Your Guide to the Year in Science: 2008
Jellyfish invasions, Internet auctions, god particles: Read about the year's biggest science stories before they happen. Bonus: How to decipher geeky jargon and when to buy a DeLorean
**What exactly will ’08 bring? Launch our gallery for a month-by-month guide to the biggest stories of the year ahead. **
Attack of the Jellies
A spate of jellyfish invasions is imperiling crucial fishing grounds, menacing beachgoers, and threatening coastal economies. Experts want to know why.
It’s like a scene from a bad ’50s monster flick: Nation attacked by swarms of poisonous giant jellyfish! But that’s exactly what’s happening off the Japanese coast. The dishwasher-size Nomura’s jellyfish, a gelatinous 400-pound blob with thousands of stinging tentacles, was once uncommon in Japanese waters. By early 2006, its numbers were estimated to be in the millions.
Elsewhere in the world, similar stories played out. In July, a creature called Mnemiopsis inundated Swedish seas; the invasive species is believed to have hitchhiked into the northern Atlantic by shipping vessel. And in September, millions of purple jellies called Pelagia noctiluca swarmed the Italian coast. The out-of-season visitors interrupted fishing operations and scared away beachgoers with their vicious stings.
From Tasmania to Namibia to the Gulf of Mexico, recent jellyfish invasions have puzzled scientists and devastated local economies. Closed beaches are the least of the problem.
Jellies have stung farmed salmon, clogged nets on fishing vessels, even blocked water-intake valves at nuclear power plants.
“The number of occurrences, their duration and geographical extent-all of those are exceptional,” says University of Connecticut zoologist Ann Bucklin, who is heading up the count of zooplankton-marine animals that drift with currents-for the Census of Marine Life, an international effort to count all ocean animal species by 2010 (jellyfish are one type of zooplankton). “It appears to be outside the normal variation that we’ve seen in the past,” she adds. “The [zooplankton] blooms seem to be dramatically more severe than they used to be.”
Of all ocean species, jellyfish are among the least studied by scientists, in part because of their lack of obvious utility to humans, and in part because of the specific challenges of working with them. The invertebrates are difficult to handle, often poisonous, and prone to disintegrating when caught in nets. Our limited knowledge of normal jelly habits makes it tough for scientists to pinpoint what’s behind the mysterious trend.
What they do know is that jellies are opportunistic animals that capitalize quickly on changing conditions. “The more food you give them, the more jellyfish you get,” says marine biologist Jennifer Purcell, who has studied the connection between changing environmental conditions and jellyfish density. Warmer ocean temperatures, increased ocean acidity, agricultural pollution, and especially a decline in predators as the result of overfishing are all possible explanations for the recent jellyfish boom-and reasons why we’re likely to see even more outbreaks this year and in the years to come.
Of course, some people are looking for ways to benefit. Japanese chefs have begun using jellyfish in more dishes and even cocktails, and researchers have harvested the animals’ mucus for use in cosmetics. Call it the economy of a more gelatinous world.-Kalee Thompson
** Turn the page to read about the dark side of the upcoming Olympics.**
The Dark Side of the Olympics
Who said anything about sports? China has been using this summer’s Games to flamboyantly tout its scientific and technological prowess. But with many foreign journalists in China complaining that they don’t have the complete freedom to write independent stories, how much of what you read can be trusted?-Melinda Wenner
|**WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: ** Beijing’s air has among the world’s highest levels of nitrogen dioxide, but China will try to clear it by shutting down factories and taking a million cars off the streets. **WHAT YOU WON’T HEAR: ** Up to 70 percent of Beijing’s summer particulate pollution originates outside the city, so it won’t do much good to shut down the city itself.|
|WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: Last July, after adopting more-stringent water-quality standards, the local authorities announced that Beijing’s formerly nonpotable tap water is now safe to drink. WHAT YOU WON’T HEAR: Sure, the water is safe if you’re standing right next to the treatment plant, but those same authorities admit that city pipes often contaminate the water.|
|WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: Beijing is cracking down on doping by doubling the number of drug tests it will administer to its athletes (compared with 2004). WHAT YOU WON’T HEAR: Despite a lot of noise about stricter testing policy, China has a reputation for doping. Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 27 athletes withdrew from the games after some had suspicious test results.|
|WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: China guarantees rain-free opening ceremonies. It plans to “seed” the clouds before the games with silver iodide. WHAT YOU WON’T HEAR: Nobody knows if cloud seeding actually works. In 2003, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences called the science behind it too weak to confirm.|
