Nature: 2020 visions

For the first issue of the new decade, Nature asked a selection of leading researchers and policy-makers where their fields will be ten years from now. We invited them to identify the key questions their disciplines face, the major roadblocks and the pressing next steps.

Contributions include: Peter Norvig on search, David A. Relman on the microbiome, David B. Goldstein on personalized medicine, Daniel M. Kammen on energy, Daniel R. Weinberger on mental health, Leslie C. Aiello on hominin palaeontology, George Church on synthetic biology, John L. Hennessey on universities, Jeffrey Sachs on global governance, Adam Burrows on astronomy, Gary P. Pisano on drug discovery, Joshua R. Goldstein on demographics, Paul Anastas on chemistry, Richard Klausner and David Baltimore on the National Institutes of Health, David R. Montgomery on soil, Thomas M. Baer and Nicholas P. Bigelow on lasers, Robert D. Holt on ecology, Jeremy K. Nicholson on metabolomics.

Source: Nature.

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ESA: Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction

Science Fiction (SF) literature, artwork and films are works of imagination, but often contain some elements of plausibility, with the story revolving around some known facts as well as inventions and possibilities that are to all intents and purposes beyond our current technologies. Although Science Fiction is not about predicting the future, several SF authors have taken modern technology and concepts (of their own time) and anticipated with some accuracy how new technologies would change our lives, well before these technologies were actually possible.

Source: ESA.

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Water on the Moon: Permanent Human Habitat Next

Nasa’s experiment last month to find water on the Moon was a major success, US scientists have announced.

The space agency smashed a rocket and probe into a large crater at the lunar south pole, hoping to kick up ice.

Scientists who have studied the data now say instruments trained on the impact plume saw copious quantities of water vapour.

One researcher described this as the equivalent of “a dozen two-gallon buckets” of water.

The 1.6km-high plume of debris was kicked up by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) last month when it crashed into Cabeus crater.

“We’re unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbour and, by extension, the Solar System,” said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at Nasa’s headquarters in Washington DC.

“The Moon harbours many secrets, and LCROSS has added a new layer to our understanding.”

The identification of water-ice in the impact plume is important for purely scientific reasons, but also because a supply of water on the Moon would be a vital resource for future human exploration.

Finally some useful research from NASA, BBC reports. Now let’s get that space-elevator hooked up to a permanent base.

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Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter

5GW operations: Twitterrorism?

From the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership and The SecDev Group comes “Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter” (2.7mb PDF). The report is based on a three-day workshop that took place at Carlisle Barracks in January 2008, one of the best events I have attended. It is required reading for anyone (e.g. more then than the Defense community) involved in the modern information environment.

Source: MountainRunner.

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The Political Roots of “Overhumanism”

This paper argues that the emergence of “overhumanism”* in Italy is a troubling development, both for Italian and international transhumanism, due to overhumanism’s association with Fascism. The main overhumanist writers seem to view their version of transhumanism as a cultural and spiritual movement with deep historical roots, and see Fascism as its first political manifestation. Italian overhumanism is heavily influenced by the “Nouvelle Droite”, a fringe political movement that emerged from the French neofascist microcosm in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and which attempted to bring far-right ideas into the mainstream by discarding the trappings of historical Fascism in order to convey a similar message in a less unpalatable form. In common with the Nouvelle Droite, it borrows heavily from the extreme left (anti-americanism, anti-clericalism, opposition to globalisation), and has adopted neopaganism as a religious stance. While affirming the importance of science in modern life, this hybrid offspring of neofascism also maintains more traditional far-right positions such as elitism, antiegalitarianism and an interest in ethnic identity that crosses into differentialist racism.

Source: Estropico.

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Tests Begin on Drugs That May Slow Aging

It may be the ultimate free lunch — how to reap all the advantages of a calorically restricted diet, including freedom from disease and an extended healthy life span, without eating one fewer calorie. Just take a drug that tricks the body into thinking it’s on such a diet.

It sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is. Yet such drugs are now in clinical trials. Even if they should fail, as most candidate drugs do, their development represents a new optimism among research biologists that aging is not immutable, that the body has resources that can be mobilized into resisting disease and averting the adversities of old age.

This optimism, however, is not fully shared. Evolutionary biologists, the experts on the theory of aging, have strong reasons to suppose that human life span cannot be altered in any quick and easy way. But they have been confounded by experiments with small laboratory animals, like roundworms, fruit flies and mice. In all these species, the change of single genes has brought noticeable increases in life span.

