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Big science for 2007

EIROforum / CERN
A hardhat worker is dwarfed by the inner workings of the Large Hadron
Collider's ATLAS detector. The collider is due to begin operation in 2007.


Even though it's been judged Science's "Breakthrough of the Year," it's a safe bet that people won't be buzzing about the Poincare Conjecture in 2007. Instead, the coming year is bracketed by two paradigm shifts in science, having to do with politics and particle physics.

At the beginning of the year, control of Congress changes hands from the GOP to the Democrats. And by the end of the year, the Large Hadron Collider should be online at last at CERN's headquarters on the French-Swiss border.

You might not think of last month's midterm congressional elections as a science story, but the outcome is likely to have an effect on how a whole range of science policy issues are handled. Here are the three top examples:

  • Climate policy: No longer will congressional hearings be used as forums to downplay the issues surrounding greenhouse-gas emissions - a fact of political life that sparked a humorous twinge of nostalgia from researcher Gavin Schmidt at the excellent Real Climate blog. As noted by Grist, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is due to take over a key committee on the environment and is planning extensive hearings on the issue - perhaps resulting in legislation modeled on California's greenhouse-gas cap. Even the prospect of change is leading industry executives to jump on the emissions-reduction bandwagon.
  • Environment vs. energy: Beyond global warming, the congressional changeover should take the heat off Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats have taken the lead role in staving off oil drilling in the 19.2-million-acre area - and as noted in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the tide may well turn toward more environmental protection. There might well be more legislation to encourage conservation and renewable energy sources rather than promoting petroleum production. Who knows? Perhaps even the H-Prize, an initiative to boost hydrogen-based energy that has languished in the Senate, will rise again. 
  • Stem cell research: The incoming House speaker, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, says she'll aim to push through stem-cell legislation in the first 100 hours of congressional business - the very bill that President Bush vetoed last year. A measure to liberalize federal funding for research using human embryonic stem cells is a priority for the Senate as well as the House. It's likely that the new legislation would be vetoed again, of course, but will the changing political climate result in a changed outcome?

More generally, the Bush administration has come under criticism for sidetracking scientific assessments that run counter to its policies. In such cases, a Democrat-controlled Congress could offer a bully pulpit to make sure such assessments get a full airing.

Of course, there are two sides to every story when it comes to politics. For climate skeptics, the congressional changeover represents the triumph of "junk science" over sound science. I'm going to refrain from rendering judgment on that score; that's up to you to do in the comments section. But even the skeptics will have to admit that the rules of the science policy game have changed.

Then there's the Large Hadron Collider. If you're not keyed into particle physics or the hubbub over string theory, the name might not be familiar to you. But those who follow the field have been salivating over the LHC for years. (It even plays a bit part in "Angels and Demons," novelist Dan Brown's precursor to "The Da Vinci Code.")

The $1.8 billion LHC should be able to smash particles together with enough energy to unlock longstanding secrets about black holes, the cosmic balance of matter and antimatter, the nature of the Higgs boson (a.k.a. the God particle) and perhaps even the existence of extra dimensions. Virtually every story I write about the big questions in physics ends with the line that the LHC could provide the answer. Heck, some have even worried (needlessly, scientists say) that the LHC will gobble up our corner of the cosmos.

We won't find out about all this next year, of course - but this month, CERN said the collider is on track to start up operations by next December. To keep track of the LHC's progress, you can click on over to the nifty Web portal at Interactions.org, or go straight to the source at CERN.

Now you've got my two picks for the top science stories of 2007. MSNBC.com readers provided their own observations as a follow-up to Science's top 10 list for 2006, as well as my list of top five space stories. I'm afraid mathematician Grigory Perelman didn't get much respect for his topological proof of the Poincare Conjecture:

Jerry: "That's all cool and everything, but I really think that in the time it took for these 'smart guys' to figure out the doughnut and coffee cup math problem, they could have worked on something less important like a cure for cancer or alternate fuel sources. I am pretty amazed to find out that a beach ball has a chance to get a hole in it without ripping, tearing or stretching. I will sleep better tonight."