|WHAT YOU’LL HEAR:Beijing is building a plethora of new stadiums and subways as part of a complete Olympic renovation. WHAT YOU WON’T HEAR: By one count, the construction boom will have forced 1.5 million Chinese out of their homes, and it’s further polluting the air by releasing tons of dust.|
|WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: China plans to shut down 4,000 of its unsafe (and highly polluting) coal mines. WHAT YOU WON’T HEAR: China has tried this before without much success. It’s next to impossible to monitor the area’s many mines for compliance.|
** Turn the page to learn how other worlds will be revealed.**
Other Worlds Revealed
The innermost planet welcomes its first long-term visitor, a lander will scoop through the slush of Mars, and new Earths will emerge from distant space
This year of planetary exploration will start hot. This month, after a 3.5-year journey, NASA’s _Messenger_spacecraft will make the first of three flybys of Mercury, the closest planet to the sun and the least-explored rocky planet in the solar system. After the third pass, _Messenger_will settle in orbit around the planet in 2011. The feat requires a huge amount of energy, careful trajectory planning, and strong radiation and temperature shielding. And once _Messenger_arrives, scientists will have much to explore. One critical puzzle: Why is diminutive Mercury made of the densest material in the solar system? The answer should shed light on how the rest of the solar system formed and evolved.
Speaking of “planet” and “evolved,” another really big question about the solar system comes to mind-was there, or is there now, life on Mars? The Phoenix lander, set to touch down in the ice-rich Martian arctic this May, could provide clues. Phoenix will use its robotic arm to dig into the topsoil and ice and collect ground samples for onboard analysis. Scientists hope it can resolve a years-old controversy about the presence (or absence) of Martian life. In the late 1970s, the two Viking landers failed to detect any signs of life on Mars. But when, a quarter century later, scientists used duplicates of the Viking‘s detectors to search for life in the dry valleys of Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama Desert-regions on Earth where we know life exists-the detectors failed to find it. Were the Viking landers blind to the presence of life on Mars? Phoenix could find out.
The search is also on for far-flung Earth-like planets. This year, scientists anticipate that the French space agency’s Corot satellite-the first space telescope dedicated to planet-hunting-will turn up many of the 250 planets they’re hoping to find, including dozens of Earth-like worlds. In addition, the Canary Islands’ Gran Telescopio Canarias will begin studying the disks of dust swirling around distant stars for evidence of new planetary systems.-Melinda Wenner
Turn the page to find out just how many of yesterday’s predictions have come true.
Back to the Future
In 1998, a group of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory published a list of 10 environmental-technology breakthroughs expected by 2008. Here’s how a few of them panned out.
The Prediction: Genetically modified crops will be widespread.
The Outcome: Most corn, soybean and cotton crops in the U.S. are genetically modified to resist pests or tolerate herbicides. But genetic modification is a controversial topic in many countries and is not in wide use throughout the rest of the world.
The Prediction: We’ll live in a paperless society.
The Outcome: Sure, we have e-books and e-readers, but paper still rules cubicle-land. According to paper industry analyst RISI, U.S. consumption of paper products in the office peaked at 14.7 million tons in 1999 and declined to 12.7 million tons in 2006.
The Prediction: Cars will get at least 80 miles per gallon.
The Outcome: SUVs still rule the road, so average fuel economy this year will remain at a little more than 20 miles per gallon. But things may soon change, as 15 states have adopted or are considering emission regulations that will require a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from new vehicles by 2016.
The Prediction: The world will be filled with “green” products.
What Really Happened: There are many green products available, and Americans now recycle 32 percent of their waste. This is double the amount recycled during the early 1990s.-Melinda Wenner
** Turn the page to read about the new Internet.
The New Internet Goes on Sale
This month’s spectrum auction could set off a telecom gold rush
The most significant airwave auction in more than a decade could mark the beginning of a new era in mobile communications. On January 24, the telecom giants will begin bidding for the last prime real estate in the radio spectrum, a swath of bandwidth that might one day provide a coast-to-coast mobile, high-speed voice and data network. For years, these 700-megahertz frequencies have been licensed as channels 52 to 69 on your TV. But the broadcasters are finally clearing out to go digital, and whomever takes their place will help determine the future of the wireless Internet.
