Most Overlooked Science and Tech Stories of 2005

20 02 2007

(Here’s an old story I’m uploading to get this party started.)

Science and technology stories are under-reported, and this year some of the most interesting ones were given short shrift by the mainstream media. What might we have missed? To name a few: gay genetics, Google taking over the world, new hope for life on other planets, singing icebergs, and the origin of white people.

Science, is under assault from the Right for stem cell science, global warming, and allegedly contradicting the word of God. Meanwhile, many on the Left only associate technology with polluting industries and weapons labs. It’s true that Liberal Arts majors never built an H-bomb, but there’s a lot to love in the world of science and hi-tech. My choices, then, for the Most Overlooked Science and Technology Stories of 2005:

1. Mutation that created “white people” 40,000 years ago identified.

The dancers whirled and jumped ever higher, their faces dripping with sweat as the drumbeat intensified. Ecstasy seized dancers and musicians alike, only to be interrupted by a sudden wave of shock and surprise. A hush fell across the ancient savannah as the pale stranger emerged from the shadows. Straightening his tie, he spoke to the hushed crowd:

“That tune’s gotta lot of pizzazz, fellas, but I can’t find the darned melody anywhere.”

Genetics researchers are, understandably, concerned about publishing results into the genetic differences between racial groups. However minor those differences may be – and they appear to be no more than “skin deep” – the concern is that any such distinction will be used to support racist theories and behavior.

Actually, this discovery should put the lie to racist groups everywhere. White skin appears to the result of a mutation that later caught on in the northern countries. There’s no sign of any other difference in skills, intellect, or inherent personality – my wiseguy intro notwithstanding.

2. Google Goes After Microsoft

Google has moved well beyond the search engine business, getting into everything from blog development to mapping to email – all on an ever-expanding centralized hardware base. They now have a research team of engineers looking at operating systems, which is Microsoft’s domain. The plan? that someday, everything you do – your mail, your travel, your writing, and soon 100% of your personal computing – will be done on Google’s centralized computers. By tracking your activities, advertisements will be tailored to your activities and interests.

Afraid? You should be – not of Sergey and Brin (Google’s founders), but of the possible impact to human freedom when everyone’s private lives are located on one set of computers, where the Feds can find, read, and influence them.

3. Breakthroughs in Quantum Computing

Quantum bubbles” and “data in/data out” signals are just two of the stunning breakthroughs in the field of quantum computing, where the principles of subatomic physics are being used to create computing power that’s beyond our capacity to envision today. What will we do with all that power? Create artificial souls? Become superhuman? Or just transmit advertisements for Dr. Scholl’s Odor Eaters directly into our skulls? Stay tuned.

(Actually, you have no choice. They’ll find you.)

4. Singing Objects

Some stories should be reported just to show the poetry of science. I offer you these two pieces of information: sand dunes can sing, and, for an encore … so can icebergs. Icebergs appear to burst out in song after an earthquake, while with sand dunes … well, they just feel it.

Some like their music hot, some like it cool. Either way, there’s a singer for you.

5. E. Coli Take Your Picture

Researchers in the field of “synthetic biology” were able to program e.coli bacteria to take photographs of themselves (the researchers, that is) – a major advance beyond Xeroxing your butt with the office copy machine.

They did it 1) because they could, and 2) to show what unusual developments their field is capable of producing. More serious research projects including biological computers, designer drugs, and alternative fuels. They may create a whole new world of microscopic and large scale ‘organic technology.’

E. coli is a bacteria that’s usually harmless, but bad strains of it have gotten into hamburger meat and created those well-publicized disease outbreaks. Now it can take your picture, too. Say ‘cheese.’

6. Life in Space?

As New Scientist reports, ” The first evidence that some of the basic organic building blocks of life can exist in an Earth-like orbit around a young Sun-like star has been provided by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.”

Meaning what? We don’t know. But if the “organic building blocks” of life occur around a star like our sun – and we’ve found it already, despite having viewed only an infinitesimal fraction of the universe – the chances of life like ours arising elsewhere becomes much higher.

Dear space people: If you’re watching C-SPAN, these people are not a representative sample of human life. Spare us!

The Finno-Ugric Digression

Speaking of life on other worlds … many years ago Enrico Fermi posed the ‘Fermi Paradox’: “If there are aliens out there, why haven’t they visited us yet? Why aren’t they among us?” Fellow physicist Leo Szilard replied, “They are among us, but they call themselves Hungarians.”

Interestingly (to me), Hungarians (Szilard was one) belong to that language group known as “Finno-Ugric.” Their language is not related to any other terrestrial language except Finnish (although the two can’t understand each other), and a handful of others. According to data from the World Health Organization, both Hungarians and Finns have alcoholism and suicide rates that are twice the world’s average.

I guess they don’t like it here.

7. Advances in research on homosexuality and genetics

Nobody has yet isolated a ‘gay gene,’ but researchers continue to make inroads in studying gay genetics. This study identifies genetic patterns that are more often present in gay pairs of brothers than in straight ones. The fact that this pattern occurs more frequently (in statistically significant terms) in gay brothers adds to the evidence suggesting that people are born gay, rather than ‘made’ that way – by environment, or a permissive society.

The implications are obvious but enormous: If people are born gay, it makes no more sense to discriminate against them then it does to discriminate against the left-handed, or the blue-eyed, or people of different races. The entire fabric of the Republican and Fundamentalist campaign against gays and their rights will be shown for what it is – simple bigotry.

Last New Year’s Eve I wrote about “distributed processing heroism.” Happy New Year!




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