Top 8 influential Science and Tech Stories of 2009, so far

The year 2009 is halfway through and already we’ve seen some great stuff being published, created, and predicted that could have a major impact in the future. Each of the eight items were chosen because they could influence how every one of us communicates, learns, and lives more so than any other discoveries so far in 2009. What’s that? You’re not a science or techie person? It doesn’t matter, you and everyone else are going to be affected because of the work and ideas brought forth below. So, pay attention. We start with some exclusive, never before public news from NASA, very fitting as today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch.

1. NASA starts project Nebula (new exclusive information) Nope, this isn’t another space probe. This is the government giving a head nod to cloud computing. They’ve wisely hired a few seasoned Internet entrepreneurs to command the mission at NASA Ames and take NASA data into the cloud. That much has been known since May. Last week I had dinner with Chris Kemp (CIO, NASA Ames) and some of the Nebula team. Here’s what Kemp agreed to reveal publicly for the first time:

”NASA collaborates with hundreds of universities, commercial partners, and other federal and international partners. The NASA Nebula cloud computing platform will dramatically increase the efficiency and productivity of these collaborations.”

How it affects you: If you’re a NASA collaborator or want to become one, then get ready. As for every day citizens, you too will reap the rewards of Nebula via the research performed. There’s also been a lot of speculation that Nebula will power data sets other than just NASA’s, such as Is this true? Let’s put it this way. Their focus, for now, is on NASA’s data. The rest is my opinion only: imagine the possibilities if we had a national or even international cloud computing platform. Remember that it was originally a similar government project called ARPANET that gave rise to today’s Internet. This could be BIG for science, tech, and planet Earth.

Hurdles to jump: Kemp and team must first get this rolling with NASA before opening it up to outsiders. And it’s government, so there’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape to cut through to get this done and costs down. President Obama and Vivek Kundra (Federal CIO), if you’re listening, then help this team out by cutting that tape and give them carte blanche funding to get it done.

More info: Official NASA Nebula websiteFollow Nebula on Twitter

World avoided2. The ozone has been saved – sort of

Ever ask yourself what the ozone layer and our planet would look like today if we hadn’t passed some of those pesky environmental laws back in the 1980’s? Researchers, led by Paul Newman, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and elsewhere asked “What would have happened to the ozone layer if chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had not been regulated in 1987?” This was an important and difficult to answer question, until this year. I reached Dr. Newman for a comment to let us know the most important message from this research:

“If chlorofluorocarbons had not been regulated by the Montreal Protocol, two-thirds of the ozone layer would have been destroyed by the year 2065 with a consequent increase of surface ultraviolet radiation to extreme levels.”

How it affects you: While the conclusions were based on computer models, the importance of environmental policy cannot be overstated, and now we have proof that policy does work. Oh, and your grandkids will get to play outside in 2065. Even by 2020 it would have been pretty nasty without SPF 3 billion lathered on. Check out these neat simulations, such as the image above.

Hurdles to jump: As you may know, we still have a slight problem with a thing called “Global warming.” Lots to do in order to reduce carbon emissions.

More info: Original study

3. This one is obvious: H1N1, the “Swine Flu”

Unless you were somehow vacationing off of Earth for the past four months, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the influenza virus H1N1. It set off a firestorm in the media, gave Google a boost in highlighting its FluTrends, and the World Health Organization initially delayed then finally classified H1N1 as a pandemic on June 11th. And there are some odd similarities with the flu of 1918, which killed 40-100 million people and also reared its head in the Spring before the real pandemic.

How it affects you: For starters, you could die, but that really isn’t different than any other flu year, so don’t panic. In fact, it actually seems to be weaker than other flu strains, but more widespread, hence the classification as a pandemic. This virus does seem to behave differently than other versions of the flu, so we don’t quite know what will happen once it returns for real come this Fall and Winter. Best get your flu shot this year! Some scientists have even suggested hosting “flu parties” where friends gather to get sick with a weaker form of the flu to avoid getting sick with the real virus.

Hurdles to jump: How immune are most people? We don’t know yet. How rapidly will the virus mutate and what will happen then? Again, we don’t know that yet.

4. Academic publishing is about to get the smack down

At least, that’s how physicist, turned writer, Michael Nielsen sees it as predicted here. He suggests the current demise of newspapers is a foreshadowing to academic publishing. And hey, we kind of like this opinion piece since it mentions Mendeley. Even if we had been forgotten, it still raises some valid points that people have been quietly discussing for a while now.

