The 10 Greatest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2017

When it comes to amazing discoveries, 2017 will be remembered as the year when what was once only science fiction became science fact.
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The scientific community had a busy year in 2017. From the advancements in the cut-and-pasting of CRISPR genetic editing to being able to detect gravitational waves for the first time when stars collide, scientists cleared some major hurdles. And not just in the DeepMind, artificial intelligence sort of way.

The DeepMind division at Google explains their groundbreaking concept of keeping robots from rebelling against their human makers as a necessity that will be put to use as major advancements in technology and artificial intelligence continue.

The scary part of this equation is that scientists have proven that robots can cheat and find unexpected work-arounds to tasks and problems, but DeepMind is taking a basic real-world concept and applying it to computers: when a machine does what it is told, reward it. Robo-doggy shakes a paw? Give that dog a bone (or at least the AI equivalent).

1. Crispr Gene Editing

Source: AstraZeneca

A huge scientific breakthrough was the use of gene-editing technology to inside the human body for the very first time. CRISPR, the most accessible gene-editing technique so far, was used to remove the human papillomavirus (HPV) in 60 women by applying a gel that carries the necessary DNA coding to disable the tumor growth mechanism. In another study, CRISPR was used to successfully “delete” a gene linked to heart conditions from a human embryo.

The ability for CRISPR to modify genetic code has been likened to word-processing software that allows someone to correct a typo in a hefty document.But it also raised concerns for the potential of next-generation eugenics, where gene editing is used to produce designer babies.

While the potential does exist, we are still a long way from being able to use gene editing to enhance traits in babies. We still don’t understand the genetic basis of many of the human traits that might be targets for enhancement, and we understand even less the potential side effects such as a deleterious effect on other traits when another is tweaked for improvement, or recessive trait issues that only manifest in descendent generations who inherit the modified genes.

So while we are experimenting with embryonic humans, none of the modified embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days. This has nothing to do with the limitations of the technology, but rather is because of ethical and legal restrictions.

2. Old-School Sci-Fi Gets Real

Source: Space X

In order for commercial space travel to be viable, it has to be cheaper. The private space agency SpaceX is one step closer to make that a reality.

Space X uses Falcon 9 rocket boosters to launch their missions into orbit, which up to now have been “disposable.” At a cost of $62 million per launch, that’s a lot to throw away. But a successful launch and re-landing of a used Falcon 9 rocket booster shows that what was already the cheapest orbital rocket system can now be even less expensive.

Reusing a rocket booster could result in a 30 percent discount per launch, saving companies more than $18 million.

Outer space just got a little bit closer.

3. Regenerative Medicine

Source: Eglin Air Force Base

Regenerative medicine is a fancy way of saying the artificial growth of human tissue and organs in a lab. Up to now, it has been a long and difficult process with lots of limitations, but advances demonstrate that soon doctors will be able use the technology to help patients worldwide repair nerve damage and even grow entire limbs and organs.

All that is needed is the medical equivalent of an industrial assembly line to do for regenerative medicine what it did for cars: make them affordably available to the masses. The new breakthroughs take us a set closer to developing standardized manufacturing processes to successfully make replacement tissues and organs more widely available.

It centres around two main projects, both relating to what is essentially the 3D printing of new tissue or organs. The first aims to create standardized “bioinks” that can be used in the process of printing tissue and organs, and the second project focuses on developing standardized liquids on which the printed cells can grow.

The Six Million Dollar Man’s pricetag just got a lot cheaper.

4. Google’s Artificial Intelligence

Source: Deepmind

New experiments into artificial intelligence are making a future where robots are integrated into society a reality. Google’s artificial intelligence subsidiary Deep Mind is teaching AI computer agents to navigate complex environments, a big step forward for autonomous AI movement.

Simulations were programmed with a set of sensors that allowed them to know things like when they were upright or if their leg was bent, and the agents in the simulations tried various ways of moving — jumping, running, using knees to scale obstacles, etc.— in an effort to figure out how best to continue moving forward.

Other recent AI advancements include the ability to recognize objects far better than a human can, as well as perform more abstractly cerebral tasks, such as reading emotions and detecting pain levels.

One day, these advancements will enable artificially intelligent robots to navigate around our world and interact with us in ways that would make Isaac Asimov mandatory reading in every school.

5. New Superconductor

Source: Harvard

It wasn’t that long ago that scientists theorized that it was possible to create metallic hydrogen, now they’ve actually done it. By applying almost five million atmospheres of pressure to liquid hydrogen — which is about five million times the pressure we experience at sea level, and 4,500 times that at the bottom of the ocean, so we are talking a LOT of pressure — they made it change to a metallic state.

It has been called the holy grail of high pressure physics, because in its metallic state hydrogen could act as a genuine superconductor and revolutionize everything from energy storage to rocketry.

It could make the magnetic levitation of high-speed trains far more efficient, based on the perfect diamagnetism of superconductors. A metallic state could make hydrogen the most powerful rocket propellant, about four times as powerful as existing rocket propellants that use molecular hydrogen and liquid oxygen. When heated, metallic hydrogen changes back to molecular hydrogen, which could produce a great deal of efficiently packed energy.

The stars are getting closer and closer every year.

6. New Way to Find Water in the Desert

Source: MIT / laboratory of Evelyn Wang

A third of the world’s population lives in arid regions where water is often hard to come by, and even where there is water it’s often dirty. There are ways to pull water from the air, but they require a lot of ambient moisture and a lot of electricity, making it infeasible to use for the people who need it the most.

New developments provide not one but two ways to draw water using nothing more than sun power. The first uses incredibly porous crystals made with zirconium, which has a high affinity for water. Using nothing but heat from natural sunlight, these crystals are able to pull water from the air and feed it into a collector.