Jeffrey: "I have to echo Jerry's sentiment a bit in that the mathematical curvature of three-dimensional sphere in relation to the boundary of a four-dimensional sphere really doesn't accomplish any currently discernible effect on mankind. Global warming I believe is a much more noble quest for our science dollars. Now if he can find a way to use Poincare's Conjecture to develop a method for the Earth to act as a doughnut instead of a sphere to dissipate the heat of global warming, as the math has a direct correlation to thermal mechanics, then I will pat Perelman on the back for all the sleep I'll be able to enjoy.

"Aside from global warming, alternative fuel/energy sources would be my next scientific discovery of the year. With the political clout shifting to the scientists, and the adoption of ethanol-based fuels and the development of cellulosic fuel, this has been a landmark year. To think that since the Industrial Revolution we have been essentially using the same energy sources as we did 200 years ago. The years to come will prove to be exciting as we push to alleviate our dependency upon fossil fuels and non-renewable fuel sources.

"The future of science holds promise. I hope my grandchildren will be able to appreciate the distinction between a mug and a doughnut, because the significance is lost on me ... and I understand the math!!"

John G.: "I wholeheartedly disagree with the value or lack thereof we place upon the proof of Poincaré's Hypothesis. The reason I do so is we cannot predict the effect a discovery/accomplishment in one field of the science will have on another field. For instance, if Newton or Leibniz had not discovered/created calculus we could not have formulated classical physics. Without classical physics we could not have created the steam engine, without the steam engine no Industrial Revolution. In fact, without the proper formulation of classical mechanics we would not have automobiles, airplanes, radios, television, Internet, etc, etc.

"If calculus, linear algebra, complex analysis, real analysis and other more advanced math were not discovered/created it would be impossible to formulate quantum mechanics or atomic physics; we would not have MRI machines which help detect cancer, we would not have the physics necessary for chemists to analyze the behavior of molecules which may lead to new treatments for cancer. We would not have the physics necessary to create semiconductors which form the basis for the genetic engineering revolution (analyzing DNA requires computers). In, fact modern chemistry depends upon the results of atomic physics. Without modern chemistry we would not have the tools to create new fuels for our automobiles, and a whole host of other modern amenities.

"So you see, sometimes something as insignificant as a mathematical result may have profound influence upon our world, through physics. In addition we can never predict which mathematical result may lead to a useful discovery in physics, so let us view this result with admiration for one day it may play an important role in our society."

Neal: "I have to agree that until practical use of the proof of Poincaré's Hypothesis develops, we may never know if it's just a footnote or the foundation of future science.

"The movement on alternative fuels was more economics than science. The price of fuel simply rose to pass the 'break-even' point for some of them (until gas prices rise past the alts' production costs, or their production cost drops below that of gasoline, they're only 'interesting' at best).

"But I gave up on these platitudes when the work Professor Frink did on the pickle/condiment matrix as it related to hamburger earmuffs was virtually ignored by the Nobel committee.

"Just call me jaded, I guess."

Meanwhile, regarding the top space stories:

Denis: "[I vote for] the idea of getting more people involved this year in space projects [such as Stardust @ Home]. Also, more countries with the technology and means to do more work is good news. More, please, for the future. Can we have a virtual lab on the space station?"

Fred Richards: " 'Return to Flight' ... There were many extraordinary efforts made to make the phrase a reality. I think passing on the effort and achievement to make this possible is now becoming an assumed norm. Many individuals and companies worked extremely hard (and at little or no pay) to make this possible."

Finally, in light of all the comments that our Science and Religion Symposium generated, I'm going to wedge in this waning month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club: "God in the Equation: How Einstein Transformed Religion" by Corey Powell. Reviews of the book have been mixed: Some have called the book an understandable, readable account of physics' deepest mysteries, while others have criticized it as giving the science too much of a mystical spin. In any case, Powell's exploration of "sci/religion" seems to fit quite well with the tone of the past week's discussion.

The CLUB Club regularly highlights books with cosmic themes that could conceivably be found on your local library's shelves or at the secondhand-book shop. If you have suggestions for future CLUB Club selections, let me know ... I just might send you a brand-new book.