Turning the year to a new decade is bound to produce a wide variety of retrospectives. Lists are always popular. I came across an interesting list the other day at the Scientific American site: 10 Science Letdowns of the New Millennium by Katherine Harmon. The original is presented as a slide show. Why, I’m not sure. The pictures are mostly pedestrian, don’t add much to the story, and are sometimes bigger than the text. Eye-candy with thin gruel perhaps; it’s a popular style with online magazines. Anyway…the title, 10 Science Letdowns of the New Millennium, tells you quite a bit. The choice of the word ‘letdown’ sets the tone, a little twee, a lot informal. Not that science or technology ever provides grave disappointments. From the perspective of picking apparently mild failures, I’m sure there are dozens, if not scores of candidates. The ten in the list have some sure winners (if that’s the word), others are more…interesting.
It’s the interesting choices that got me thinking. Here’s a thumbnail of the ten (followed by a second run with commentary):
1. Evolution Optional: The failure to accept evolution, and science under pressure.
2. Cancer Carries On: Lots of small victories but the war is not won.
3. Electric Cars on Empty: Only hybrids, battery cars inching along.
4. Brains Still Baffling: We haven’t learned how the brain works.
5. ET Won’t Phone Home: No sign from SETI. The chase of a habited world goes on.
6. Ancestral Angst: Homo Floresiensis changes a lot, as does “Ardi”.
7. Climate Still Changing: Huge impact, no action.
8. HIV Roadblocks: No vaccine and intermediary steps are fitful.
9. Energy Remains Grid-locked: Saddled with a stupid electricity grid. Not enough wind power or other alternative energy sources.
10. Spaced Out: No Moon tourists. NASA at a quandary.
Right off the bat, an interesting choice: The lack of acceptance for the idea of evolution, as highlighted by the reaction to the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. The statistics quoted come from a 2009 Gallup Poll and are often seen in science blogs and journals (where they are sometimes used like a sadist’s whip). About 25% of Americans don’t believe in evolution, although about 39% do and 34% don’t know. My father always said that 25% of any group ‘don’t get the word,’ meaning they never heard what is said or are too preoccupied (or stupid) to understand it. I’m at least as concerned about the 34% percent who don’t know. This is just in the U.S.A. American Scientific is, obviously, an American publication; so a perspective that tends to see these issues with Yankee colored glasses is not unexpected. Still, American Scientific is one of the world’s leading scientific publications and you’d think (I’d think, anyway) they’d take more of a global perspective. Ah, well. Worldwide the acceptance for the concepts of evolution isn’t cheering, but we don’t have comprehensive statistics. Of course, as a matter education, the majority of people on this globe are probably unaware of their phylogenetic ancestry.
The real disappointment – I’m speculating here – is that after all this time, a century and a half accumulating an utterly massive amount of evidence, the work of tens of thousands of scientists; all of this can be put on an equal footing with beliefs such as creationism, which have no credible evidence. How many times have I seen scientists with decades of their lives devoted to exploring the wonders of genetics, natural selection, or other aspects of evolution – literally struck dumb by an antagonist’s argument from Intelligent Design? “Where do I start?” their faces cry out. In their head is a web of knowledge, a huge matrix of facts and analysis, suddenly slashed by a knife-stroke of logical sounding argument based on, perhaps, half-truth. Where to start, indeed, or even to say anything at all?
[Topic track at SciTechStory by the Impact Areas: Cell Biology, DNA Decoding, Origin of Life]
Cancer Carries On
Did anyone expect cancer to be cured in the past decade? I know that some wild promises have been made, especially during the close of the last century, but most folks in and out of medicine are aware that ‘curing cancer’ is a really long term project. The article points out a number of advances, in both molecular biology and in cancer treatments, which contributed to important knowledge and dropping rates of cancer deaths. There are many types of cancer and many causes; picking the pieces apart and then synthesizing well researched approaches – that’s the work of generations, not decades.
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Curing Major Diseases]
Electric Cars on Empty
The lack of fully viable alternatives to vehicles powered by internal combustion of petroleum based fuels is…dispiriting, and perhaps surprising. Has there really been two or three decades of lip service? The article points out that electric cars have been ‘on the drawing board’ for some time; they’re always ‘just about ready.’ Well, we do have hybrids. There will be more of them, shortly. Electric cars, of one sort or another, are rolled out at auto shows. There’s still the matter of energy storage, especially in batteries, which need to be recharged, and need an infrastructure for support. Ditto for cars running on hydrogen. The article doesn’t mention other forms of transportation, but the same question applies: Where are they?