The new network will have better reception, especially in remote areas, because 700Mhz signals can zip right through leafy trees and penetrate into basements and subway stations. It took 30,000 cellphone towers to cover the nation with an 1,800Mhz network; it would take only half that to do it at 700 Mhz.
The new network won’t just be cheaper to build. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s auction rules, a sizable chunk of the spectrum must be devoted to “open access” service. That means the end of locked cellphones-you’ll be able to use any device or software you want on the network. (The rule change is in part due to Google’s furious lobbying for it, a move that has fueled speculation that it plans to bid for the spectrum.) The last time the government made a change like this was 40 years ago, when the FCC forced telephone companies to open up their lines to third-party products. It wasn’t until after the landline system went open-access that products like answering machines, fax machines and modems hit the market.
There’s no guarantee that things will work out as well for the 700MHz spectrum. The big telecom companies have already begun to attack the open-access rules in court. Even if the rules do survive until the day of the auction, they will take effect only if a bidder meets the minimum reserve price of $4.6 billion.
But even without the open-access requirements, any network built in the new spectrum will make it easier for carriers to provide things like VoIP calling and streaming video-currently difficult on bandwidth-limited wireless networks. “We’re talking about your phone precisely mimicking a desktop computer,” says Joseph Farren of the industry group CTIA.-Daniel Engber
** Turn the page to check out what the world’s largest proton collider will really reveal.**
Gambling on a God Particle
What will the world’s largest collider really reveal? Physicists lay out the odds on their most likely-and unlikely-theories
When it comes to the Large Hadron Collider, the accelerator scheduled to start smashing protons this May, theorists agree on one thing: It will most likely produce the Higgs boson, the elusive “god particle” theorized to give everything in the universe mass. Beyond that, they’re taking bets. Fermilab collaborator Tommaso Dorigo of the University of Padua in Italy has bet $1,000 that we’ll find nothing beyond the Higgs, but he hopes he’ll lose. We asked him and other physicists to give us the odds on their favorites.
**Higgs Boson: 9 in 10
Its existence would explain the origin of mass. Higgs bosons create a field through which all other particles must move. The Higgs field’s resistance to this motion gives particles their mass.
**Dark Matter: 3 in 5
Scientists know it’s there; they just don’t know what it is, and finding out is a task for the LHC. The substance makes up 80 percent of the matter in the universe but doesn’t emit any light, so it’s totally invisible.
**Supersymmetry: 3 in 7
Some physicists suspect that all particles in the universe come in matched pairs. Half are familiar-electrons, quarks and neutrinos-but their theoretical counterparts, called superpartners, are still undiscovered.
**Extra Dimensions: 1 in 25
Spatial dimensions beyond the known three of up-down, backward-forward and side-to-side could be diluting the force of gravity in our universe.
**Mini Black Holes: 1 in 1,000
LHC collisions might produce harmless black holes, each a billion billionth the mass of a grain of salt, that evaporate almost instantaneously-too fast to consume any matter.
**Parallel Universes: 1 in 10 million
Some theorists speculate that many universes exist side by side with our own on a cosmic landscape, each with its own laws of physics and constants of nature.
**Cosmic Implosion: 1 in a googol*
If the fundamental vacuum state of the universe is not perfectly stable, the LHC could make it decay, taking everything in the cosmos with it.-Rena Marie Pacella
** Turn the page to learn about the newest digs for biodefense researchers.**
*One googol = 10100 = 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
New Digs for Biodefense Researchers
Officials are set to build the next agro-terrorism research center
Two miles off the tip of Long Island, New York, sits an 840-acre island that houses the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. The researchers working inside the Plum Island facility represent the country’s front line against such animal diseases as foot-and-mouth. But the Plum Island buildings were built in 1954, and the facility cannot handle some of the pathogens that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) believes are likely to be used by terrorists as weapons against our food supply and national health.