Source: NYTimes.

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Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?

The prospect of geoengineering continous to spark debate among scientists, environmentalists and politicians. Recently NPR carried an article on the topic:

Engineering our climate to stop global warming may seem like science fiction, but at a recent National Academy of Sciences meeting, scientists discussed some potential geoengineering experiments in earnest.

Climate researcher Ken Caldeira was skeptical when he first heard about the idea of shading the Earth a decade ago in a talk by nuclear weapons scientist Lowell Wood.

“He basically said, ‘We don’t have to bother with emissions reduction. We can just throw aerosols — little dust particles — into the stratosphere, and that’ll cool the earth.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll never work,’ ” Caldeira said.

But when Caldeira sat down to study this, he was surprised to discover that, yes, it would work, and for the very same reasons that big volcanoes cool the Earth when they erupt. Fine particles in the stratosphere reflect sunlight back into space. And doing it would be cheap, to boot.

Tim Harper (Cientifica), a long time commentator on ethics and nanotechnology recently blogged about geoengineering:

I recently suggested that we need a New Green Agenda, one based on solving problems not just mitigating them, and drawing on everything that science and technology can offer to create a more sustainable future. Greenpeace, rather surprisingly from a scientific viewpoint but obviously from a political one refused to countenance any funding for geoengineering or any trials, even small scale local ones and put up the rather weak argument that it would take funding away from other areas of environmental science.  One of the attractions of geoengineering is that it is cheap and uses mainly existing technologies, so a few tens of millions of dollars spent evaluating options is hardly going to handicap the the rest of the research community. I tend to agree with David Keith and growing number of others that if we are serious about climate change then we should be trying to do something about it rather than delaying research.

Probing further it seems that geoengineering horrifies Greenpeace and other NGOs precisely because it does offer a solution. The real reason Greenpeace dislikes ideas such as this is that it may offer politicians an excuse to stop buying into the sustainable/renewable argument which they have been promoting for thirty years, or to put it their terms “may reduce the political and social impetus to reduce carbon emissions.”

The many vested interests in climate politics may feel threatened by an actual solution to the problem of global warming. The conspiracy crowd feel threatened by the possible harmful effects on humans by experiments in tweaking the atmosphere.

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Manning the barricades

Ill. “Blackouts and Cascading Failures of the Global Markets”,
Scientific American.

The credit crunch is dragging down the global economy and raising political tensions

Collapsing credit has plunged the world economy into the deepest recession in more than 70 years. What began as a property bubble in the US has spread rapidly as troubled banks have stopped lending and consumers and businesses have stopped spending. As demand in the US and Europe evaporates, once-thriving emerging markets are losing their best customers and biggest investors. An increasingly synchronised global economy will contract in 2009 for the first time since World War II.

Eighteen months after it began, this economic chain reaction—from banks to markets to consumers to companies—is entering a new phase. Economic pain, reflected in millions of lost jobs and destroyed savings, has entered the political realm, causing some governments to collapse and threatening others. The risk of political instability is leading to a wave of trade protectionism, which is rippling across the globe. It was just such a political response in the 1930s, exemplified by America’s infamous Smoot-Hawley tariffs, that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression.

Source: “Introduction: Banks, busts and batons”, The Economist Intelligence Unit. Download the entire report “Manning the barricades: Who’s at risk as deepening economic distress foments social unrest” (PDF).

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Hacking the planet: The only climate solution left?

Click image to enlarge.

Geoengineering schemes range from the low-tech, such as planting trees, to sci-fi, such as placing mirrors in orbit between Earth and the sun. All would work either by diverting solar energy away from Earth or by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to dampen the greenhouse effect (see diagram).

Previously, the idea of tweaking the climate in this way was anathema to most scientists. Apart from the technical challenges and environmental risks, many argued that endorsing the concept might scupper international negotiations for a post-Kyoto protocol to reduce global emissions. But it’s becoming clear that moves to cut global carbon emissions are too little and too late for us avoid the worst effects of climate change. “There is a worrying sense that negotiations won’t lead anywhere or lead to enough,” says Lenton. “We can’t change the world that fast,” says Peter Liss, who is scientific adviser to the UK parliamentary committee investigating geoengineering. Extraordinary measures may now be the only way of saving vulnerable ecosystems such as Arctic sea ice.

Source: New Scientist.

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