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Clean Transportation]
Brains Still Baffling
It’s a catchy title, but like curing cancer, I’m not sure many people were expecting comprehensive knowledge of the brain by 2010. The article mostly kvetches about the failure of ginko and punts to another article. I suppose if one were convinced by the neuro-speak rhetoric of the 1990’s (the ‘decade of the brain’), the advent of powerful brain scanning technology, and the plethora of studies poking into the convolutions of brain activity; by now we should be more savvy about how the brain works. Actually, we are, but the hard won knowledge has in many cases shown that what we thought we knew was wrong, or only part of the story. The painstaking but powerful rise of molecular neurology promises to finally provide some scaffolding for the behavioral and anatomical studies. Still, we’re a long way from fully understanding cognition, memory, or any of the other brain activities – especially in our own species!
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Areas: Brain Enhancement, Neuro-emotion, Neuro-intelligence, Neuro-memory]
E.T. Won’t Phone Home
What’s interesting about this choice is not the ‘letdown’ aspect – heck we’ve been fantasizing about aliens for over a century. We’ve yet to meet one; but most people with enough science background to understand the significance of life existing somewhere other than Earth believe (in their heart of hearts) that we will find that life, sooner or later. Those who are not disappointed, because they don’t believe there is any other life but on Earth (where God put it), are hardly waiting to hear otherwise. What’s interesting is the relative importance this question is given by including it in the list. Although unstated in the article, it’s the expectation of exogenous life that is setting-up the discovery as one of the most profound in history. The philosophical and religious implications are powerful – and potentially disruptive.
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Exogenous Life]
Somehow the article’s supposition that people may be confused by the changing story of their primitive ancestry doesn’t quite square with a lot of people being confused by or not believing in evolution. Perhaps this item on the list reflects the paleontologists (or other scientist’s) concerns that the past decade unearthed some ancestors (Homo floresiensis and Ardipithecus ramidus), which are forcing re-evaluation of the human evolutionary lineage. While we’ve come a long way from “Your old man’s a monkey!” there’s more than a few branches of the tree missing. The thing is; discovery of relevant remains – bones and things – is a matter of educated serendipity. If and when a find is made, perhaps another piece of evidence is added, but it remains unpredictable and therefore unexpected.
[Topic partially tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Origin of Life]
Climate Still Changing
For almost everyone with a background in science or technology, the issues of climate change, global warming, and anthropomorphic global warming continue to be at our near topic #1, and certainly in 2009 one of the great “letdowns” (if not point of rage). Somehow the scientific community has to come to grips with the fact that much of the opposition – to global warming, to evolution, to science itself – is coming from funded, orchestrated, and sometimes clever use of all the modern weapons of disinformation and propaganda. Not that all of the opposition is disingenuous, but there are forces associated with it that have other agendas.
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Climate Change]
Some people think HIV/AIDS is already a non-issue. It’s true, people with HIV and even AIDS don’t necessarily have to die; but that’s a long way from a cure. There is still no vaccine, as the article makes clear. We’ve come close, which is why the lack of a vaccine is truly disappointing. We’ve also had many problems with distribution of palliative and remedial medicine. That too is very disappointing, but rooted in some of the same anti-science that dogs other items on this list. Maybe in the next decade, however…
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Curing Major Diseases]
Energy Remains Gridlocked
For the developed world and indeed much of the developing world, the distribution of electrical energy is an issue; but I’ve rarely heard of infrastructure considered an absolutely critical problem for science or technology – or in that regard a ‘letdown’ in the past decade. True, there have been plenty of problems; and there is such a thing as the ‘smart grid,’ the next generation of electrical distribution that is more efficient and reliable; but for most of the world just getting energy – including various alternative means of creating energy – and not just electricity is the issue. What’s disappointing is that forms of alternative energy are already practical for developing countries but lack the backing for widespread use.
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Area: Alternative Energy]
I’m happy with this item in the list of letdowns for the decade, but then I’m biased – I love and write science fiction. Other people may not care so much that NASA can’t make up its mind what it should be doing (much less get a budget for it), or that not enough millionaires can get a ride into space to create a space tourism industry (as the article mentions). Worldwide, space is an issue for a rather small and possibly elite group. Outside of this group, people may wonder why so little has happened in space since the Americans put men on the Moon, but I doubt if they’re worried about it.
[Topic tracked at SciTechStory by the Impact Areas: Delta-V Problem, Solar System Exploration]
If there’s one thing about this list of 10 Science Letdowns of the New Millennium that strikes me, it’s how tenuous the connection is between science, scientists and the vast majority of people in this world. Despite all the impact of science and technology, most people are nearly ignorant of even the most basic concepts. A lot of things that bother scientists don’t even register for most people. This situation has been the case for a long time, going back to the origins of modern science and technology. Only now the pace of change is accelerating. Not only are the ‘old’ technologies such as automobiles, airplanes, televisions, and telephones undergoing major changes but a whole fleet of relatively new technologies such as nanotechnology and robotics are adding to the pace. More speed makes for greater whiplash. The less people understand what science and technology are doing to them (and their environment), the more distrustful – even anti-science – they will become. How many of these ‘science letdowns’ are already non-issues or negative issues for people in general? What will a list like this be like at the end of the next decade?