Science in the Public Eye
As 2012 draws to a close, it’s been an incredible year in the world of science. In this column, we’ve discussed the Curiosity mission, how life can evolve from chemical processes, new statistical methods being used in both baseball and politics, new methods to generate energy from microbes, and Native American contributions to science and education. This makes a small dent in the vast surface of science and engineering discoveries made this year. In total this year, more than 800,000 science and engineering journal articles are projected to be published, and patent applications are projected to surpass 2.5 million (both the publishing and the patent systems are fraught with problems, but they are a decent metric for total innovation). While the Curiosity mission and the progress towards discovering the Higgs Boson have received the most publicity of any scientific missions this year, I’d like to give a brief recap of a few less public but incredibly significant contributions to the scientific community.
In early January, IBM achieved an incredible advancement in information storage by reliably storing a single bit in only twelve iron atoms. For reference, portable terabyte hard drives weigh around .25 kg. In the same mass, you could fit about two trillion trillion dozen iron atoms, or approximately two trillion times the storage capacity. They were able to achieve this efficiency by aligning neighboring atoms with opposite magnetic fields, allowing them to be controlled precisely and packed in tightly. Presently this technology requires a scanning tunneling microscope to encode and read data and a temperature near to absolute zero, but it shows promise for future research. In a completely different area of information storage, Harvard Medical School Professor George M. Church was able to encode an entire book by arranging DNA nucleotides and can now claim to be the author with the most copies (albeit microscopic and self-replicating) of his works in history.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, and many among us were fortunate to spend it with friends, family, good food, and warm fires. As the legend goes, the harvest of 1621 in nearby Plymouth was bountiful, in no small part due to Squanto, a young Wampanoag man who taught the Pilgrims to fish and grow corn. In celebration, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims had a Thanksgiving feast together to strengthen their friendship and enjoy their harvest.
The holiday celebrates a few key American principles: that great rewards can be achieved through hard work, that celebration can be a wonderful bond between friends and family, and that two dissimilar groups of people can achieve more together than they can separately. For many of these reasons, President Abraham Lincoln officially established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to renew the bonds of friendship between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War.
It’s a bright new day in America, filled with challenges and opportunities for the future. A key challenge we face as a species is generating enough energy to sustain and enhance our lives—and doing so in a way that can be relied on indefinitely. Currently, 77.6 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. comes from non-renewable fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, coal, and crude oil. Nuclear plants generate 10.6 percent of our energy, and the remaining 11.8 percent comes from renewable sources. Since global stores of non-renewable resources deplete over time, until we find a way to send organic matter back in time a few million years, we need to plan for a future in which they exist in far fewer quantities. This much is obvious before we even consider the impacts of harvesting and using non-renewables.
The coming weeks will mark the exciting conclusion of an American tradition: pitting two ideals against each other in a timeless competition of endurance and will. Both sides have prepared all year with campaigns in every corner of the country in front of millions of Americans. With preliminary contests now over, the final two contenders vie once more to be crowned the leaders of the free world. One side draws much of its support from the Midwest, has recently seen a surge in success, and has a solid chance at winning for the first time in more than half a decade. Their opponents are recently victorious, enjoy a youthful base of support on the coast, and thrive off of hope and grit in the face of daunting odds. While there are significant differences between the two, when the dust settles in two weeks’ time, we will still be Americans, standing proudly with a bright future ahead, and united together in that, whether the Detroit Tigers or the San Francisco Giants win the World Series, at least it won’t be the Yankees.
It’s been exactly ten months since the Mars Science Laboratory was launched on an Atlas V rocket from Earth, and after landing on Mars last month it is taking the first steps toward the most impressive exploratory science mission in human history. The mission has been an unqualified success so far, having accomplished every objective to date. The mission has also drawn considerably more public following than NASA is accustomed to, with even President Obama suggesting that a more interesting hairstyle, in homage to one of the NASA scientists, might boost his reelection hopes.
A large degree of the publicity that the mission drew was due to the Rube Goldberg-esque landing device that was required. While previous Mars landers and rovers were able to land using a combination of rockets and airbags, the sheer size of the Curiosity rover made it impossible to rely solely on these techniques. The key innovation for the Mars Science Laboratory was the Sky Crane, a flying craft from which Curiosity was suspended gently onto the surface for the last fifty meters of its descent. In retrospect, it’s easy to take for granted that everything worked exactly as expected. In reality, the majority of Martian missions have failed somewhere along the way. To successfully complete a mission of such complexity is, to date, the crowning achievement of planetary science.