Here is a selection of the most notable advances in science and technology over the last twenty years.I’ve collected these from people working around me (there may be a Berkeley Lab or Optics bias!) or by looking at what around me had made life different (a an Academic life or California bias!) They are listed in no particular order, but the ordering tries to highlight some relationship between the topics.
1. Genome sequencing
The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. While there are many limitations and even unknowns, it is quite amazing that we do now know the code we are made of, once and for all. Of course we’re not all the same, and there are many variants that make us all different (e.g. SNPs.)It seems that the industry has picked up, and the prospects are quite scary in absence of clear regulation (I hope governmental action could quench the issue the same way it did with Celera Genomics and their ambition of patenting genes.)
2. Green Fluorescent Protein
The Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) is a protein initially found in jellyfish and that has been widely used in biological imaging (1) to understand living organisms at the cellular level and beyond. The idea is to modify the genome of animals so that certain proteins they produce this protein in very specific location. By using a specific light, it is possible to see these locations only as they glow under certain conditions (some animals do, indeed, glow.) This is great to see which genes are activated in certain cells (understand their function) or what is their shape (understand their structure.) Not only the allow to put a marker on cells, but you can also play with these markers to enhance the resolution of microscopes, down to tens of nanometers (that’s smaller than a thousands of a hair.)Many Nobel Prize in recent years are associated with such techniques (Chemistry, 2008; Chemistry 2014) It’s interesting to notice that neither the Nobel Prize committees for Physics nor Biology acknowledged these important developments… too technical perhaps. Physics is all about quantum and celestial objects, whereas Medicine or Physiology is all about interactions or function (ulcers from H Pilori, cancers from HPV; induced pluripotent cells, olfactory system and circadian rythm)While tests on human are not permitted, some idiots have tried to add GFP to their own genome (that’s more a show than anything) using the technique presented next.
Crispr/Cas9 is undoubtedly the most important development in biology of the decade. It is a technology that allows to rather simply and precisely modify the genome of a cell. This allows to understand how does genome work (remove or replace a gene and see what happens), but also to add function (for imaging or activation, see “optogenetics.”) The media have been talking about it a lot, so I (here’s a few references; here’s a good explainer.)Crispr/Cas9 has been at the center of an horrible patent dispute between Berkeley and the Broad Institute (Harvard/MIT), with the evil Eric Lander involved. While the patent for human application has been given to Berkeley in Europe, intense PR efforts in the US initially gave it to the Broad Institute. It seems that things are sorta sorted out.Crispr/Cas9 pioneers Jennifer DouDNA and Emmanuelle Charpentier are among the top contenders for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It should be particularly appreciated that the discussion on potential dangers was started by them early on. The technique is so easy to implement that I’ve seen (already many years ago) high school students using it for their high school science projects. For now, Crispr/Cas9 cannot be used on human, for obvious reasons. Idiots again are everywhere and have tried it to make a splash; they are now in prison. Still, this technology holds a lot of promises for humans.
Optogenetics combine the three previous technologies to some extent: modifying the genome of an animal by adding light-activated switches in neurons (or other parts of the body), to see what they do, and what happens when they don’t. It’s a very powerful tool to answer to epistemological problems in physics and biology: how can we separate correlation from causation, and whether structure does in fact determine function.I’m more and more removed from biology, but the crumbs I see are all moving towards this direction, from observation to control.Karl Desseiroth was awarded the breakthrough prize for his contribution. We’ll see. A few year ago, the mix of Crispr/Cas9, optogenetics and AI was all the rage at Janelia; a quick look at their labs seem to indicate that the fire is still raging, and that’s promising (this is the first video I ever saw, in 2009)
5. Gravitational waves observatories
Wow. We were able to detect gravitational waves and observe the collision of black holes. That was nobelo subito.To understand why it’s so amazing, one should consider three points.First, being able to see anything coming from the universe which isn’t light (or neutrino, though they don’t give away much) gives us a brand new tool to discover the faraway universe. And the good thing is we now have three of these gravitational wave observatory (Ligo, Virgo and Kagra), meaning that we can triangulate the origin of these gravitational waves.Second, the precision of these machine is just mindblowing. The advanced Ligo facility is 4km long and it is able to measure perturbations caused by variations in the fabric of space-time which are less than 4e-18 meters, or about 1/200th the diameter of a proton; that’s 0.000,000,000,000,000,004 meters (I put an underscore where lies the size of a hair.)Third, from an historic perspective, it is the consecration of the advances of science in the 20th century. The century started with the Michelson-Morley experiment, which determined that there was no “space-time” fabric (they called it ether, similar to air carrying soundwaves) From there, scientists started to develop a theory of space-time (special relativity), to understand what happens when you get close to the speed of light. Eventually, people discovered that weight was distorting space-time (general relativity.), and that perturbation mass could generate gravitational waves. By the way, “Scientists” and “people” here means Einstein. And it was light (lasers!) that allowed us to measure these tiny variations… and show that there is actually a fabric for space-time, since it can be twisted (it couldn’t have been seen with the Michelson-Morley experiment, and it doesn’t have any of the properties posited for ether.)
