Science 2008

Out of the blue last weekend, I was invited to participate in a review of the year’s science stories on PressTV, which I subsequently learned was an Iranian-oriented news channel; according to my Teheran-raised grad student, “the Iranian government doesn’t have much control over them, so they are sort of free of sides”. Media whore that I am, I didn’t hesitate too long before accepting, and started to mull over the biggest science stories of the past year.

After a few moments reflection, I couldn’t come up with a very exciting list. The biggest pure-science story was the start of the Large Hadron Collider, but (even if it hadn’t broken!) we wouldn’t expect to see any results until next year or later. There was the launch of the Fermi Space telescope (née GLAST), giving the first map of the whole sky in gamma rays. There were the tantalizing hints from PAMELA of an excess in the cosmic-ray spectrum, potentially the signal of decaying Dark Matter, and certainly the prompt for some interesting intra-science controversies. There was the Nobel Prize for the uncovering of fundamental symmetries (and its own controversies), and the Gruber Prize in cosmology. There were new PhDs for three outstanding scientists, and another one that was a bit more newsworthy. Here in the UK, perhaps the biggest science story, still not completely played out, was the £80 million shortfall in the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s physics budget: results from the last few weeks seem like grants around the country have been cut severely.

Of all of these, only the LHC made the list from PressTV. Instead, we were presented with a list including using mobile phones for medical consultations and data-taking; Iran’s first rocket launch (which was inevitably tied to the country’s putative nuclear ambitions, but was more interesting in the context of scientific launches by China and India this year); and a throwaway article on homeopathy that the editors (frighteningly) didn’t originally realize was a spoof (but at least eventually discarded). Update: The show was shown on Christmas Day and is available now for streaming or downloading. Painful…

But really the biggest science story of the year was the biggest story of the year, period (full stop): the election of Barack Obama. He’s got Steve Chu, a Nobel-prize-winning physicist in the Cabinet as Energy Secretary and John Holdren, a PhD physicist and environmental expert from Harvard directing the White House Office of Science and Technology: with these appointments, along with biologists Jane Lubchenko heading NOAA, and Harold Varmus and Eric Lander co-chairing with Holdren the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, it looks like science in general, and climate change in particular, will be taken seriously and taking center stage in the new administration. Of course there are still some details, such as the fate of NASA’s post-shuttle launch capabilities and in particular its scientifically-derided Mars program, which aren’t clear; you can weigh in via the NY Times here. Let’s hope it’s coupled to and not separated from (or, worse, at odds with) the economic policies needed to get the US — and the world — out of the credit crunch/recession/depression.