How it affects you: This means, as one example, that getting money from the government for research is about to change big time since it depends on publishing. And that trickles down to every person in the world, for the better.

Hurdles to jump: It’s not going to be a walk in the park to reformat a 300 year-old tradition of academic publishing in journals. Not suggesting that there will be Mafia hits going down (wink), but there are going to be some unhappy people and corporations that won’t go without a fight.

5. iPS cells via proteins

iPS stands for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell. They’re the kind of cell that can turn into any other type of cell in your body and even lead to new organs. Two years ago, scientists had to integrate genes into the genome of regular cells to turn them into stem cells. Now, as revealed in a May study, they can turn some adult cells into stem cells just by adding four proteins in a juicy cocktail.

How it affects you: Adding genes before meant a risk of turning the cells into cancer cells. That’s kind of a bad thing, so the switch to proteins is good. And guess what? We are one step closer to curing serious diseases like Parkinson’s, and doing cool things like growing extra limbs.

Hurdles to jump: It is has only been proven in mouse models, so the next step is to get some crazy humans to test themselves. Volunteers?

6. Kiss “Web 2.0” goodbye and say hello to “Web Squared”

The past five years have been about user-driven content, collaboration, and crowdsourcing. The poster-children for “Web 2.0,” a phrase popularized by Tim O’Reilly, are sites such as Wikipedia, Facebook, and Digg. Today, Web 2.0 is responsible for not just social media, but forming policy in government and product design. Since that phrase was coined though, people have been asking, “What will web 3.0 look like?” Tech opinion leaders, and I agree, have tried to stay away from calling the NextGen Internet “web 3.0.” Instead, O’Reilly is calling it “web squared.” I can’t really say that is better, but he’s right that we are at a turning point in tech and it helps to capture the essence in one phrase. Sadly though, O’Reilly did a poor job succinctly describing exactly what web squared is in his June manifesto. Nonetheless, it deserves a spot in this list, because it will affect and influence everything we do for years to come.

How it affects you: Here’s my shot at summarizing web squared. Everything in your offline world is about to get connected to the online world. Your “digital shadow” will be smarter than you. This really will be that personal robot servant everyone thought we’d have in the future. Every device you own will be connected and synced and sensory information, such as your location, health, or habits, will be replicated, analyzed, and recommendations sent back from the online world. You won’t have to think about where your next holiday should be, your devices will know the best spot for you already based on your latest habits.

Hurdles to jump: All of this information is going to be a data headache. A lack of common data standards, though championed by orgs such as the W3C, is going to make interoperability difficult. Data storage and bandwidth will need to explode in capacity; after all, this will be a literal “squaring” of the digital information flowing back and forth.

7. Google Waves to us

Announced at the Google I/O conference in June, Google Wave could be one of the biggest transformations of how we communicate since email. In fact, it sits within Gmail and outside developers can build applications to extend it….wake up call for science developers.

How it affects you: At a basic level, most people will just use it to share photos more conveniently. Many are already talking about how Google Wave is going to ramp up Open Science initiatives in the scientific community. This could mean science will spread faster and further than ever before, making advancements that much quicker.

Hurdles to jump: While Wave is open source, meaning it doesn’t depend on Gmail, will academic institutions actually integrate it with their email systems? It will take time and a few battles to overcome. While good for science in theory, what incentives will application developers create to lure scientists to use it for research?

8. Adding a semantic touch to research papers

The problem with published research, even publications on the Internet, is that they are mostly static. Now, David Shotten and colleagues from University of Oxford, Oxford, UK have given us a proof-of-principle article that has been semantically enhanced. See April’s edition of PLoS Computational Biology.

How it affects you: A semantically enhanced research paper connects data, old and new like never before. This means publications are now living, ever improving documents, which will advance science and technology for the good.

Hurdles to jump: It took a team of computational experts 10-person weeks to accomplish this. The system will need to be automated, with publishers, editors, and authors working together before the cost-benefit makes this a practical, but much needed, reality.

Wrapping it up

Obviously, there were many worthy stories that were not included, such as the announcement by Harvard’s George Church regarding artificial ribosomes that could lead to artificial life. So, help other reader’s out by telling us what you think are the science and tech stories that will have the most impact on nearly every person on Earth.

To learn how Mendeley can help you publish and organize research, go here.

Follow Jason Hoyt, PhD on twitter here.

One thought on “Top 8 influential Science and Tech Stories of 2009, so far

  1. OH I would LOVE to hear which scientists suggested the flu parties. My friend and I had heard of the parties and thought it sounded crazy. Didn’t know they were actually being suggested by anyone from the science community.

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