2018: Science in the news

PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA The Mars Insight Lander will study the deep interior of Mars for insights into planetary development.

By R. Gary Raham

Science lost a genius in 2018 with the passing of Stephen Hawking. Born in 1942, he became a victim of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in his early 20s and lived with the condition for 50 years. His motor neurons gradually lost function, leaving him wheel chair-bound and speaking through a voice synthesizer. Oddly enough, that didn’t keep Hawking from becoming a premier communicator. One of his books, “A Brief History of Time, From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” became a best-seller. He wanted people to understand what science had to say about life’s big questions: Where did the universe come from? How and why did it begin? Will it come to an end, and if so, how? He couldn’t answer these questions, of course. To do so, he said, “would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” But for scientists, the joy is in discovery. He accomplished his share of that.

Hawking studied the physics of black holes: matter so compressed that nothing—not even light—can escape its gravitational clutches. Maybe. He shocked other physicists when he concluded that minute amounts of energy should be able to escape at the boundary of black holes. That energy, called Hawking radiation in his honor, has not been definitively proved, but if it is, it could garner posthumous accolades.

Astronomers continue to watch distant, but exceedingly violent celestial events that will reflect on Hawking’s work, and that of another well-known genius, Albert Einstein. The collision of two super dense neutron stars in 2017 helped confirm the existence of gravitational waves: ripples in the very fabric of spacetime. Such collisions also produce massless particles called neutrinos. In 2018, astronomers found themselves now armed with three tools to study the universe: light (their old standby), neutrinos, and gravitational waves. Using all three, in what is now called multimessenger astronomy, they hope to unveil more of the cosmos’ deep secrets.

Mars became the focus of other astronomical news in 2018. Italian scientists, analyzing data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter, announced in July that they had discovered a reservoir of water the size of Manhattan Island 1.5 km beneath the surface of Mars near the edge of the southern ice cap. Where there is water, life might exist. Erosional scars and surface chemistry show that Mars was once a wetter and warmer place billions of years ago. Unlike Earth, Mars lost most of her atmosphere to space, and the planet withered to its current cold, dusty and rusty condition.

On Nov. 26 of this past year, the United States successfully placed its Insight Mars Lander on the red planet. Insight will not rove about the surface but instead probe the planet’s deep interior to gain clues about how tectonically active Mars is. (See https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/) Mars’ size and rapid interior cooling may help explain why it, unlike Earth, did not develop a thriving biosphere. As something of a footnote, National Geographic has been airing an engaging series about what the human colonization of Mars might look like. It leaves the viewer to ponder whether we can overcome both the technological difficulties and the miseries we create practicing our usual primate politics.

Primate politics ran rampant in 2018, including the denial, in some quarters, of overwhelming scientific evidence that human activities are changing Earth’s climate. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) released a new report in October indicating that impacts could be worse than previously thought. (See https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/ipcc-report-climate-change-impacts-forests-emissions/) Sea levels continue to rise. New Jersey, for example, could see up to a 12-foot rise in sea level by the year 2100. Impacts may include mass migrations of people in many parts of the world and loss of now prime agricultural areas. Scientists continue to measure rapid climate change in the Arctic. Sea ice continues to disappear, air temperatures rise, permafrost thaws and glaciers melt. The warming alters the jet stream and polar vortex, which leads to longer heat waves, droughts, deep freezes and heavy rains—depending on where you happen to reside.

The Hawaiian volcano, Kilauea, erupted in May with an intensity not seen since 1924. Fortunately, Kilauea is one of the best-monitored volcanoes in the world. Scientists expect to learn better ways to predict sudden eruptions while perhaps finding ways to lesson their ferocity. Such large-scale eruptions can continue for months or even years.

On the genetic engineering front, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, claimed in late November that he had created the first genetically altered human embryos that came to term in the form of two twin girls. His goal was to make them resistant to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus or AIDS). The discovery of a gene-editing tool used by bacteria against viruses in 2017 (CRISPR/Cas 9 technology) now makes gene editing much simpler than in the past. Scientists and laymen will struggle to decide the ethics of using this new technology on humans — whether for correcting genetic defects or creating designer babies.

And for those of you raising dinosaur-crazed kids, you may have to learn some new jargon. Paleontologists have excavated so many new dinosaurs in recent years that dinosaur genealogy is getting a shake-up. Dinosaurs have long been divided into the bird-hipped types (Ornithischia), and the lizard-hipped types (Theropods and Sauropodomorpha). You knew that, right? Now, however, at least some paleontologists think the Sauropodomorpha should be on a branch of their own with the Ornithischia and Theropods occupying another branch. Here’s the chance to get ahead of your kids and dazzle them with new knowledge.

Have a great 2019!

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