This October, DHS will select a location for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, a $450-million animal and zoonotic (able to jump from animal to human) disease lab to study potential agro-terrorism threats. Six locations are in the running for the 520,000-square-foot facility. Five are on the mainland; the sixth is a new facility on Plum Island. (It’s illegal to study foot-and-mouth disease on the mainland, so Congress will have to get involved if DHS chooses one of those five sites.)
In addition to typical agro-disease research, 10 percent of the facility will be used for Biosafety Level IV research, the study of lethal, exotic or contagious diseases or agents that pose the most risk to humans. At the top of the list for such research at the new lab: the Nipah and Hendra viruses, which were discovered recently in Malaysia and Australia and have proven deadly to many of those who’ve been infected.
“It’s all part of the overall threat analysis to mitigate the threat against U.S. agriculture,” says James Johnson, the head of laboratories for DHS. “Plum Island has been the front line, but we’ve got other threats that we need to deal with.”-Kate Pickert
** Turn the page to find out the odds of scientists solving your favorite games.**
Checkers is Solved. Next?
There are 500 billion billion possible ways to arrange pieces on the board during a game of checkers. Still, after 18 years of research, Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, announced last year that his program had “solved” checkers-that is, it was unbeatable. How soon before we solve other popular games?-Kate Pickert
|**Heads-Up Texas Hold ‘Em ** Time to Solve: 5 years Poker is generally no fun with just two people, but it’s impossible to “solve” (in the scientific sense) with any combination of more than two players.|
|**Backgammon ** Time to Solve: 10 years The element of chance (rolls of the dice) makes the number of board combinations huge (1020). Scientists know how to solve backgammon, but current computer technology can’t do it.|
|**Chess ** Time to Solve: 100 years No one knows exactly how many possible board positions for chess exist, but it’s thought to be somewhere between 1040 and 1045. Schaeffer predicts that the game will not be solved in his lifetime.|
|**Go ** Time to Solve: Anybody’s guess The extremely complicated game, which originated in ancient China, has far more board combinations than chess (10100). Scientists have no idea how to solve it and won’t even venture to guess when the technology will exist to definitively do so.|
Image Credits: Thomas van de Weerd; Alan Light; Donarreiskoffer
** Turn the page to check out how IBM is breaking Moore’s Law.**
**Breaking the Law
IBM’s 3-D chip stacks pack power into compact packages
Forty years ago, engineer Gordon Moore famously predicted that the number of transistors that could fit on a silicon chip would double roughly every two years, making computers ever faster and more efficient. That truism will hit a brick wall in the next 15 years, as transistors approach the size of single atoms and manipulating them proves ever more difficult. This year, IBM will begin selling its work-around to the transistor-density problem, a vertically stackable chip that moves data 1,000 times as fast as what we use now.
If you open up your cellphone today, you’ll probably find a pseudo-3-D chip inside-stacking ordinary chips on top of each other increases computing power without taking up too much space. It’s the long wires that connect two chips around their outer edges that limit their ultimate processing speeds. Without better connections between the two chip layers, their utility is restricted to whatever can be shunted through a few small wires.
IBM’s solution is to make 3-D chips with vertical interconnections called through-silicon vias (TSVs). Instead of connecting the chips along the outer edges, TSVs tunnel down through the chip and connect to the next layer directly below it. The trick was in getting metal into the tiny holes that serve as the wires between the layers. Other companies aren’t far behind. Samsung plans to use TSVs to make stacked DRAM chips and hopes to incorporate them into high-density flash memory.
What will this mean for us? TSV chips will be extremely speedy processors, and because chips with different functions can be made separately and later stacked, prices for multifunctional chip stacks will probably drop. One thing is certain, says interconnection expert Larry Smith of Sematech, a consortium that studies semiconductor manufacture: “Products will continue to get smaller, thinner and lighter.”-Melinda Wenner
** Turn the page for a guide to the year in geek speak.**
It’s obscure geek speak now, but by 2009, even your mom will be fluent.-Kalee Thompson
The most recent epoch in Earth’s history, during which humans first began to affect the planet’s climate and ecology. Approximately 1800 through the present.
Illogical ramblings found online. See also, blogic (n.).