6. LHC / Higgs Boson
Another great “Big Science” accomplishment was the commissioning of the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of Higgs Boson (another home run and instant Nobel Prize.) The collider, located at the French-Swiss, accelerating atomic elements very close to the speed of light in opposite directions, colliding them and see what happens.It is capable of smashing particles with an energy of 14TeV, quite a bit more than the 200MeV of the 184-in cyclotron located where I now work (ALS), but a tad less than the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a project for a 20TeV collider in Texas started 1983 in that crashed and burned in 1993, slashed by Congress.Not only it lead to the discovery of Higgs boson (an element essential to standard theory), but also helped disprove some outstanding theories, such as super-symmetry (while it doesn’t totally disprove it, it must give some string theorists a cold feet.)
X-Ray Free Electron Lasers have seen quite a decade, from the commissioning of LCLS, to FERMI@Elettra in Italy, SACLA in Japan and the European XFEL in Germany.XFEL are light sources producing very intense and coherent pulses of x-ray radiation, which can can be used to probe matter and understand it dynamics, hence understand why and how things around us are as they are. This is essential, since truth is that in material science (the mother of technology) we often don’t know much about anything.These are delicate beasts, they do allow a large swath of research, since science derives its abilities from being able to observe things; and the best light available allows to conduct the best science (ok, I’m tainted by my work on fourth generation light sources; I could have picked cryo-EM as a great technological advance; however, the range of application is indeed much smaller!)
8. iPhone 6
The iphone, launched 12 years ago,I could have picked the original iPhone, but it was flawed, and it was actually not the first modern smartphone (LG’s Prada was!), or the latest model, but the iPhone 6 just felt right and had a headphone jack.By itself, an iPhone is a condensate of modern physics: the screen is made of LCD (Nobel Prize in Physics 1991), the camera relies on CCD (Nobel Prize in Physics 2009), the process relies on solid state physics (Nobel Prize in Physics 1956), the battery relies on Lithium-Ion batteries (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019), the GPS is made possible thanks to the development of Einstein or relativity and the information going in and out at high speed is made possible thanks to fiber optics (Nobel Prize in Physics 2009)It is worth noting that Apple (whose name is derived from the story of Newton’s Apple) is now the biggest company on Earth, a hardware company facing off software companies (Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon.) While companies are able to bring together all these technological innovations, it is important to remember that this progress is made possible by publicly funded research, as is well explained by Mariana Mazzucato in the Entrepreneurial State.
9. Erbium-doped Fiber amplifier (EDFA)
It doesn’t seem like much, but it is the reason why the internet is moving along. Erbium-doped Fiber amplifiers are special segments of fiber that are used to regenerate the optical signal when it is transported of long distances, eventually enabling long distance communication. Without these amplifiers, there wouldn’t be fast internet, and the last decade would have felt much slower! Emmanuel Desurvire and colleagues developed this technology at Bell Labs and were awarded the Millenium Technology Prize.Without EDFA, we wouldn’t have Spotify or Netflix…
Streaming services have brought a fundamental change on how we get access information and leisure. The whole ecosystem for artistic creations has been reshuffled, maybe not entirely for its own good. Still, I would contend that social advances in the past few years (e.g. same sex marriage) are related to the wide availability of shows that do not need to be be mainstream, and did have a tremendous impact on soft power.I still fondly remember when streaming was still delightfully illegal, but paying for content does have its upside!
While the Internet is still less than 10,000 days old, we should remember that Wikipedia itself didn’t exist at the start of the century!Now, knowledge is pretty much a taps away and available to everyone, for free (I recall copy-pasting Microsoft Encarta when I was a middle school student, privileged as I was.) We should be thankful that Wikipedia didn’t collapse (its mere existence is far from a given) and that is is still quite lively: there are many interesting things happening, such as improving representation.Nevertheless, as an academic surrounded by people whose lives revolve around writing articles, I am surprised that people do not contribute more to Wikipedia. Seeing what could be possible, people are starting to demand access to knowledge…
12. The rise of open access
In science, access to publication from publicly-funded research is not free, and quite expensive actually. While individual citizens rarely look at scientific papers (cost is often $40), scientists work at research entities do have access to scientific journal through the subscription from their institution. Publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley or Springer charge insane amount to a pretty much captive audience (e.g. Elsevier charges UC system around $11M a year.)But the tables are turning, and institutions are rebelling. It started with Germany and Pojekt DEAL, then Europe with a draft of Plan S, now University of California and soon, the whole US.There are many things that are broken is how science is done, but access it the most pressing matter (here’s a wishlist to make it better, still current!)
