Cosmology and Particle Physics
On the theoretical side, particle phenomenologists will continue to develop physics beyond the Standard Model; string theorists are connecting more strongly to cosmology and astrophysics; and cosmologists are investigating models of dark matter, dark energy, and modified gravity. On the experimental side, however, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN will turn on! While the machine won’t have enough time to reach any definitive conclusions about new physics in the next year, the LHC will represent a milestone in fundamental physics. We will be pushing the energy frontier into a new regime, past the scale at which electromagnetism and the weak interactions combine into the electroweak force, and possibly into a realm of supersymmetry and extra dimensions. This is a can’t-miss event that will transform how we think about the universe. Other experimental results that could potentially surprise us: we could find gravitational waves, directly detect dark matter, or learn something new about gravity.
—Sean Carroll, Caltech
Human Evolution and Infectious Disease
With the recent advent of whole-genome sequencing and increasingly complete surveys of genetic variation, we are now routinely studying 500 thousand variations (and the number is quickly rising) at a time, enabling complete genome-wide surveys in many human populations and in specific disease populations. Our field is about to be turned on its head—many mysteries of the genome will be uncovered, and some previously held views debunked in the face of this new global perspective. Each day will bring new findings of the genetic variations that underlie macular degeneration, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and a host of other diseases, and of the key changes that shaped our evolution. And in the years ahead, we will work towards integrating this knowledge with the fields of proteomics and chemical biology to better understand underlying biology and develop therapies.
—Pardis Sabeti, MIT
The most exciting developments today sit at the intersection between science and philosophy. It is an intersection that causes angst in many, and shivers of excitement in others. I am of the shivering type, and especially for this problem: By thinking about our moral knowledge in the same way that many linguists think about our knowledge of language, we raise deep and surprisingly unsettled questions. Is there a universal moral grammar? Is there a critical period for acquiring our moral knowledge? Is becoming bimoral like becoming bilingual, excruciatingly hard once we pass our pubertal stages? Is there a moral organ, a dedicated circuit for computing the moral rights and wrongs? Do we see a glimmer of our evolutionary past in the moral capacities of our furry cousins? We are only beginning to glean answers to these questions, but they are coming rapidly thanks to new technologies for exploring the thinking brain and the damaged mind, as well as cross-cultural studies that reveal what is part of our species’ signature and what is open to variation. This knowledge is, in turn, pushing hard on our comfort zones, driving us to contemplate how deeper understanding of the brain can lead to radical new clinical solutions for the ill, as well as dangerous technologies for those willing to abuse them.
—Marc D. Hauser, Harvard
The goal of synthetic biology is to make possible the engineering of living organisms that behave as expected. Progress in the field is based on three new foundational technologies that go beyond classical genetic engineering: automated DNA synthesis, standardization, and abstraction. Synthesis enables direct construction of genetic material from raw chemicals and information. Standards and abstraction together provide the languages and grammars needed to define the information used by DNA synthesizers. 2007 should witness two important milestones for automated DNA synthesis (which enables direct construction of genetic material from raw chemicals and information). First, production of up to 15,000 base pair DNA fragments for less than $0.50 per base, with reliable two week delivery times. This seemingly simple advance will let everybody order custom DNA for their projects. Second, a parallel method for assembling up to 10,000,000 base pair DNA fragments. This radical advance will let us rapidly construct entire bacterial genomes and eukaryotic chromosomes. For standards and abstraction, the most important milestone will be starting up factories that produce well-characterized standard biological parts; these parts will let everybody design and build powerful genetic programs. Finally, beyond the technology itself, 2007 should see the United States and other governments enact some ethical guidelines—DNA synthesis firms must be required to check what is being synthesized so that they don’t unwittingly help construct human pathogens for nefarious customers.
