True Breakthroughs Become Part Of The Culture

Some of the interesting discoveries and observations of the last year include a new species of human, New Horizons’ observations of dwarf planets including Pluto that demonstrated Pluto was more geologically active than anticipated, more accurate data of species loss indicating a track toward a sixth extinction, and a careful measurement of the timing of the impact that triggered the K-Pg extinction and enhanced Deccan Traps volcanic activity that indicates they occurred at essentially the same time—suggesting volcanic activity and the impact might both have contributed to species loss 66 million years ago. But news in science is usually the product of many years of effort, even when it appears to be a sudden revolutionary discovery, and the headlines of any given year are not necessarily representative of what is most significant.

So I’m going to answer a slightly different question, which is what advances I expect we’ll hear about in the coming decade, bearing in mind that the most common stories concern news that in some global sense hasn’t changed all that much. Crisp clean events and many important discoveries are news, but for only a short time. True breakthroughs become part of the culture. General relativity was news in 1915 and the bending of light was news in 1919. Yet although general relativity factors into news today, the theory itself is no longer news. Quantum mechanics stays in the news, but only because people don’t want to believe it, so incremental verifications are treated as newsworthy.

So instead of saying more about the important discoveries of the last year, I’ll give a few examples of scientific advances that I expect we might hear about in the next few. The first is the type I think we won’t really solve, but we will have marginal incremental developments, so it will stay news. The second is a type where we will make advances but the news won’t necessarily reflect the most important implications. The third might be a true discovery or a breakthrough that makes it largely solved, like the Higgs boson discovery that was big news in 2012 but—though exciting and an important guidepost for the future of particle physics—is no longer news today.

The first type of discovery includes a better understanding about what constitutes life, or at least life as we know it. We will learn more about the chemical composition of stuff in the Solar System and perhaps where the elements of life as we know it arose. We might learn more about the chemistry or at least some physical properties of planets in other solar systems, and perhaps deduce more about where life—even if not necessarily complex life—might arise. We will probably also probe the fossil record in greater detail as new chemical and physical methods allow us to probe the Earth’s history more. All of this will stay news since we won’t know how life arose for a long time to come, but small pieces of the puzzle will continue to emerge.

Artificial intelligence and robotics too will show many new developments. But this is probably advances in the second category since a lot of the real news about the role of automation will occur behind the scenes, where technology will make some tasks we already do simpler or more effective or where technology will replace workers and reduce or at the very least dramatically change the nature of employment. We’ll read about drones and medical robotics and advances in AI but those factory robots won’t be big news, except to the families who find themselves on unemployment lines and perhaps for a few days on the business pages.

Hopefully the third category will include discoveries that tell us more about the fundamental nature of dark matter. Dark matter is the matter that carries five times the energy of ordinary matter, and that interacts with gravity, but very little or not at all with light. Current experiments that are already in the news look for dark matter in many different ways. Some of these like Xenon1T and Lux-Zeplin are huge containers of material like xenon deep underground that might detect a tiny recoil of a dark matter particle that passes through. Also possible is that dark matter annihilates with itself when two dark matter particles get together and turn into ordinary matter such as photons.

But there are also less conventional searches that might tell us more about the nature of dark matter that rely on comparing simulations of how structures like galaxies form from dark matter collapse to actual data exploring the distribution of stars or other matter in galaxies. These more detailed observations of the role of dark matter might reveal some interesting aspects of how dark matter interacts. Perhaps dark matter has interactions or forces that familiar matter doesn’t experience—just like dark matter doesn’t experience forces like electromagnetism of the visible world.

If such properties of dark matter are found or if a dark matter particle is really discovered, scientists will continue to try to learn more about its properties and the implications for cosmology and astrophysics. But that will be a long detailed slog from the perspective of outsiders. The true sign that dark matter searches have succeeded will be that the discovery will be taken for granted and will afterward cease to be news.