13. Deep Learning/Back propagation
Deep Learning is a flavor of Artificial Intelligence which has had tremendous success over the past few years. For instance, it allows to recognize image categories of human faces better than what a human would do. As a result, it generated a lot of interest sparked and sparked a new AI revolution.It is worth noting that the success of AI comes from sharing of data (e.g. ImageNet), techniques (python, github and arxiv are standard) and hardware (thanks to CUDA, and great implementation of frameworks such as pytorch, TensorFlow, Keras.)This is despite the fact the the main beneficiaries are global surveillance companies (Google and Facebook): they allow their researchers to roam freely, knowing that the value is in the data they collected for themselves.
We can now access internet everywhere – at home, at work, in airports and hotels, and in the car. These technology barely existed twenty year ago and they are now ubiquitous. This is the other side of the smartphone revolution.I’m still wondering why it’s so slow to connect!
15. Social network/twitter
Social network did bring a new way of life, enabled by high-speed communication, smartphones, servers and networks. They changed the way we gather, the way we access news, allowing us to leverage the six degrees of separation (3.5 actually) to meet new people.While some people lament that we are seeing fake news (true), we can also invent new ways to communicate news.
16. Map/Reduce, Big Data
Large scale networks were made possible by the invention of smart algorithms which allowed to scale these networks. Map/Reduce is one of such algorithm (a class of algorithm.) It enabled the era of High Performance Computing and Big Data without too much loss of efficiency or robustness as systems grew bigger.
17. High-Frequency Trading
High-Frequency Trading is a class of financial transaction where speed is more important than anything else. It allows finance to become limited by physics only (the speed of light in optical fibers), and some computing algorithms that need to be fine-tuned from time to time to avoid a flash crash.It has completely decorrelated the finance world from human preoccupation —
18. Extinction Rebellion
Global awareness around climate change has finally started to get traction, after a pretty horrific year (thanks mother Nature for showcasing early effects.)The concern is not new (see the excellent Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air) but even key figures fail communicate efficiently the urgency of the situation (the boldest move might have been Pope Francis encyclycal “Laudato Si“) and the poor alignment between democratic, economic and ecologic concerns is hurting the whole humanity, present and future.
I just hope we won’t commit the same mistakes.
Hi Naomi —— Antoine Wojdyla (@awojdyla) September 27, 2019
I was Greta Thunberg’s age when No Logo came out. Then there were Davos demonstrations, and the whole anti-globalization movement. It eventually lost momentum, and everything you predicted became true.
How can we make it work this time? How can my 18y older self help?
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a medicine which is taken before sexual intercourse to prevent the transmission of HIV, a virus responsible for AIDS, which has claimed 32 million victims worldwide — and in particular people in their prime age. Having a way to prevent the spread of the virus is a huge leap forward, hoping that there will be widespread adoption.Other efforts in trying to vanquish Malaria by sending sterile breeds in the wild may also bring a lot of good, and we have just found a vaccine for Ebola which will hopefully save many lives.
20.New Horizons Flyover of Pluto
Pluto may not be a planet anymore, but the fact that we were able to get so close to it is mind boggling.Here are more awesome pictures from space, from Juno’s flyover Jupiter and the Rosetta Mission flyover an asteroid. Crazy!
- There will be a live rail for electric cars and self driving pods
- There will be hydrogen rather than batteries for transportation
- We will still talk about Artificial General Intelligence as if it’s a thing
- Twisted light will be a big thing (spin and angular momentum)
- Quantum computers will still have little practical use (and Alain Aspect will get the Nobel prize), but they will allow make new and more efficient chemistry (thanks VQE!)
- Bio-inspired materials will move forward (think how we use wood so much)
- Tachyon will be big — there is not reason for the speed of light to be a ultimate limit
- We’ll find in neutrino polarization many interesting things
- Dark matter will no longer be dark
- Age and sex imbalance will continue wrecking Western world politics
- Massive wealth transfer in the West will increase inequalities
- Africa will show itself to be the future of humanity
- Access to potable water will be an immense worry
- We will achieve sustainable nuclear fusion
- There won’t be a major earthquake in the Bay Area
- We won’t find a cure for cancer yet
- We will understand Photosystem-II
- We’ll understand why we need to sleep
- I will be dead (from a heart attack for having lived too fast), or have won the Nobel Prize (for a cure against heartbreak)
- 60% of these predictions will be correct, 30% wrong and 10% irrelevant