Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

The Top Ten Scientific Breakthroughs of 2010

The steady march of science continues unabated, much to the chagrin of religious fundamentalists everywhere.  2010 has been a very busy year, and Science magazine has compiled a list of the ten most profound scientific developments.  Topping the list was the first quantum machine, the very purpose of which boggles the mind:

Physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University of California at Santa Barbara and their colleagues designed the machine—a tiny metal paddle of semiconductor, visible to the naked eye—and coaxed it into dancing with a quantum groove. …

Then they raised the widget’s energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little and a lot at the same time—a bizarre phenomenon allowed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

Other highlights from the list included the creation of a synthetic genome, the sequencing of neandertal DNA, vast improvements in the efficiency of DNA sequencing, and the development of two fresh methods to prevent the transmission of HIV:

Synthetic Biology: In a defining moment for biology and biotechnology, researchers built a synthetic genome and used it to transform the identity of a bacterium. The genome replaced the bacterium’s DNA so that it produced a new set of proteins—an achievement that prompted a Congressional hearing on synthetic biology. …

Neandertal Genome: Researchers sequenced the Neandertal genome from the bones of three female Neandertals who lived in Croatia sometime between 38,000 and 44,000 years ago. New methods of sequencing degraded fragments of DNA allowed scientists to make the first direct comparisons between the modern human genome and that of our Neandertal ancestors.

Next-Generation Genomics: Faster and cheaper sequencing technologies are enabling very large-scale studies of both ancient and modern DNA. The 1,000 Genomes Project, for example, has already identified much of the genome variation that makes us uniquely human—and other projects in the works are set to reveal much more of the genome’s function.

HIV Prophylaxis: Two HIV prevention trials of different, novel strategies reported unequivocal success: A vaginal gel that contains the anti-HIV drug tenofovir reduced HIV infections in women by 39 percent and an oral pre-exposure prophylaxis led to 43.8 fewer HIV infections in a group of men and transgender women who have sex with men.

It is remarkable that such progress has been achieved in spite of tremendous instability in the world, and a tendency for governments to squander wealth on frivolous, militaristic expenditures.  Such developments are a testament to the tenacity of the scientific method in relentlessly pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.  It would seem that, despite tremendous external constraints – fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, poorly managed resources, a disinterested public – the pace of scientific discovery is actually accelerating.

One can’t help but wonder where we might be if we actually made a concerted effort to better our society and the lot of our species as a whole – if, for example, we considered the sole purpose of government to be to assist the development and growth of society.  Where might science have taken us already if, instead of pouring trillions of dollars annually into the creation of tools of destruction and the prosecution of fruitless wars against impoverished nations, we wisely invested that money into scientific research with potential benefits for all?  Might we have cured cancer, HIV and a host of other deadly diseases?  Would we have ended starvation, drastically extended life expectancy, discovered extraterrestrial life?  It’s impossible to say, but infuriating to imagine.

We as a society need to take some time for self-reflection and decide who we want to be as a nation.  Do we really wish to be a nation founded on unfettered greed, where some starve on the streets while a fortunate few accumulate more wealth than could be spent in a dozen lifetimes?  Are we going to allow our government to exist solely as a tool of corporate interests, extending its violent reach around the globe whenever it deems those “interests” to be at risk?

Government exists for the benefit of all citizens.  It might be considered the central nervous system which unites the myriad cells of the American people.  As individuals, we can realize only limited accomplishments.  But as  a unified whole, acting through the self-comprised “brain” of government, we can reach previously unfathomable heights.  As soon as Americans wake up to this fact and stop squandering our enormous potential under the weight of tremendous corporate propaganda, civilization itself will be unrecognizably transformed.

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