In the spirit of Vector’s traditional “Best of” print edition, which is nearly ready, here is our pick of science news for 2017.
First of all, water. Two new inventions for increasing the supply of drinking water caught our eye:
- one, using a graphene-enhanced membrane for desalination
- and another, using sunlight in a device that pulls water out of the air.
In other exciting fluid-related news, scientists have made a fluid with negative mass. In the face of our growing global water crisis, maybe this development doesn’t feel quite so relevant as the other two … but then, the usefulness of inventions can be hard to judge at first. Story prompt, writers?
The New York Times is not a place where one expects to find encounters between the Navy and UFOs. Then again, the NYT in 2017 has felt like a distinctly genre venue, as the reality around us grows far-fetched and more than a little dystopian. So it has been worth the extra effort to look for technoscience news which seemed less likely to transform our world in drastic and unpredictable ways (as AI or CRISPR), and more likely to offer tangible and specific benefits, like eyesight for the blind.
Although some writers could surely imagine a downside to artificial eye retinas, many have already questioned science’s quest to prolong life or enable reproduction without women, or bodies for that matter. Wait, so we’ve had nearly 50 years to figure out the ethics — Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution was advocating cyberwombs in 1970 — and we still don’t know?
In 2017, the world got more of its energy from renewables and technology continues to improve. Fast enough? The outlook for climate change in 2017 was not especially comforting. What humanity learned to speed up in 2017 is evolution. Gene drives could increase the rate at which genes spread in ways that could be beneficial. Worth the risks?
If we get it all wrong, it may come as a consolation that at least Earth is not the only habitable planet. In 2017, NASA identified hundreds of planets similar to Earth. Does this make Earth less precious? Not if we love it. Most scientists do. Many strive to help here and now, such as buying time for corals so they can adjust to climate change rather than die off, taking down entire ecosystems with them.
Other scientists conduct research on different dimensional scales. 2017 saw an end to the Cassini mission, which plunged to Saturn in order to avoid contaminating its moons (that Cassini revealed so much about). And the year’s most abstractly beautiful piece of new knowledge has been the discovery of gravitational waves – ripples through spacetime – predicted by Einstein’s theory. What caused these ripples on the spacetime surface that we learned to observe? A kilonova — a collision of two neutron stars… But could we process this new knowledge if our imaginations had not been prepared for it by, say, Samuel Delany?