Exploring other worlds
Space science got off to a quick start in 2012 with NASA’s GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B probes entering orbits around the earth’s moon on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day respectively. Between now and March, the twin spacecraft will adjust their orbits until they are just 34 miles above the surface, at which point they will begin to measure tiny variations in the moon’s gravity that should illuminate details of its internal structure in unprecedented detail. Those answers, scientists hope, will illuminate how the moon formed out of collisions of smaller bodies, and perhaps why its near surface is smoother than its far side.
Stem cells by any other name…
Biomedical research in 2012 will continue to be transformed by the ease and affordability of reading the genomes of patients, pathogens, malignant tissues and more. All indications are that this year technology will succeed in delivering a $1,000 human genome — and that price is only a benchmark of success, because the cost will keep dropping. The challenge will be to make sense of that DNA sequence information: biomedical researchers are still struggling to understand the genomic underpinnings of most health conditions.
Scientists and nonscientists alike will be scrutinizing the weather in 2012 for evidence of extreme events that might be laid at the doorstep of global warming, just as they were during the extraordinary droughts, storms, forest fires, floods and other catastrophes of 2011. Don’t expect anyone’s conclusions to sharply change the policy debate on the subject: the natural variations in weather patterns and the murky (and frustrating) debates about what actually causes weather-related disasters create wiggle room for people to believe what they wish. It doesn’t help that Republicans in Congress succeeded in cutting the research budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and opposing other measures that would have helped with monitoring climate change and its effects.
Books and television programs invoking the Mayan calendar and ominous talk of “galactic alignment” to the contrary, the world will not end next December (see April 1st blog - sorry you will have to wait!!! :)