martedì 31 dicembre 2013

2014 - Could this be the year we make contact with aliens?

From near-certainties to the far-fetched, Michael Hanlon looks at some of the science and technology headlines we may see over the next 12 months 

Men in Black II Alien


The Jubilee year of 2012 was a vintage one for science – as well as for our athletes and our Queen. This was the year that the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, and the Higgs boson was finally smoked out. Nothing that happened in 2013 could quite top that, but notable discoveries and accomplishments of the past year included the confirmation that Nasa’s Voyager 1 probe had finally entered interstellar space, the discovery of a new species of carnivorous mammal in South America (the Olinguito), the award of the Nobel Prize to Peter Higgs and his colleagues, and yet more evidence that traits and changes acquired in an animal’s lifetime may be passed on to the next generation (the rehabilitation of the once-heretical doctrine of Lamarckism via the science of epigenetics). In this case, scientists in Atlanta, Georgia, found that mice scared out of their wits could pass on their fears to their young, even their grandchildren.
The year also saw growing evidence for a puzzling slowdown in global warming (almost certainly explained by the function of the world’s oceans as a gigantic heat sink), the suggestion that our galaxy may be home to a billion or more “Earths” (making the continuing non-appearance of ET ever more mysterious), and China’s further advance into space, with a successful landing on the Moon of a wheeled robotic rover. India, too, has entered the space premier league with the launch of the Mars Orbiter spacecraft on November 5.
Finally, 2013 was the year that someone at last managed to make the International Space Station (ISS) interesting, when Commander Chris Hadfield reprised David Bowie’s Space Oddity in an extraordinary video shot aboard the station.
So what might 2014 hold? Here we look at some of the headlines from the world of science, technology and the environment that you may be reading in the next 12 months. Some of what follows is almost certain to happen, some is merely likely – and we have also made a couple of left-field suggestions.

First landing on a comet
Our machines have so far made successful landings on the Moon, the planets Mars and Venus, and Saturn’s moon Titan. Next November a small robotic probe called Philae will detach from the Rosetta spacecraft (a European mission to explore comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko) and land on its surface.
Comets are deeply mysterious objects. Though often called “dirty snowballs” due to their composition of various ices, including water, they are actually lumps of complex chemistry, including organic compounds. It should be stressed here that “organic” in the chemical sense means “contains carbon” rather than “alive”, but that has not stopped some scientists speculating that comets, and objects like them, may act as cosmic dispersal systems for primordial microbes throughout the universe (a hypothesis called panspermia, which sounds crazy yet which has never been entirely discredited). Philae, some of whose components were built in Britain, may answer the question of whether comets supplied the early Earth with the bulk of its oceanic water. And it will provide some spectacular images.
The Large Hadron Collider completes its upgrade
The biggest and most expensive particle accelerator ever built is currently shut down for maintenance and a series of upgrades which will mean that, when it is switched on, it will operate at double the power it had at its disposal when it found the elusive Higgs boson. This will almost certainly not happen until early 2015, but Cern’s scientists will spend this coming year poring over the countless petabytes of data produced by the LHC already, and preparing for the reactivation of a machine that may be able to solve some of the greatest mysteries in science, including the nature of dark matter and even the detection of parallel universes.

Google Glass hits the shops

Google Glass

Google does not work like other companies. Its prototype Google Glass headsets were not released conventionally, but sold to a selected group of “early adopters” and Google employees last year for $1,500 a pop. Google Glass is a type of “augmented reality” wearable computer, of the kind we have been promised for a decade but has conspicuously failed to materialise. The headset, which looks like a geeky version of a pair of spectacles, allows the user to overlay a transparent computer screen on their field of vision. Look at a building and the computer will flash up information about what it is. You can tell the glasses to take a picture or video, and although Google says it has disabled this function, the technology is there for instant face-recognition: you look at someone, and the magic of the web means that you can have a name, address and telephone number in the time it takes to say “stalker”. Google Glass may end up being a game-changer of the like we have not seen since the first iPhone. Or it may be an overhyped dud. Given Google’s record to date, the latter is unlikely.

First three-parent baby given the go-ahead
Parliament is due to vote in 2014 on a proposal to allow IVF clinics to offer treatment to couples where the woman suffers from mitochondrial mutations. Mitochondria are tiny “organelles”, energy-factories that live in the cytoplasm of our cells. Problems with mitochondria can lead to a host of diseases, and faulty mitochondria are passed on down the female line.
Scientists have found a clever way round this. Take an egg cell from a donor whose mitochondria are healthy. Remove its nucleus (the bit with the mother’s main DNA) and replace it with a nucleus taken from the mother. Then fertilise the egg, in vitro, using sperm from the father with conventional IVF.
The “three-parent” tag is a little misleading. The DNA that makes you “you” comes entirely from your mother and your father; this will still be the case with the new technique. But, importantly, the mitochondria from the donor do contain their own DNA, and this would be passed on to the resulting child. This would be the first time that assisted-reproduction technology will have been used to alter the fundamental genetics of a subsequent generation (albeit only affecting 0.1 per cent of its total DNA), a move that makes some people uneasy.
The ISS gets even more interesting
Chris Hadfield’s YouTube rendition of Space Oddity made headlines in 2013 and finally made the much-derided ISS cool. But in 2013 the International Space Station may finally have made a scientific discovery of the magnitude that would justify its estimated £100 billion price tag (16 times as much as the LHC and, by most measures, the single most expensive object ever constructed).
In April 2013 an instrument aboard the ISS called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a particle detector, picked up an anomaly in the cosmic rays it was analysing – an unexpectedly large number of antimatter particles. This is interesting because one mechanism to explain this involves interaction between high-energy cosmic rays and a good candidate for the “dark matter particle”, the neutralino – a heavy, stable critter that in theory has all the properties needed to explain dark matter.
If the AMS confirms in 2014 that it has indeed found dark matter – a large component of the “missing mass” of the Universe (the other being “dark energy”) – that would be a spectacular triumph for the ISS, and a rebuttal of those critics who have dubbed it the ultimate white elephant. It would also probably mean a second Nobel for the instrument’s lead investigator, MIT’s Samuel Ting.

