial electrostatic confinement continue apace. We will probably know in about a year if the effort is bearing fruit. We probably won't see any public announcements ... the thing to watch will be continuing contract awards. If the Navy keeps throwing money at it, they're probably making progress. I will be watching with keen interest. Fusion power plants are a transformational game-changer where energy policy is concerned. Hydrogen, being the most abundant element in the known Universe, is something we're quite unlikely to run out of anytime soon.

Fuel Cell Airplanes: Which is all well and good, since it is possible at least in principle to convert all of our ground-based transportation to electrically-powered vehicles. There's a big segment of our economy that does not address, though. What do you do about aviation? Can you come up with an electrical system that's small enough yet powerful enough to drive an airplane? The answer would appear to be yes, you can. This should not be a terribly astonishing development. After all, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Gemini and Apollo series of manned spacecraft derived all of their electrical power from fuel cells. It was just a matter of boosting the power-to-weight ratios enough to make them practical airplane powerplants. This provides an avenue for replacing all prop-driven engines with fuel-cell equivalents, eventually.

Water on the Moon: This has been speculated for the last fifteen years, at least, and so was not exactly news to me. But this year we actually got the first direct measurement of actual water, frozen into actual lunar craters, in the polar regions that never get any direct sunlight. This is more interesting than practical, generally speaking. Long-term, it's not a terrifically useful resource. Water frozen into sunless lunar craters over eons is basically a non-renewable resource. Some uses would be reasonable, like feed-stock for a closed-loop life support system. Feed-stock for rocket propellant, on the other hand, is just plain dumb. You don't base your logistics on a resource that you know that you're going to run out of. We've done that by accident with oil, we sure don't need to do it on purpose.

More Extrasolar Planets: They're finding more all the time, and the techniques are improving such that they're finding smaller planets. When they found the first extrasolar planets back in the early '90s, the only things they could find were gas-giant behemoths that would make Jupiter look puny; now, we're finding planets closer to Earth-size. There are enough of them to form a category: Super-Earths. Thirty have been found in all, four in 2009 alone. It is only a matter of time before we find a twin world to our own Earth, out there in the cosmos. Mind you, finding is one thing, going there another matter entirely. Don't expect to book a ticket, round-trip or one-way, anytime in the next couple of centuries.

The Coming Biotech Revolution: The panic news this last spring and summer was all about Swine Flu. This flu season, not so much; between the rapid development of a vaccine and the availability of Tamiflu, the pandemic has been rather less damaging than had been feared. There's a lot we still don't understand about molecular biology, but we're beginning to close some of the gaps. Between them, nanotech and biotech will be the transformative technologies of the next fifty years. One of the first fruits of biotech has been Tamiflu, which has made this year's flu outbreak much less scary than it might have been otherwise. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. It could well render our current concept of medicine obsolete. A hundred years ago, a doctor might have said, "Take two of these and call me in the morning" because he didn't know what else to do. A hundred years from now a doctor might say the same thing, but in that case, "two of these" will be a swarm of medical micro-robots that will go in and fix what ails you. Some of you reading this will be alive to see these things happen. Truly, some amazing days are ahead of us.

At the end of the day, if I have faith in anything at all, I have faith in the power of human ingenuity. Invenium viam aut facium is the motto carved on Robert Peary's headstone, "I shall find a way or make one," and it's a fit motto for the human race as a whole. I look ahead to 2010 and beyond with guarded optimism. Problems we have, and in plenty; but we also enjoy the benefit that ninety percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive and working today. We may not lack for problems, but neither do we lack for brainpower to find solutions. When I think about them, patiently and diligently piecing together the undiscovered secrets of science, I'm reminded that our best days aren't behind us. They are yet to come.


M. Simon said...

Nice bit on Polywell.

And I agree with your view on the value of contrarians in science.

Manifesto Joe said...

Re: water on the moon

I recall a report that Jerry Falwell said before his death that any discovery of life on other planets would render Christianity (at least his version of it) meaningless.

This discovery certainly suggests that possibility. I wonder what Falwell would say?