Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Top science stories of 2007

Well, 2007 has been over for three weeks now. Must be time to look back and figure out what happened there. Overall, I'd say it was a good year, but not a great year. Let's have a look at what others picked for the "top" stories.

Science usually makes pretty good calls, as you'd expect. Since online access is by subscription only, here's my paraphrase of their list of top "breakthroughs":

  1. Recognizing human genetic variation – in other words, there's more diversity in human DNA than expected
  2. Making pluripotent stem cells by reprogramming
  3. Closing in on the origins of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays
  4. Determining the structure of a G protein-coupled receptor (for adrenaline)
  5. Investigating transition metal oxides as an alternative to silicon for electronics
  6. Exploring the prospects of materials exhibiting the quantum spin Hall effect for realization of spintronics
  7. Understanding how asymmetric division occurs in CD4 T cells
  8. Growing ability to synthesize complex pharmaceutical and electronic compounds
  9. Adding to the evidence that memory is an important ability for imagining future events and situations
  10. Proving that it is possible (for a computer) to never lose a game of checkers against a human (or another computer)

There are some surprising developments in this list – such as the extent of human genetic diversity or (especially) the apparent ease with which cells can be reprogrammed to behave like pluripotent stem cells. But what strikes me most about the list is that not much in it gives a sense of "closure" in the way that, say, determining the genetic code or proving the Poincaré conjecture (last year's top "breakthrough") was.

Instead, what we have are a number of developments that are merely the first steps towards much more impressive things to follow. We are just beginning to understand how genetic programs actually work, especially in disease conditions and in processes like metabolism and cell division. There will be much more meaningful developments with stem cells, protein structure determination, molecular synthesis, non-silicon electronics, spintronics, and nanoscale engineering.

I suppose this is why the items in the list are called "breakthroughs".

Here's a press release from the AAAS with a synopsis of their list: Human genetic variation -- Science's 'Breakthrough of the Year' (

Many other lists of top stories could be found. Here are some of them, with my somewhat jaundiced opinion of most, as well as a bit of measured praise for the less awful.

2007: A year of stunning progress in the science of life (Guardian Unlimited)
Please read this one. It's not particularly lengthy, and it will be instructive to compare it with most of the other articles summarized below. It's lucid, and not larded with fluff.

In terms of what's actually noted as key advances, it covers genetics, synthetic biology, stem cells, cloning, and regenerative medicine. And despite the title, it also covers climate change and further improved evidence of dark matter.

Year in science review: Global warming, new species (USA Today)
The quality of this list is surprisingly good, considering the source. (Scientific American should be ashamed – fat chance.) Significant items include climate change (a perennial winner), stem cells, the extremely bright supernova SN 2006gy, and the Earthlike planet of Gliese 581. As a sop to the mass-market audience for "science" the list also includes dinosaurs, vanishing honeybees, and the discovery of many new biological species, alongside the looming extinction of others.

2007 News review (NewScientist)
The main list is sparingly presented in a few brief paragraphs. The selections are a bit odd (the dangers of noise pollution? really?). But in a sidebar there's a tidy list of links to separate additional articles, allowing you to easily avoid whatever you might regard as needless tedium. What I don't quite understand is the removal of, oh maybe 75% of science, to a separate article on 2007: The year in biology and medicine.

Top 25 Science Stories of 2007 (Scientific American)
Much of this list is in the nature of tabloid-style science "journalism" – all too pathetic a reminder of what is far too widely considered to be "newsworthy" in the realm of science. Not quite as bad as the printed birdcage liner found at a supermarket checkout station, but close. Daylight saving time redefined? Some guy with TB goes on a honeymoon to Europe? Poisoned pet food? Baseball jocks on steroids? Oh, please. They forgot to mention flying saucer or Yeti sightings – surely there must have been some.

See, the problem with this is that it tends to trivialize, by association, those few stories they included which were actually important, such as climate change, stem cells (the science, not the bogus controversy), and Earthlike extrasolar planets.

Top 10 Scientific Discoveries (Time)
Fortunately, this list is shorter than Scientific American's, so there's less tabloid-style dreck in it. And what there is of that isn't quite so egregious (dinosaurs, "kryptonite", an elderly clam). This makes for a somewhat higher percentage of actual science (stem cells, human genome, supernova SN 2006gy, extrasolar planets).

But here's the depressing thing about this list. Not so much the content, which doesn't quite treat the readership as unqualified imbeciles, but rather the presentation, which treats the readership as short-attention span consumer droids who will docilely plow through separate pages for each story, replete with stock photo imagery, brief text, and delightful time-wasting banner ads and "sponsored links".

Briefly noted: Here are some more specialized or other "best of 2007" lists that don't seem to require much further comment from me. Some are good; others are..., well, just other.

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