2014: The Year In Science

The 20 ideas, trends, and breakthroughs that will shape our world in 2014

Lasers Unleash A Flood Of Space Data

In January 2013, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter received a historic transmission: an image of the Mona Lisa. It was the first time scientists used a laser to send data to the moon, a feat that promises to exponentially increase the flow of information to and from space.

For the past 50 years, spacecraft have relied on radio waves to communicate with Earth. But radio has limitations. Airwaves are crowded. Signals degrade with distance, so transmissions require power-hungry generators and large antennas. Focused laser light operates in wavelengths 10,000 times shorter than radio, pumping out more waves—and more information—each second. Lasers maintain signal strength across large distances, so transmitters require less power. And spacecraft carrying smaller receivers would be cheaper to launch.

In October, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (Ladee) performed another successful test in which it beamed laser pulses containing high-definition video between three different Earth receivers. The European Space Agency’s Alphasat, launched in July, will use lasers to relay data from other satellites observing Earth. And NASA engineers have begun to construct the next-generation system, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, to launch in 2017.

If space-based laser communication works—and there’s little reason to believe it won’t—it could change how humans explore the solar system. Rovers could pack extra tools and beam back more sophisticated data. High-def video streaming could enable scientists to track storms on Saturn as they do on Earth. And astronauts could Skype home. Dave Israel, lead investigator for the laser relay team at Goddard Space Flight Center, puts it this way: “This jump is an equivalent order of magnitude from dial-up Internet to high-speed into your house.” –Rebecca Boyle

January 20, 2014

On this date, the Rosetta spacecraft will wake up from more than 42 months of deep-space hibernation to begin the most detailed study of a comet. In August, it will arrive at Comet 67P, and in November, it will deploy a probe to land on the comet’s nucleus.

Computers Decode Our Brains

On October 7, 2013, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, one of the most ambitious brain-research projects in history officially kicked off. The Human Brain Project—backed by 1.2 billion euros and more than 250 researchers—aims to create the first complete computer simulation of the human brain. Over the course of a decade, everything we know about the organ’s biology will be modeled. Eventually, virtual neurons will even be subjected to virtual drugs.

The Human Brain Project is one element in a larger, interdisciplinary surge in brain research that has pulled engineers, data theorists, and other non-neuroscientists into various efforts. In the U.S., the government-led Brain Initiative plans to deliver its own “first”: a detailed map of all brain activity. The future potential ranges from the borderline poetic—watching a memory form as activity flows across multiple circuits of neurons—to the clinically useful, such as a device that could directly alter those circuits to possibly diagnose and treat disorders. Other projects starting in 2014 include a five-year, eight-institution plan led by Penn State University to simulate the visual cortex in silicon.

Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, explains why such projects are suddenly gaining traction. “We now have the computational and statistical tools that we need to make sense out of billions of individual neurons, each becoming active and inactive on complex time scales,” she says. So while 2014 won’t be the year that the brain is fully mapped, simulated, or hijacked, it will be the year that the quest to do all of that—and much more—truly gets under way. –Erik Sofge

Painkiller Crackdown

Tighter controls on narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin and Lortab, should go into effect this year. The regulations are designed to reduce abuse and overdose-related deaths, which have quadrupled in the U.S. since 1999.

First-Responder Bots Face Off

In December 2014, autonomous robots from about a dozen teams will compete in the final DARPA Robotics Challenge event, performing rescue operations in a simulated disaster.

How To Dismantle A Chemical Weapon

This year, the U.S. Army will build mobile decontamination labs called Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems (FDHS) that can rapidly neutralize bulk chemical-warfare agents such as sarin. The technology could be particularly useful in a country like Syria, which does not have the proper facilities to destroy its chemical-weapons supplies.

Step one: Dilute a given amount of chemical-weapon agent with water in the lab’s titanium tank, then add bleach (sodium hypochlorite) and lye (sodium hydroxide).

Step two: Heat titanium tank with mixture to just about boiling for three hours. In that time, the bleach, water, and lye will hydrolyze 99.9 percent of the chemical agent.

Step three: Transfer the byproducts into a tanker for shipment to a regular hazardous-waste facility, where they will be further processed.