**CARBON JUSTICE (n.)
The fair distribution of responsibility for addressing climate change, used in reference to the idea that countries should be required to curb CO2 emissions in proportion to their population and per-capita CO2 output. Additionally, a country’s ability to pay would determine their overall responsibility.
**CLOUD COMPUTING (n.)
Large-scale distributed computing services available over the Internet. The clusters (or “clouds”) of computers give individual institutions or businesses ultrafast computing power without the high-maintenance server rooms.
**ECOSYSTEM SERVICES (n.)
The value a healthy ecosystem offers humans or a local economy (calculated in dollars), providing an economic incentive to protect fragile habitats. For example, an insect called a lacewing furnishes a crucial ecosystem service in the U.S., eating corn earworms, aphids and other pests. Farmers who protect lacewing habitats will save money by cutting back on using conventional pesticides.
The action of playing videogames that do double duty as exercise regimens.
Acronym for “fear, uncertainty and doubt,” often used to describe the efforts of companies to disparage or undermine the soon-to-be-released products of competitors.
Investigating in person the nature of geographical hotspots identified through remote imaging. As in, “After we tentatively identified at least one new kind of Chinese nuclear submarine on Google Earth, we’d still require ground-truthing to confirm its capabilities.”
Used to describe the increasingly blurry line between physics and mathematics. See also physmatician: “Brian Greene’s book The Elegant Universe made him into the most famous physmatician since Stephen Hawking.”
Electricity transferred wirelessly between electromagnetic coils resonating at the same frequency. Though not yet practical, the technology could someday eliminate that rats’ nest of cords behind your desk.
**Turn the page to learn how to build your own surveillance state.**
Build Your Own Surveillance State
New satellites take to the skies, and you can buy time on one
The next generation of private spy satellites is here: _WorldView-1_launched last September, and _GeoEye-1_will launch this April. Their high-resolution cameras are able to spot an object about the size of home plate, but their real advantage is in how much of that data they’ll be able to send back. High-res imaging satellites must aim at a small swath of the Earth as they pass over land; because these new satellites have a wider field of view, as well as improved storage and communication capabilities, each one will cover at least twice the territory of their predecessors on every orbit. That means more high-resolution images on Google Earth and Yahoo Maps, and more chances for individuals and companies to buy time from the eyes-for-hire in the sky.-Robin Mejia
**What exactly will ’08 bring? Launch our gallery for a month-by-month guide to the biggest stories of the year ahead. **
The Year Ahead: SPRING
The Year Ahead: SUMMER
Notables of ’08: THREATENED ANIMAL
The U.S. Fish and and Wildlife Service will decide this month whether to give polar bears protection under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Geological Survey recently announced that, with the continued melting of Arctic ice and loss of habitat, two thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone in 50 years.–Kate Pickert
Notables of ’08: LANDING STRIP
Virgin Galactic will be the anchor tenant in the country’s first purpose-built space-vehicle launch and landing pad. Construction will start this year on the facility in southern New Mexico.–Kate Pickert
The Year Ahead: SEPTEMBER
The Year Ahead: SUMMER
The Year Ahead: NOVEMBER/DECEMBER
The Year Ahead: OCTOBER
The Year Ahead: END OF 2008
The Year Ahead: JULY
Notables of ’08: ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER
The Chinese government announced that up to four million more people will be displaced to protect them from further landslides caused by the dam. In addition, the newly tame flow of the Yangtze River is creating a major buildup of pollutants in the reservoir and algae blooms downstream.–Kate Pickert
Notables of ’08: VIDEOGAME CONTROLLER
At least one tech company will release hardware that lets users control games with the aid of a headset that reads brain waves.–Kate Pickert
Notables of ’08: VEHICLE
Tesla says it will produce about 600 all-electric sports cars this year. The vehicles will cost around $100,000, have a range of 245 miles, and do 0Ã¢a’¬60 in less than four seconds.–Kate Pickert
The Year Ahead: JULY
The Year Ahead: SPRING
The Year Ahead: AUGUST
Notables of ’08: BIOFUEL
Forget corn. This year, new facilities in Iowa and California will begin producing energy from methane given off by livestock manure.–Kate Pickert
The Year Ahead: APRIL
The Year Ahead: JANUARY
The Year Ahead: JANUARY
The Year Ahead: WINTER
The Year Ahead: WINTER