Boom & Bust: What Recent Scientific Discoveries Could Change the World?

After a week of reporting and writing on booms and busts—everything from the rapidly expanding world of subscription services to the biggest change in gaming since the introduction of the Atari 2600—Jamie Wiebe considers eight of her favorite recent discoveries, and how they might affect all of our lives.
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The Vostok Station sits near the southern Pole of Cold, with the lowest reliably measured natural temperature on Earth. (Photo: Public Domain)

The Vostok Station sits near the southern Pole of Cold, with the lowest reliably measured natural temperature on Earth. (Photo: Public Domain)

The number of scientific studies and discoveries each day is staggering: On March 17 of this year, scientists discovered rippling patterns in thermal radiation, which might be evidence for the Big Bang; they discovered a glacier in Greenland melting faster than expected, forcing revised estimates of global sea level rise; and a terrestrial ecologist revived moss specimens that had been frozen for more than 1,500 years.

However interesting, most discoveries are unremarkable, trivia for a future cocktail party, but nothing that’s really going to fundamentally change the world. But sometimes a small idea hits in a big way. The magical number seven, or the amount of information you can cram in your short-term memory at one time, launched a whole field of study and gave test-takers a new weapon for their next study group: Chunking. Noam Chomsky’s theory that languages worldwide hold to a universal grammar prompted a revolution in linguistics, transforming an almost-archaeological field into a science ripe for examination.

And what about today? What new information means very little outside of a very specific field, and what will crack a staid category wide open?

LAKE VOSTOK

It took 20 years and 2.2 miles of drilling, but Russian researchers finally reached Lake Vostok in February 2012. Haven’t heard of it? Makes sense: Barring many years of serious global warming, you’ll never be able to dip your toes in its waters. It’s the largest subglacial lake on Antarctica and the 16th-biggest on the planet, covering more than 6,000 square miles, just a little less than Lake Ontario. Glaciers have covered the lake for millions of years, so scientists were more than a little uncertain about what they might find when they finally breached the surface—would the ecosystem be thriving, or non-existent?

Fracking opponents might finally have their smoking gun: A study by the Colorado School of Public Health released this January linked living near a fracking site to increased risk of congenital heart disease in children by up to 30 percent.

The Russians brought back half a liter of water to study, and initial results were optimistic: According to RT, researchers on the surface found 3,500 new gene sequences, which could indicate a living community of microbes, at least, if not more complex new species. Not everyone is convinced: Nature quoted Lake Vostok researcher Sergey Bulat as saying, “Their analysis is very questionable.” A strong ecosystem in Lake Vostok would be truly miraculous, but for now, don’t expect much—especially considering the radio silence from scientists and the press over the past few months.

DISSOLVABLE CIRCUITS

If health tech aspires to be truly integrative, those working on it will need to solve one major, glaring problem: It’s hard to see into the body in a non-intrusive manner. We can make tiny computer chips, small enough to be swallowed and transmit information back to the surface world, but what goes in must come out, so to speak. That might not be the case for much longer.

John Rogers, an engineer at the University of Illinois, is the pioneer of biodegradable circuits: In 2013, Wired reported that his discovery of a “biodegradable remote-controlled, power-harvesting circuit,” which could be essential in “electroceuticals”—electronic devices that can traverse the body to repair internal wounds or deliver drugs before dissolving. Rogers developed super-thin remote-controlled circuits—complete with radio transmitters—using biodegradable materials that can dissolve in under an hour. The possibilities and applications are endless, and Rogers and his team have already begun exploring them: This year, he developed a svelte, dissolvable battery that allows the dissolvable circuits to maintain power, even in deep tissue or bone.

ANCIENT EUROPEANS VANISH

Not that we’re some woo-woo skeptics, but it is curious what happened about four to five thousand years ago: Europeans changed. More specifically, their genetics changed completely, and no one’s really sure why. The University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA analyzed the genomes of several 7,500-year-old skeletons found in central Germany, tracking the genetic markers of the prevailing culture at that time. Most of their discoveries are routine, following the population changes and migrations of Germany’s first farmers from the agricultural revolution to now—fascinating, to be sure, but not the type of thing that might stop a layperson in their tracks. Others are more surprising, like the revelation that the genetic code of today’s Europeans bears only a passing resemblance to that of what we would presume are their forefathers.

“The genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced around 4500 years ago, and we don't know why,” Adelaide professor Alan Cooper, the Centre’s director, said in a statement. What bizarre event precluded this change is unknown (although assuredly the answer is not a Doctor Who-style invasion), but we do know we’re ready for historians and archaeologists to team up and crack the case.