Drones Get The Green Light

The domestic-drone age will officially begin by year’s end. That’s when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will issue a draft rule regulating the use of drones under 55 pounds in U.S. airspace, a category that includes most commercial models. But the devices will be in the air before then. Flight tests planned for 2014 will shape the future of unmanned aircraft for years and perhaps decades to come.

At press time, groups from 24 states were competing to house six sanctioned test sites, where drone models and flight protocols will be evaluated. And although the FAA is expected to be restrictive in its initial guidelines—likely requiring constant line of sight between pilots and unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as well as an altitude ceiling of 400 feet—the testing at those sites will explore more ambitious capabilities, including autonomous sense-and-avoid systems that would allow drones to operate at higher altitudes, sharing the air with manned aircraft.

In the meantime, the FAA has already cleared hundreds of police departments, public universities, and other applicants to fly in a not-for-profit capacity. Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University, says drone activity will reach unprecedented levels in 2014, as centers like his continue to gather test data for UAS researchers and the FAA. This is great news for farmers, real estate agents, and anyone else hoping for cheap aerial footage. For those still dreading robotic overflights, the invasion is already happening. –Erik Sofge

Climate Takes Priority

“Today we should embrace cutting carbon emissions as a way to grow jobs and strengthen the economy. Let’s approach it as an opportunity of a lifetime. Because there are too many lifetimes at stake not to embrace it this way.”

—Gina McCarthy, Environmental Protection Agency administrator (appointed July 2013)

Celebrities Go To Space

Virgin Galactic plans to begin commercial operations in 2014, taking paying passengers—including pop star Katy Perry—to the edge of space.

Curiosity Roves To Mt. Sharp, Gale Crater, Mars

How To Build An Ice Wall

Fukushima, Japan

Last August, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) admitted that a tank at the earthquake-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant had leaked more than 300 tons of contaminated water into the ground. To prevent groundwater from carrying it to the ocean, Tepco announced plans to build an underground ice wall in 2014.

Step one: Install pipes three to five feet apart into the earth around the power plant.

Step two: Pump chilled coolant (calcium-chloride brine) into the pipes, and circulate it continuously through a refrigeration station.

Step three: Frozen ground around each pipe joins to form a wall of ice, blocking water flow.

Cancer Diagnoses Become Less Invasive

Cancer presents many bedeviling issues, starting with diagnosis. Tissue biopsies, the only surefire test for most cancers, are invasive and painful and can cause infection. They also tend to be performed after symptoms have developed, and that’s often too late. A new diagnostic tool may make identifying some diseases much easier.

Within the body, tiny sacs called exosomes travel through fluids, such as blood, urine, and saliva. They shuttle genetic material and proteins between cells, playing an important role in cellular communication. “We like to think of it as the body’s Federal Express system,” says James McCullough, CEO of Exosome Diagnostics.

McCullough’s company developed a test to capture those messengers and analyze the RNA they contain, flagging mutations that point to the presence of malignant cells. Another company, Caris Life Sciences, searches for proteins on the surface of exosomes that are correlated with certain tumors. Both groups are racing to release the first commercial exosome test in 2014—Exosome Diagnostics for prostate cancer, which it identifies by isolating exosomes in urine, and Caris Life Sciences for prostate and breast cancers, which it detects with a blood test.

Significant clinical studies are also under way. Exosome Diagnostics’ technique has already shown promise detecting mutations indicative of brain cancer in the blood. This year, 18 medical centers are evaluating the method further. Researchers with Exosome Sciences will begin early-stage clinical studies to detect HIV and hepatitis B and C using exosomes isolated from urine.

The technology’s potential is broad. Lymphoma, tuberculosis, and Parkinson’s are all potential diagnostic targets. Exosome tests could also be used to track a disease’s progress and monitor the efficacy of treatments. –Cassandra Willyard

Sally Jewell, @SecretaryJewell , 29 October 2013

Science Budgets Stay Small

United States

Federal funding for basic research and development in 2013 was down 8 percent from the previous year and 16 percent from its peak in 2010. Congressional 2014 budgets don’t restore much, and sequestration caps could make money tight for the next decade. With research grants harder to come by, science in the U.S.—and the innovation and growth that result from it—will probably slow, according to Matt Hourihan, director of the budget program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

*Science-budget data courtesy American Association for the Advancement of Science. All amounts are adjusted for inflation. Figures for 2013 are estimates, and those for 2014 are proposed budgets. Not included is the House 2014 allocation for the National Institutes of Health, which hadn’t been released when this issue went to press.

