It’s always tempting to do a ‘year in review’ type of article at this time of year. It’s not hard (especially after every other publication has done theirs). For example, science in 2005 can be summed up thus: embarrassing NASA failures; freakish meteorology; bird flu fears and cover-ups; evangelism masquerading as science; the rise, rise and fall of Woo Suk Hwang and his therapeutic cloning; and perhaps the only proud moment: the completion of the chimp genome.
Too easy. So of course I’ll have to put my foot in it and hazard a guess as to what might be the ‘year in review’ for 2006. Some of it’s easy because it’s just more of the same, really. Bird flu is only going to become a bigger problem, as is climate change. It would be nice to see some successes in space exploration. (It would be even nicer to put that kind of money into feeding the starving and AIDS prevention [for example], but you can’t have everything.) Physicists will keep nattering on about string and other things that I don’t pretend to understand (anyone care to calculate the trajectory of physics wooshing over my head?).
Apart from bird flu, obesity will probably be the most important health issue (unless there’s some other awful pandemic). Genomes, which are just so last century really, will continue to be superseded by proteomes and epigenomes. But I think there’s a very big missing link between genotype and phenotype that we’re just not getting, sort of like the dark matter of biology — the setbacks with cloning and the final figure of 96% similarity between the human and chimp genomes point to that. I’ll be surprised if 2006 is the year that solves that mystery, though. And I’m going to be optimistic and hope for a new stem cell hero.
I’m not particularly optimistic about climate. There are so many pitfalls to all the alternatives to oil (the destruction of forests in developing countries for biofuels, for example) that I think headway will only be made when it’s too late. It’s already too late, really.
Technology will probably keep moving along the lines of smaller, faster, and cuter, and as usual not spend too much time on actually being helpful.
Not too cheery overall. But one thing I can predict with confidence: like every year, there will be good bits and bad bits. Is the ratio even up to us? Who knows?
Alternative energy can change the world profoundly. The obstacle that there is too much benefit for the powerful in the current (insane) petrochemical industry.
Biodiesel, ethernol, new engines (rotary, quasiturbine), computer controlled ignition are all existing technology. Just find a way to allow people to make money from it and that will remove obstacles.