ITTY-BITTY PRINTABLE BATTERIES

With the advent of 3-D printing, we’ve come to accept, in small doses, the normalcy of the idea of printing objects. The value of 3-D-printed guns has been widely debated, and Amsterdam architects are currently building the first 3-D-printed houses. Cool, but game changers? If you could print batteries, though? That’s definitely a start. And a team of materials scientists at Harvard University have done just that, creating itty-bitty rechargeable lithium-ion batteries using only a 3-D printer.

The applications of these new batteries are nearly endless: Inventors will have easier access to small power sources, helpful in developing microrobotics or medical devices. The team is aiming even higher, toward creating more functional materials like circuit boards or entire electronic machines—Nature speculates we could soon “print entire electronic devices from scratch—creating not just the shell of a hearing aid, for instance, but its microphone, speaker, circuitry and power source in the ultimate do-it-yourself project.”

EARTH-LIKE PLANET

When it comes to planets, there doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted definition of Earth-like—we might think flowing rivers, mountain ranges, possibly extraterrestrial life. Not so for Kepler-78b, discovered by scientists inspecting data from NASA’s Kepler telescope last October in the Cygnus constellation.

Kepler-78b’s flowing lava and 80 percent larger mass doesn’t seem much like the planet we all know and love—yes, in most respects, it’s distinctly un-Earth-like. But Space.com says Kepler-78b is the “closest thing to an Earth twin in size and composition known beyond our solar system.” Because its density is so close to Earth’s—Earth measures 5.5 grams per cubic centimeter, whereas Kepler-78b’s density is roughly between 5.3 and 5.57—scientists expect the planet to have a very similar composition to our home, with an iron core and rocky interior. As for the search to find a truly Earth-like planet? Kepler-78b is interesting, but is still far from habitable. We’ve got a lot of looking left to do.

FRACKING & BIRTH DEFECTS

Fracking opponents might finally have their smoking gun: A study by the Colorado School of Public Health released this January linked living near a fracking site to increased risk of congenital heart disease in children by up to 30 percent. That’s a phenomenally frightening figure. The study covered 13 years and 124,842 births, and discovered conclusive links between mothers heavily exposed to fracking (more than 125 wells per mile) and birth defects.

That’s not the only way fracking endangers our health: Researchers at the University of Missouri found that the chemicals used in fracking—which are known endocrine disrupters—leach into the water nearby, disrupting hormone production and potentially causing infertility. That’s a huge deal, and not one that should pass by wordlessly. We can only hope more researchers will pick up the thread, and that their contributions won’t go unnoticed.

PEROVSKITES

Perovskites have a weird, Cold War-esque name that belies their potential: First discovered in 2009, perovskites are a photovoltaic device that converts sunlight into energy efficiently and inexpensively. In the world of solar energy research, they’ve reached rock star status, with breathless articles quoting breathless scientists. “Perovskites: The Future of Solar Power?” asks The Guardian; Chemical and Engineering News quotes Oxford physicist Henry J. Snaith as saying, “It seems we’ve all been bitten by the perovskite bug.”

The entire photovoltaic world has jumped in to research and study the material over the past four years, and in that time, we’ve seen massive leaps in conversion efficiency, a year-over-year improvement far more impressive than the decades it took to refine materials like silicon.

And the material itself is novel: Perovskites don’t need an electric field to produce an electrical current, meaning they can be made smaller, with fewer materials, and still produce high voltages. It’s not the first material that can operate without an electric field, but it is unique in its excellent visible-light response—which makes it useful in solar cells. It’s a fascinating material, and we aren’t the only ones intrigued.

THE GREAT LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA

With the U.S. government cutting budgets for everything from education to health care, it’s disheartening to see a powerful example of what cutting costs can do—namely, destroy the Great Library at Alexandria, constructed in the 3rd century B.C.E. Granted, the theory, espoused by journalist Annalee Newitz at io9 and based in part on a 2010 article in Library Philosophy and Practice written by librarian Heather Phillips, may not have the strongest scholarly background, but it is intriguing.

The historical record shows that the Library was destroyed by a fire, and there were plenty of violent events and invasions happening at or nearby the library to assume that its demolition resulted from something more than budget cuts. “Much of its downfall was gradual, often bureaucratic, and by comparison to our cultural imaginings, somewhat petty,” Phillips writes. The library, Newitz argues, was nearly destroyed already when it met its final end. It’s the type of discovery—the discovery of pieces and the way they fit together—that will have little impact on the greater consciousness, but for those already wary of our own budgetary struggles, it’s a chilling tale.

We’re telling stories all week on the theme of booms and busts. What’s on the edge—of becoming a big thing, or of falling off the radar? Read the entire series here.

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