In a year of political nihilism, with nuclear war back in the realm of possibility and a madman at the helm in both North Korea and the United States, perhaps we could look for signs of hope elsewhere.
The largest human organ is the skin, and there were several breakthroughs this year. Scientists in Italy devised genetically modified skin grown from skin cells belonging to a five year old boy who suffered from junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB), which causes skin to blister and tear at the slightest touch. At the verge of death at the time, the now-seven-year old is enjoying a normal life, playing soccer and roughhousing with his mates. This can be used to treat any number of serious skin ailments, along with burns.
Speaking of which, Duke University successfully implanted the first bioengineered blood vessel into a live patient. The vessel, made from cells from the patient, was not prone to clotting or rejection, and melded seamlessly with existing blood vessels.
In Australia, they have developed a “bionic eye” that permits direct interface between the brain's visual cortex and a camera on the face of the subject. While the prototype permits the subject to only see outlines of objects, it is a proof-of-concept that may make blindness a thing of the past.
Monash University's Professor Mark Armstrong, team leader of the project, said, “"What we believe the recipient will see is a sort of a low resolution dot image, but enough... [to] see, for example, the edge of a table or the silhouette of a loved one or a step into the gutter or something like that.”
The MasSpec Pen, created at the University of Texas, can detect cancerous cells “on the fly” during any lumpectomy to ensure that surgeons really did get all of the cancerous mass.
Per BT.com, an AI program coupled with a standard colonoscopy can accurately (94%) detect cancers, allowing for on-the-spot resections, greatly reducing the mortality rate.
Study leader Dr Yuichi Mori, from Showa University in Yokohama, Japan, said: “The most remarkable breakthrough with this system is that artificial intelligence enables real-time optical biopsy of colorectal polyps during colonoscopy, regardless of the endoscopist’s skill.
“This allows the complete resection of adenomatous (cancerous) polyps and prevents unnecessary polypectomy (removal) of non-neoplastic polyps. “We believe these results are acceptable for clinical application and our immediate goal is to obtain regulatory approval for the diagnostic system.”
Amazing as this is, the technology used to make such a thing, a 3D printer that can create microscopic circuit boards, has even great ramifications for the future. It won't be long before we can print human organs.
Along the same vein of technology, BT.com reports, “Cellink have made science fiction a reality with its technique of 3D printing body parts using ink that contains human cells. The bio-ink itself is created using cellulose sourced from Swedish forests and alginate formed from seaweed found in the Norwegian Sea, which is mixed with human cells and then 3D printed with a special machine.”
That's just on the medical front.
Huge things are happening, and happening very fast.
In other technologies:
According to Phys.org, “The new study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, aimed at combining metal atoms with organic molecular groups (called PY5) to produce molecules with the properties of bulk magnets. The researchers, led by Jeffrey Long, found that one of their molecules, a molybdenum-oxo complex, was capable of transferring electrons. This is a major requirement of water-splitting systems, so they tested its ability to split water to generate hydrogen gas and found it was highly successful.”
Why this matters: Making hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel, has been prohibitive, both in terms of cost and energy needed to make it. If this pans out, we have wide access to a fuel that produces water vapour as its exhaust.
A team of researchers at Harvard produced a lithium-ion battery smaller than a grain of sand and thinner than a human hair.
Elon Musk's hyperloop project continues to move forward. While it has no shortage of skeptics, it continues to offer a holy grail of transportation: ground based, up to 800mph, using non-carbon based power. The most recent trials in August featured a pod that reached 200mph over the one mile track/tube.
Since 1988, we've detected 3,710 planets in 2,780 stellar systems. In our galaxy alone, there are billions to be found. Anyone who ever read Norman Spinrad's “Riding the Torch” knows that just because there are plenty of planets doesn't necessarily mean there are new homes for us out there. But then, in 1988 most people didn't think there were any planets out there to begin with (except the Science Fiction community, of course).
There are myriad projects going on to make batteries smaller, cheaper, more efficient and faster to recharge. The holy grail is a battery that can provide a 4 door sedan 500 mile ranges, while taking less than five minutes to recharge. Ideally it should weigh less than a half tonne, and not be a risk for fire or explosion. Expect to see one before the decade is out.
One of the most intriguing lines of research is a battery that charges itself, using nothing more than changes in temperature in the ambient surroundings to do so. Graphene has a peculiar property called graphene ripples. when the carbon atoms on a sheet rise and fall like waves in the ocean in response to the ambient temperature. And just as tides and waves can be used to generate power, so can these minute waves.
Self-driving vehicles are coming. They aren't popular, they aren't trusted, but they are coming. In twenty years you'll have skeptical cane-shakers proclaiming that they can't be trusted, because 15 people died in car accidents the year before, world-wide. The cars will be much better at navigating their own course than humans are.
On a non-technical note, Trump's abdication of the Paris agreement has doomed the carbon industry, because the mad drive of the far right to Make America Look Weak and Foolish for Profit has galvanized world response. The Chinese promptly doubled their conversion pace to green energy, and India and the EU are working on a vast program that works around American intransigence on the matter.
President Macron of France has offered lavish grants to any American climate scientist willing to escape the corporate repression of America.
Far from slowing the race to address global warming, Donald (Trop d'Argent et Aucun Goût) Trump only succeeded in firming world resolve to avoid self-destruction through climate change.
I won't lie. 2017 has been a shit year for hope, especially for Americans. It speaks volumes that the greatest moral and ethical victory of the year was that slightly under half of voters in Alabama decided they didn't want a racist, vicious religious loon with a strong odor of child molestation to represent them in the Senate. As points of national pride go, it's a bit like a German boasting that Germany only threw 390,000 people in work camps in 1938, as opposed to 400,000 in 1937. (Numbers made up; this is just an analogy). About all Americans can really hope for is that Trump's dietary habits catch up to him soon. Or Mueller is allowed to complete his work.
But that's just America, and it's important to remember that the damage Trump and the GOP are doing can be undone, or at least deeply undermined.
But in the meantime, the rest of the world, and the scientific community, show every day and every way that if we want it, we have a dazzling future. It's just ours for the taking. We can move forward. We will.
I believe that.
Don't lose hope. Never lose hope.
Posted: January 11, 2018