The internet continues to fragment
What many see as a worrying trend, the fragmentation of the internet into a series of “walled gardens” and more loosely connected networks, is set to continue apace in 2014. So far the internet, as a unitary entity free and open to all, has come under inevitable pressure from commerce. The development of smartphone-friendly apps and attempts to control traffic by content providers (violating the principle of “net neutrality”, which says that the highways of cyberspace must allow all traffic unimpeded) together with the creation of censorship walls, by China and others, have been the greatest challenges to the old idea of the universal world network.
But now the antics of the American National Security Agency pose an even more serious threat. Because so much internet traffic goes through American servers (and thus comprises data that can be subject to NSA snooping) some countries, notably Germany, are talking about constructing their own mini-internets insulated from America’s prying eyes. According to New Scientist, which quoted the Washington think-tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the growing distrust of America’s online spooks could cost US businesses $35 billion in the next two years.
Fracking arrives in a field near you
Earlier this month, the Government announced that it would grant licences for thousands of exploratory wells to be dug in 2014 in the search for shale gas, the “fuel of the 21st century”. Huge swathes of the country could be affected – it would be easier to list the places where geologists say it won’t be found than those it might. The latter include Cornwall, much of Devon, southern East Anglia and some of the East Midlands, the Lake District, the Scottish Borders, most of Wales, and the Scottish Highlands. Shale gas – methane trapped in pore spaces in hard rocks deep underground – can be extracted by a controversial technique known as “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing. Opposition to fracking has to date centred upon supposed environmental damage and pollution (all unproven) and a slight risk of causing minor earthquakes; but if fracking gets under way in earnest, opposition will start to centre on land ownership and mineral rights issues, noise and traffic disruption. It is worth noting that to date not a single British kettle has been boiled by the energy from shale gas.

Curiosity finds something curious
Nasa’s Mars mega-rover, Curiosity, which landed in Gale Crater in August 2012 and has been trundling around since, has made a number of interesting scientific discoveries. These include finding conglomerate rocks that were probably laid down in an ancient river, and recent confirmation that “life-friendly” conditions (ie, warmish weather and liquid water) pertained on this part of the Red Planet’s surface billions of years ago.
But Curiosity has not found microbial life on Mars, nor evidence of past life. Its critics say it was a mistake not to equip it with a life-detector (such as was fitted to the twin Viking landers of 1976) and that Curiosity represents a missed opportunity. Perhaps, but there is a chance that the nuclear-powered machine could detect something interesting in 2014 as it begins its long ascent up the flanks of 18,000ft Mount Sharp, which lies in the middle of the crater. If Mars was ever home to microbial life, or even something bigger, then Curiosity might – just might – be able to spot the fossil evidence in the rocks. And it is possible – just possible – that it could even spot something alive: a very long shot, perhaps, but Mars is a very strange place and may yet surprise us.

Neutrinos come in from the cold
Only slightly less weird than dark matter, neutrinos are the fast-moving, fundamental particles that bombard the Earth (and you) in their trillions from all directions every second, yet which hardly interact with ordinary matter at all (on average you need about a light year of lead to guarantee stopping one in its tracks). Being nearly massless, neutrinos are too light to account for the “missing mass” of dark matter itself, but cosmologists think that neutrinos, which come in various flavours, comprise a key, and as yet poorly understood, part of what makes the universe tick.
Because they are so hard to catch, neutrino science is in its infancy, but this year scientists using a telescope buried in the Antarctic ice detected high-energy neutrinos formed outside the solar system (the one light year of lead is an average for the amount of stuff you need to stop a neutrino; a very small proportion will be stopped by far less matter, such as several hundred metres of ice).

ET gets in touch
The longest shot of all, and there is no reason to believe that it is any more likely to happen in 2014 than the year after or indeed a thousand years hence. But that said, the more we learn about the universe the more, not less, curious it seems that we are apparently alone. When scientists including Enrico Fermi and Frank Drake first started seriously speculating about the possibility of extraterrestrial civilisations more than half a century ago, astronomers knew of only one solar system in the whole of the cosmos – ours. Now we know of more than a thousand, several containing apparently Earthlike planets, a handful of which may lie in their stars’ “habitable zone”, an orbit in which it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist.
All this raises the question: where the heck is everybody? Given that we have the technology today (but not as yet the money) to build telescopes big enough to spot signs of life spectroscopically on nearby “Earth analogues”, if intelligent life is as common as some suspect then it is certain that by now the aliens have used their telescopes to detect us. Maybe a signal is overdue. Or maybe someone is on their way. Or, of course, there is simply no one out there. The wonderful thing is that any of these possibilities is equally awe-inspiring.


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