What to expect of science in 2012

Expect new insights into new worlds, ongoing controversies, final answers on some lingering mysteries from 2011, and a chance of solar stormy weather

Surprise may be at the heart of all discoveries, but the truth is, most scientific advances and developments come with some warning. Experimental evidence takes time to accumulate; investigators talk with their peers about their work; grant calendars and publishing schedules sound a beat to which the science marches. Moreover, new work builds on the momentum of past trends and programs previously set in motion. So although some of 2012's scientific accomplishments are truly impossible to predict, many of the major areas of work are fairly easy to see taking shape.

With more than 1.5 million peer-reviewed scientific papers likely to be published in 2012, fairly representing the most noteworthy developments across dozens of major disciplines is impossible. Here are a few of the predictable developments that stand out to me.

SPOILER ALERT: Books and television programs invoking the Mayan calendar and ominous talk of "galactic alignment" to the contrary, the world will not end next December. If I'm wrong, I will happily share one of my scavenged tins of tuna with you in the refugee shelter.

Exploring other worlds

Space science got off to a quick start in 2012 with NASA's GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B probes entering orbits around the earth's moon on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day respectively. Between now and March, the twin spacecraft will adjust their orbits until they are just 34 miles above the surface, at which point they will begin to measure tiny variations in the moon's gravity that should illuminate details of its internal structure in unprecedented detail. Those answers, scientists hope, will illuminate how the moon formed out of collisions of smaller bodies, and perhaps why its near surface is smoother than its far side.

Planetary scientists are also hoping to get great views of the asteroid Eros when it swings past earth at the end of January, and to finish collecting data on the asteroid Vesta with the Dawn space probe before May 22, when it heads off to its next stop, the asteroid Ceres. And in April, the European Space Agency and Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science will launch their joint mission to explore Mercury, but that BepiColombo orbiter and lander will not arrive at that planet until 2020.

Curiosity rover during mobility testing. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The most anticipated planetary exploration event of the year might be the early August arrival of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, a Mini Cooper-size cousin to the smaller but indomitable Spirit and Opportunity robots, carries 10 times as heavy a scientific instrument payload. The information it gathers about the climate and geology of Mars will be of practical value for eventual manned missions to the planet, but what most excites most people about Curiosity is that it will be searching for signs that Mars could ever have supported life.

The search for life will also be on the minds of the astronomers poring through data from the Kepler space telescope for evidence of even more earthlike planets around other stars. Kepler has already found evidence for more than 2,300 exo-planets, including two (Kepler-20e and -20f) that are only slightly smaller than earth but inhospitably hotter and one (Kepler-22b) that is more than twice earth's size but situated in a "habitable zone" around its star that might afford it a life-friendly climate. In 2012, Kepler will no doubt tote up many more planet candidates, some of which could be even closer twins to ours. (Determining whether life actually exists on any of these planets remains far beyond the capabilities of any existing instrument.)

Stem cells by any other name...

Biomedical research in 2012 will continue to be transformed by the ease and affordability of reading the genomes of patients, pathogens, malignant tissues and more. All indications are that this year technology will succeed in delivering a $1,000 human genome -- and that price is only a benchmark of success, because the cost will keep dropping. The challenge will be to make sense of that DNA sequence information: biomedical researchers are still struggling to understand the genomic underpinnings of most health conditions.

Just a month ago, Amit C. Nathwani of University College London and his colleagues reported a landmark success in using gene therapy to treat six patients with the hereditary blood disorder hemophilia B. Encouraging as that news was, do not expect an imminent revolution in gene therapies for many other conditions: general problems with directing therapeutic DNA only to the desired tissues and with keeping those genes appropriately active still persist.

A bitter disappointment of November 2011 was the strategic decision by the biotech company Geron to bail out of its first-of-their-kind clinical trials of a therapy for spinal cord injury that used human embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Nevertheless, stem cell research and closely related fields are still extremely active.

Many investigators are pushing to find suitable alternatives to ESCs, not just to avoid the ethical controversies and legal restrictions that often hang over them but also the limits on their practicality. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) created by genetically reprogramming adult tissues into a more plastic, embryonic state have won over many biologists. However, in late November, at a meeting sponsored by the Salk Institute, the cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut (of Dolly the sheep fame) argued strenuously [video] for the alternative reprogramming technique called transdifferentiation, which directly transforms cells of one specialized tissue into another, without an intermediary iPSC/ESC-like state. His may be a minority opinion, but expect to hear about more the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches over the next year.

