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Science in the future tense

UW-Madison / NASA / ESO

What's ahead in medicine, climate science and cosmology? The phenomena scientists stuy include, from left, induced pluripotent stem cells, the impact of climate on storms (Hurricane Igor shown) and the genesis of galaxies (NGC 1232 shown).

When it comes to scientific advances, the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet.

That sentiment, which echoes cyberpunk novelist William Gibson's famous quote about the future, was my big takeaway from a "Solons of Science" presentation I helped organize for the New Horizons in Science meeting at Yale. The idea was to mark the 50th anniversary of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing by having three eminent scientists reflect on how far their fields have come -- and where those fields are headed.

Here's a quick rundown on medicine, climate science and cosmology in the future tense:

Medicine: Patients in a data cloud
The revolution in gene-based medicine hasn't gone as far as many scientists thought a decade ago, when the human genome was decoded. But Lee Hood, president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, thinks another decade should turn that around.

"In 10 years, each of us as patients will be surrounded by a cloud of billions of data points," he told the audience at Yale.

The reason for that is the rapidly declining cost of whole-genome analysis. Hood made headlines last year for untangling the rare yet crucial mutations that sparked one family's genetic disease. As the price per genome dips below $1,000, data-mining efforts should point to better ways to combat gene-linked diseases -- or avoid them altogether.

Hood also pointed to his work with prions, the misfolded proteins that are implicated in mad-cow disease and other brain maladies. He and his colleagues have developed tests that can spot the biological fingerprints of prions in the blood long before they affect the brain.

"This is the first real systems approach we've worked on," Hood said.

The study of proteins, genes and other pieces of the cell's machinery is opening the way to an approach Hood calls "P4 medicine" -- predictive, preventative, personalized and participatory. Hood's institute has forged multimillion-dollar deals with Ohio State University's medical school as well as the tiny European nation of Luxembourg to create pilot projects for the P4 approach.

The first examples of personalized, gene-based treatment are likely to come through "pharmacogenomics," Hood said. Physicians already have found close to 50 types of drugs that have a positive or negative effect on patients depending on their genetic profile, Hood said. The next step is to link such drugs to your genetic profile. For example, some of the data points in your digital cloud should be able to show whether you're the type of person who will do well on the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor, or whether you're in the smaller pool of patients who would suffer an adverse effect.

In the future, the purely digital information in your genome could be combined with readouts from environmental sensors to produce a more complete picture of your health, Hood said.

I can imagine a day when an app on my mobile phone will let me know how having my scrambled eggs and bacon instead of Special K cereal -- which was Hood's choice for our breakfast together -- will affect my heart-attack risk. I'm not sure it'll be as fun living under that kind of a data cloud, but I suppose it'll be better for me.

Climate: Finding fixes
Although the political debate over climate change is continuing, computer models suggest that we're going to have to do something to counter all the carbon dioxide that is being put into the planet's atmosphere. But what?

"It's going to be very, very hard to mitigate climate change," said Ralph Cicerone, a climate scientist who currently serves as president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The figures that Cicerone showed from Japanese researchers suggest that 7.2 billion tons of carbon re being put into the atmosphere and seas every year, but just 3.1 billion tons are being removed. Even if significant cutbacks are made in carbon emissions, we may have to get used to a warmer world.

"There's no magic bullet," Cicerone said. "I think it will be a little bit of this, and a little bit of that."

Part of the strategy involves building infrastructure to accommodate the various changes in weather patterns. The models show "wetter areas of the world would get wetter, and drier areas would get drier," Cicerone said. New technologies to cope with droughts as well as storms would have to be developed to ease the pain of a changing climate.

Cicerone said coping with climate also calls for a wide array of carbon-cutting measures, ranging from more efficient energy use to energy conservation and higher reliance on renewable energy (solar and wind) as well as nuclear energy.

I can imagine that the next decade will also bring some high-profile experiments in geoengineering -- for example, locking up carbon in underground reservoirs, seeding oceans with iron or even building artificial trees. But that's another story.

Cosmology: Dark matter demystified
Only about 4 percent of the universe consists of the kind of matter we all know and love. Another 24 percent is made up of mysterious stuff called dark matter, and the remaining 72 percent comes in the form of even more mysterious dark energy.

The nature of dark energy is the "most profound question" in cosmology, says University of Chicago physicist Michael Turner -- and it could take many years to figure that one out. But dark matter?

"2010 is the decade of dark matter," Turner told the audience. "We're going to finish this problem off."

The breakthrough is likely to come from the Large Hadron Collider, the European particle-smasher that's just now hitting its stride. There's a chance that Fermilab's Tevatron, sited in a Chicago suburb, could make some dark-matter discoveries as well. The prospects for success are so promising that Turner calls the two particle accelerators "dark matter factories."

Smashing protons at higher and higher energies is expected to lead eventually to the creation of exotic particles under controlled circumstances -- particles that are around all the time, but are too rare and elusive to be studied in nature.

Physicists are even narrowing down the list of usual (and unusual) suspects for dark matter: Could they be axions .... Or perhaps they're neutralinos, a breed of supersymmetric particle, or "sparticle," that could be produced at the Large Hadron Collider if they exist. The common neutrino could account for some of the missing mass, but nowhere near all of it. "They're not the dark matter," Turner said. "They're just a spice put in there to make things interesting."

Just how many of such particles have to exist to explain dark matter? I can imagine drinking one down right now: Current models suggest that a one dark-matter particle is zipping through a cup of coffee at any given time.

This image from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe shows slight temperature variations imprinted on the universe after the big bang.

Then there's the problem of dark energy. One possibility is that even in the absence of matter, the empty stuff of space-time is sizzling with energy at an undetectable quantum level. That sizzle may be what space probes such as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe have captured in measurements of the big bang's microwave afterglow.

"That is an amazing idea," Turner said. "If that's true, that means when we look at the microwave background, we're actually looking at subatomic noise, and that got blown up" by cosmic inflation to sky-filling size.

If that's what happened just after the big bang, what happened just before? "This question is now within the realm of science," Turner said. (In his latest book, "The Grand Design," British physicist Stephen Hawking agrees.)

The favored view among cosmologists is that our inflationary universe was triggered by one of those sizzling spasms in space-time. And if that's the case, theory dictates that it could happen again and again, spawning an infinite number of universes bubbling out from a higher-dimensional multiverse.

"This is an incredibly bold idea. It may even be the most important idea since Copernicus," Turner said. "But these pieces are disconnected, so how do you test it? And if you can't test it, is it science? I call this the multiverse headache. You've got this unbelievably important idea, but is it science?"

I can imagine physicists finding out, sometime in the next decade, that everything they know is wrong. And so can Turner. He'd love to find out someday whether dark energy is actually something other than the sizzle of empty space-time. If so, he said, "that means there's something weirder than the energy of nothing."

He compared the effort to understand the foundations of the universe to the efforts of proverbial blind men to understand an elephant by feeling its parts. (Is it a rope? a fan? a tree?)

"We're the blind cosmologists, feeling the universe," Turner said, "and with each piece of data we describe something. We're trying to put it all together. We might actually, in the next 10 or 15 years, put it all together. And that's absolutely amazing."


The New Horizons in Science meeting is part of ScienceWriters 2010 and is organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. I'm CASW's treasurer.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

For more prognostications about science in the future tense, check out this New York Times interactive, which was created to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Science Times section.

This report was last updated at 1:35 p.m. ET Nov. 10.