Science covers a lot of ground. So, what constitutes a major breakthrough or discovery in science? Some obvious answers: a new species, a new fossil, a new method of treating cancer and new images of a relatively young nebula. A scientific discovery is any new information that changes how we view the world. This information can drastically change a previously held belief, add evidence to an existing theory, or highlight a new theory. Think penicillin.
The first and last pieces are the most exciting bits. We feel the greatest personal effect of a scientific discovery when it changes how we view the world. Do cell phones cause cancer? Not likely, but that’s the type of story people pay attention to. A newly discovered species of shrew, probably not so much.
Keeping that principle in mind, here two world-changing scientific discoveries from this year:
IBM looks to carbon nanotubes
If you’re old enough to remember computers from the early 90s, you know how slow they were compared to our current technology—and I’m not even talking about dial-up. To give you some perspective, today’s smartphone is faster and more powerful than NASA’s bank of supercomputers from its 1969 moon landing. Essentially, you are using a pocketable, 1969 supercomputer to photograph your Chipotle burrito.
The rule of thumb is computer processing doubles every 18 months. In the computer world it’s an idea called Moore’s Law. The law says the number of transistors affixed to a computer chip doubles about every 18 months. The practical idea is more transistors means faster computer speeds, but progress has slowed recently.
However, we are in luck—sort of. IBM might have just found a way to keep that trend going, using carbon nanotubes. “This could eventually yield viable transistors that are significantly smaller than what we have today. To wit, it provides new hope for Moore’s law,” according to reporting from Cade Metz at WIRED.
The keyword here is eventually. There is no practical application yet. The entire concept is still too new, but IBM researchers have demonstrated this technology could be the breakthrough we need to build smaller, faster chips.
We found water on Mars
If you read my last post, you know I have a wildly romanticized vision of space exploration. Besides dinosaurs, there is nothing that harkens to my childhood enthusiasm for science quite like space. I grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars and a number of other space-themed shows and movies. My dream job? A member of Starfleet. My favorite plant? Neptune.
It’s no surprise that I was pumping my fists and dancing around my room when I heard the news about water flowing on Mars. Yeah. You read that right. Scientists are now saying that a brine-like substance flows in limited quantities on Mars. “Our findings strongly support the hypothesis that recurring slope lineae form as a result of contemporary water activity on Mars,” writes Lujendra Ojha and his team.
The implications of water on Mars are huge—dare I say astronomical? For starters, where did the water come from? Is this left over water from the planet’s origins billions of years ago? Is this water currently life-sustaining? Ice was already discovered on the planet earlier this year, but flowing water is a whole other realm of possibility. Water means life.
I’ve said it before: we are in a golden age of scientific discovery. Carbon nanotube processors could lead to a technology future previously limited to science fiction novels. Flowing water on Mars brings us a step closer to uncovering the origin of life on Earth. These moments of science expand our understanding of the universe big and small.
These are the discoveries that will change your world.
What do you think? What other discoveries happened this year? How will your life be impacted by these breakthroughs? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.