Elsewhere in medicine, it's not apparent that 2012 holds any blockbuster new pharmaceutical breakthroughs: the new drug pipeline is emptier than anyone wants to see. Look for interesting ongoing innovations in drug delivery, however. Microneedles for painlessly injecting drugs, dissolving oral films for the slow release of drugs, and aerosol formulations are among many new ideas under development.

Finishing the physics

Some of the most important physics news in 2012 may involve tying up loose ends from two of the biggest stories of 2011: the reports of seemingly impossible faster-than-light particles emanating from a high-energy facility in Geneva and tentative sightings of the long-sought, cringe-worthily nicknamed "God particle" at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) , the world's most powerful accelerator.

OPERA neutrino detector. (Credit: OPERA, Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso)

Actually, the case against the faster-than-light neutrinos may already be fairly well sealed by studies announced two weeks ago in Physical Review Letters by Ramanith Cowsik and his Washington University colleagues. His group presented fairly damning calculations that the observed neutrinos could not possibly have been moving faster than light because they were decay products from another set of particles produced by the CERN reactor, called pions, that most definitely did not contain enough energy to enable that fantastic speed. Unless the creation of those neutrinos somehow involved a violation of the law of conservation of energy -- a discovery that would frankly put faster-than-light travel to shame -- then the high reported neutrino speeds almost certainly result from some as-yet-unidentified measurement or calculation error. Any physicists still curious about pursuing the question should be able to settle the matter once and for all soon.

But everyone in physics will be keenly awaiting the results of the experiments following up on the LHC announcements because the future of theoretical physics hangs in the balance. Two independent LHC experimental groups reported in September that they had seen signs of what could be the Higgs boson, the theoretical and heretofore unobserved particle that endows matter with mass, according to the Standard Model of physics. The Standard Model has been the cornerstone of particle physics theory for the past 50 years; finding the Higgs will be a crucial test of how closely it approximates reality, however. If further experiments in 2012 verify the hints of a Higgs seen in 2011, the current framework of particle physics will be even more strongly validated. If they don't, or if the Higgs turns out to have unexpected properties, the Standard Model will need significant revisions.

Catastrophic weather

Scientists and nonscientists alike will be scrutinizing the weather in 2012 for evidence of extreme events that might be laid at the doorstep of global warming, just as they were during the extraordinary droughts, storms, forest fires, floods and other catastrophes of 2011. Don't expect anyone's conclusions to sharply change the policy debate on the subject: the natural variations in weather patterns and the murky (and frustrating) debates about what actually causes weather-related disasters create wiggle room for people to believe what they wish. It doesn't help that Republicans in Congress succeeded in cutting the research budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and opposing other measures that would have helped with monitoring climate change and its effects.

Solar particles interact with the earth's magnetosphere. (Credit: NASA)

No one, however, will blame global warming for upcoming extreme space weather events. Solar activity runs in roughly 11-year cycles, and 2012 is expected to mark another peak in the number and intensity of solar flares. If a particularly strong eruption from the sun intercepted the earth, the associated burst of magnetic energy could briefly distort the planet's magnetic field. Spectacular auroras would be a visual consequence, but spacecraft and satellites in orbit might also suffer damage, and some experts worry that induced current from the magnetic fields could burn out portions of the electrical grid.

Even those effects, however, fall far short of the apocalyptic scenarios imagined by people who think the ancient Mayans credibly predicted the end of the world in 2012. Of all the quasi-scientific and pseudoscientific explanations used to bolster the case that 2012 could be The End -- by asteroid strike, supervolcanic eruption, pandemic, magnetic pole reversal, galactic alignment, and so on -- extreme solar activity is the only potentially damaging phenomenon linked specifically to this year. Even then, there is no reason to think this solar maximum will be worse than any seen before. Nor, for that matter, do the modern descendants of the Mayans who live in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize seem to think that the upcoming end of a long cycle in the Mayan calendar foretells an apocalypse.

On the whole, the writer Paul Fidalgo seems to have had the right idea when he recently joked on Twitter, "You're not allowed to believe in the Mayan 2012 end-of-the-world thing unless you can locate where the Mayans lived on a map."

Image: Artist's conception of Curiosity examining the Martian surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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