A prototype device is capable of extracting nearly 3 litres of water a day into 1 kilogram of crystal, even in the desert where humidity is only 20 percent.

Another innovation uses solar panels to power to drive air through a special absorbent material and condense it into water. It also charges a battery to power the device when there isn’t enough sun. This device can draw up to 5 litres of water a day out of thin air.

Water, water everywhere, and now we can drink it.

7. Motherless Births

Source: Patridge Et Al. 2017, Nature.com

Premature birth, meaning an infant born before 37 weeks,  is the leading cause of death for newborns. Millions of babies are born prematurely each year, with lungs and brains are still in very early stages of development, and the potential for a variety of different problems. Right now, our best treatment is to incubate preterm children, but a new device could enable them them to complete development in natural conditions that mimic the womb.

The uterus-like “biobag” isn’t exactly an artificial womb tank, but it is capable of sustaining premature babies much better than an incubator. At least, it works on lambs.

In the test, eight lambs were placed in the transparent biobags 105 days after they started development, which is like 22 weeks of human development. At that point neither lambs nor human babies can survive outside the womb on their own.

The lambs spent four weeks in the biobags, growing hair, maturing their lungs, and developing until they could survive on their own. All eight lambs developed normally and survived. It shouldn’t be too long before the same technologies could be used on humans.

8. Quantum Breakthrough

Source: Joey Camacho

Maybe you’ve heard of Moore’s Law. It’s not a legal thing, it’s a principle of computing that says every 18 months the number of transistors we can fit on a computer chip will double, and for the last 40 years it has held true. The power of computers has kept pace with their complexity. But we are reaching a point very soon where it will be economically unviable to keep this pace up. At least, not with our current type of computers.

That’s why a lot of really big brains are working on something called Quantum computing. Quantum computers are, unarguably, the next great evolutionary step in the development of computing tech. Their successful creation will be a paradigm shifting achievement—one that will alter the future of humanity and revolutionize operations across a broad spectrum of applications.

Technology that operates at the quantum scale does not merely allow for the sort linear progression of computing power we’ve experienced so far, it will launch exponential shifts in power and capability.

That’s why the time crystal doesn’t just sound awesome, it is awesome. The actual mechanics of it are pretty confusing, involving non-equilibrium forms of matter in the shape of lattices that repeat not in space but in time, breaking time-translation symmetry. But the essence of why time crystals are perfect for quantum computing comes down to ones and zeroes. You know, bits. On or off. Put 4 bits together, and you have 16 possible combinations of ones and zeroes.

But what if there was a bit that didn’t have to be on or off, but could be both at the same time? Actually, there is. The qubit, and it’s the basis of quantum computing. Take 4 of those qubits and you can put them in superposition so that they aren’t just in one of the 16 possible states at any given time, but can be in all of them at the same time. For every qubit you add, the number of possible simultaneous states grows exponentially: a 20-qubit system can store a million values simultaneously.

Of course, most of this was just theoretical. But scientists have actually made time crystals. Maybe Moore’s Law needs to be revised. It looks like merely doubling transistors after only 18 months is nowhere near enough.

9. Super-Earth LHS 1140B

Source: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

The search for life on other planets has been on the minds of astronomers for a long time, and with the discovery of planet LHS 1140b, that search just got a lot more exciting.

It revolves in a habitable zone around a faint red dwarf star about 40 light years away from us, which is practically next door in astronomical terms. Although the planet is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than our Sun is, so it’s still smack dab in the sweet spot for habitable conditions, and gets about half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth does.

The planet appears to be at least five billion years old and is about 1.4 times the size of Earth. Its greater mass and density implies that it is probably made of rock with a dense iron core. To support life as we know it, a planet must retain an atmosphere and have liquid surface water, and all signs point to the possibility that this is true on LHS 1140b.

If only we had spaceships powered by superconducting metallic hydrogen and driven by clever AIs with quantum computing power, we could try to visit it soon and see for ourselves. Oh wait…

10. New Era of Astronomy

Source: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

We have known for a long time where the lighter elements in the universe came from, most hydrogen and helium originated from the Big Bang, and elements up to iron on the periodic table are mostly forged in the stellar cores. But we’ve never been sure where the heavier elements came from. However, the origin of half of the elements heavier than iron was uncertain, up until we got concrete proof that they are synthesized when two supermassive bodies like neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are similar to black holes, and both can result from a supernova. When a dead star explodes, it collapses into a dense core; if it’s really heavy, it becomes a black hole that is so heavy that not even light can escape its gravitational pull. A little lighter, and the resulting body’s gravitational pull isn’t quite as strong as a black hole’s, but still strong enough to crush protons and eletrons together to make neutrons, so we call them neutron stars.

Sometimes these things get caught in each other’s immense gravity, and they collide and merge. This collision makes ripples in the fabric of space and time called gravitational waves Einstein predicted gravitational waves, theorizing that gravity is the manifestation of how mass warps space and time. When any object with mass moves, it should generate gravitational waves that travel at the speed of light, stretching and squeezing space-time along the way.

For the first time, scientists have detected gravitational waves from a colliding pair of neutron stars. They detected a gravitational-wave signal possessing an extraordinary amount of energy — like, a billion times the energy of the luminosity of the Milky Way–that was enough to outshine the 100 billion stars in our galaxy by about a billion-fold for the 50 or so seconds it took place.

It was the spectrum of light from the matter ejected from the merger that told us we’d witnessed the creation of newly synthesized heavy elements such as gold, platinum and lead. We’d suspected that’s where they came from for about 70 years, but never knew for sure until now.

Well, that settles that bet, then.

Story by Jay Moon


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