—Drew Endy, MIT
In the last five years the scientific study of morality has exploded. We’re now probing the moral brain like never before, using functional neuroimaging, studies of neurological patients, and sophisticated cognitive testing techniques. As a result of this work, it’s now clear (to some of us, at any rate) that moral decision-making is neither a pristine rational enterprise, nor simply a matter of emotional expression. What’s next? Now that we have a general framework in place, it’s time to get down to computational details: What exactly pushes our moral-emotional buttons and why? What aspects of moral decision-making are conscious and which are not? Are there natural categories of moral intuition? What about moral principles? What sorts of moral principles do we actually use, and to what extent do these principles, when brought to light, look like good principles? What aspects of moral thinking are products of biological evolution, and to what extent does cultural evolution expand our moral repertoire? How much of morality do we learn, and how much of it do we simply grow? Answers await.
—Joshua Greene, Harvard
High Energy Physics
The coming year will see a number of interesting developments as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) goes online. The enormous amount of data generated by the LHC will force us to refine our methods—and explore new ones—for extracting and interpreting information from high energy collisions. This work should lead to new insights into the masses of elementary particles and the consequences of various models for particle physics and cosmology.
Also of interest is the recent application of string theory to the physics being done at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), where string theory permits some calculations that would otherwise be intractable. The idea at RHIC is to better understand the strong force that binds together the elements of a nucleon, and 2007 may see the theoretical advances of string theory inform the experimental results from RHIC.
—Lisa Randall, Harvard University
On February 28, 2007, for the first time, human technology will be operating on five planets (including Earth). The New Horizons spacecraft will cruise past Jupiter at a distance of 2.5 million km and use the behemoth’s gravitational pull to redirect the craft toward Pluto (which it will reach in 2015) as it inspects Jupiter and its moons. Cassini will still be circling Saturn, and a growing armada of spacecraft will continue to patrol Mars, including the Mars Exploration Rovers (fingers crossed). Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express will be building up an unprecedented trove of data on the climate and atmosphere of Earth’s parched, burnt, acidic sister world. In billions of years, Earth is destined to wind up like Venus as the sun ages and warms. Perspective from this era of interplanetary prospecting will help reveal our planet’s complexities.
—David Grinspoon, Southwest Research Institute
The majority of human diseases have animal origins—influenza, HIV, malaria, measles, SARS coronavirus, and BSE prion, among others. These agents have jumped from animals to humans, yet despite ongoing transmission of novel agents from animals to humans, there are currently no systems in place to monitor and control these “emergence events” before they go on to cause pandemics. 2007 will see the development of “disease forecasting” science: focused monitoring of the movement of novel agents into humans from animals; systematic study to identify the factors that permit a “jumped” agent to establish itself among humans; and systematic efforts to discover the full range of human viruses and other possible disease agents. If successful, the efforts will both identify unrecognized human disease threats and help predict and prevent the next major human pandemic.
—Nathan Wolfe, UCLA
For a long time, developmental psychologists have had little to say about questions such as when children start to believe in God, what they think about the relationship between body and soul, and how they judge people in terms of good or evil. But this is changing, in large part because of theoretical developments in fields such as evolutionary theory and cross-cultural psychology. We can now make substantive claims about why religious belief and moral thought exist in the first place, and derive some interesting predictions about what should and should not be innate. And we can test these predictions using the same sorts of methods that have been so successful in exploring the origins of physical and social understanding. The big news in 2007 is that we should see the first published studies that explore moral and religious thought in very young children, perhaps in babies.
—Paul Bloom, Yale University
The biggest event in climate science in 2007 will be the February release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, a comprehensive update of the scientific consensus (and the first since 2001). Probably the most thoroughly peer-reviewed document ever produced, the report will likely strengthen the attribution of recent climate change to human causes—principally, increases in greenhouse gases like CO2 and CH4.
Also, the first results from the “A-train” network of satellites will give an unprecedented view of the interactions between clouds, aerosols, and radiation. New results from high-resolution ice-core records in Antarctica will be published, improving the comparison with the Greenland records. It is even conceivable that analyses of million-year-old ice will be announced.
—Gavin Schmidt, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Illustration by Dave Casey
Originally published February 8, 2007