Thursday, October 21, 2010

Waiting for Godot

The 14 October issue of Nature includes full-page interviews with ten science Nobelists. Three of them are asked: "What is the one discovery that would herald a scientific revolution in the 21st century?"

Arno Penzias, co-discoverer of the cosmic background radiation, answers:
A scientific model of how mammalian genomes pack so much into so little space. Just think of the amount of information stored in a mere three billion base pairs, let alone all else these mere molecules must accomplish. Measured from a computer perspective, that's four bits of storage per pair — or about one tenth as much as a high-end iPod Touch. How can so little 'memory' store the exquisite details of our entire bestiary? Consider, for example, that experiments have shown that a newly-born mountain goat is wary of heights from the instant that it opens its eyes for the first time.
There can be no doubt, I'd say, that Penzias has put his finger on the biggest scientific mystery awaiting explication. How can a sequence of four organic bases, encoding proteins, implant a wariness of heights in the brain of a newborn mountain goat, or give newly-hatched monarch butterflies the geographical instinct to fly unguided from New England, say, to a particular patch of fir trees in central Mexico? We have learned a lot already about the basic biochemistry of how it happens. More complete knowledge will slowly unfold, bit by bit, over the century. I personally doubt if a "scientific revolution" is necessary.

To the same question, John Mather, co-discoverer of the anisotropy in the cosmic background radiation, answers:
Room-temperature superconductivity could enable efficient sharing of electrical power around the world, changing the economic balance dramatically. It could also enable magnetic levitation for transportation, changing the entire structure of nations. Similarly, any other discovery or innovation that changes the availability of energy for food, transportation and shelter would have extraordinary impact.
Room-temperature superconductivity would hardly be a scientific revolution, but it would be a breakthrough of staggering significance. The temperature at which superconductivity occurs has been creeping upwards for decades. Finding a reasonably cheap material that conduct electricity at ordinary ambient temperatures without resistive loses would certainly transform our energy future -- and earn a quick Nobel Prize for the discoverer. Is it possible? I'd put this in the same category as cold fusion, a potential discovery of even greater significance. That is to say, highly improbable, but perhaps not impossible.

Peter Agre, who shared the chemistry prize for discovery of a water channel protein in cell membranes, gives a rather more whimsical answer:
Discovery of the molecular explanation for happiness would be revolutionary. But this may not be just wishful thinking. Neuroscientists are making incredible breakthroughs in understanding the actions of serotonin. So who knows?
Who knows, indeed? Are we ready for happy pills, if we don't have them already? How about genetically engineering the entire species to float through life on a cloud of glee? And while we're tinkering with the genome, we can eliminate the molecular causes of senescence so that we live forever -- or at least until we go bonkers with the burden of endless bliss.