Four New Studies Explore The Medical Benefits And Practical Dilemmas That Arise From Sequencing Newborn’s Genomes

“These grants will allow us to collect information about the ethical, legal, and social implications of this testing prior to its widespread application. It’s not clear how patients or providers will deal with this information.”

—Armand Antommaria, director of the Ethics Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

Wind Goes Offshore

Multiple projects, including Cape Wind (in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound) and Deepwater Wind (near Block Island, Rhode Island), are vying to become the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. They plan to begin construction in 2014.

Several New Funds Created Exclusively For Bitcoins Enable Institutional Investors To Buy And Trade Shares Of The Digital Currency

“We’re approaching an inflection point. The catalyst for bitcoin to succeed could be regulatory clarity, major venture-capital investment, support from a large country like China, or improved accessibility for investors.”

Barry Silbert, founder and CEO of SecondMarket, which runs the Bitcoin Investment Trust

Physicists Create Spyproof Code

It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for privacy. Revelations of the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance efforts underscored the obvious need for better data security. Recent breakthroughs in quantum cryptography could provide just that: spyproof encryption that’s no longer lodged in laboratories or stuck at industrial-grade price points.

Quantum key distribution (QKD) is an essentially unbreakable encryption protocol that exploits one of quantum physics’ more head-spinning principles—that simply observing information changes it. In a QKD-based system, a randomly generated key is encoded on light particles and shared through fiber-optic cables before being used to encrypt sensitive data. Any attempt to detect the key en route will alter its photons, indicating that the transmission has been intercepted and a new key is necessary.

So far, QKD has remained tethered to fiber-optic networks. It also requires large emitters and detectors, but now researchers are working to miniaturize them: Nokia and the University of Bristol in England are collaborating on a quantum source small enough to fit in a phone, while physicists at the Institute of Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ontario, are developing microsatellites that could beam encoded photons across the globe.

The best evidence of QKD’s momentum might be GridCOM Technologies, which plans to launch the first commercial quantum-encrypted data network in San Diego by September. Although the company’s initial focus is on securing infrastructure—the network will protect a portion of the city’s electrical grid against cyberattack—GridCOM co-founder Duncan Earl, a physicist formerly at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wants to scale up to larger bandwidths suitable for mobile phones and PCs. “In five years, this technology will be everywhere,” Earl says. “We’re about to enter the age of cryptography. We have to have it, to support the world we’ve created.” –Erik Sofge

Infectious Diseases Reemerge

In 1900, the U.S. death rate from infectious disease was 40 times higher than it is today. But despite the progress made last century, some illnesses have begun to reappear. “We are facing a perfect storm of vulnerability,” says Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, citing increasing travel and food trade, failure to vaccinate against preventable diseases, and poor antibiotic management as causes.

Cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, have climbed in the U.S. for several reasons. For one, the vaccine adopted in the 1990s wears off faster than the previous vaccine did. Better diagnostic tests in the U.S. may also contribute to the higher prevalance.

Measles was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but cases still pop up when unvaccinated people pick up the highly contagious disease abroad. Outbreaks have been worst where infected travelers return to areas with relatively high numbers of other unvaccinated people.

Fewer drugs are available to combat gonorrhea as it develops resistance to more antibiotics—though no U.S. case has yet failed treatment. Of particular concern is the bug’s long memory: It retains its resistance even after a particular drug is no longer prescribed.

Sixteen Studies Organized By The Environmental Defense Fund Will Determine Climate Impact From Natural-Gas Production And Distribution

“If we want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we need to understand the sources, including methane from the natural-gas supply chain, and the options to minimize that leakage. You can’t accomplish those two goals if you don’t have the data.”

—Steven Hamburg, chief scientist, Environmental Defense Fund

_This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of _Popular Science.