Odds on: 10 science breakthroughs you can bet on

Human clones, a colony on Mars, alien contact… what world-changing breakthroughs will come in the next decade? We asked the experts – with some surprising results. A Mars colony It’s all go. Stephen Hawking has declared that we should start colonising other planets as soon as possible, and last year billionaire venture capitalist Elon Musk announced plans to establish a Mars colony in the 2020s. That’s possibly a little ambitious, says Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist based at the University of Leicester, UK. Mars is a brutal and unforgiving environment. A quick land and return is one thing, but it’s quite another to set up a self-governing human colony largely independent in terms of food and energy, and 18 months’ travel time from Earth. “I’d hope for a colony within 50 years, but even that is probably verging on 1950s levels of credulous optimism,” he says. So don’t bet your house. Bookie’s odds: 33/1 A permanent Mars colony by 2027 Bookie’s odds are for the stated breakthrough to occur within 10 years, and were calculated by bookmaker PaddyPower Non-Darwinian evolution The giraffe stretches its neck to reach the most succulent treetop leaves. Over time, as it repeats the action, it acquires a longer neck – an advantageous adaptation the giraffe passes on to its offspring. Such developments are often called Lamarckian evolution, after French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who developed a “theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics” around 1801. Today’s mainstream evolutionary theory, based on Darwin’s later ideas of natural selection, says it doesn’t work like this. Adaptations arise through the accumulation of random genetic mutations that we pass on if we reproduce. Stretching our necks has no effect on the necks of later generations. Not so fast. We have recently discovered that the environment and our behaviour may indeed influence our biochemical inheritance. Pollution, smoking, stress and diet can all cause some genes to be expressed and others to remain dormant in non-random ways. In some organisms, these changes seem to be “epigenetic”, cascading down the generations. They might even speed up evolution purely by natural selection. You can debate whether to call such effects Lamarckian evolution, says biologist Douglas Ruden of Wayne State University in Detroit, but for him, their existence is a closed book. “I don’t think that we have to wait until 2025 before most evolutionary biologists appreciate the role of epigenetics in evolution,” he says. Massimo Pigliucci of the City University of New York broadly agrees. There are probably multiple layers of inheritance, some genetic and some epigenetic, he says. “What remains to be seen is just how widespread and evolutionarily relevant the additional layers are compared with the genetic one.” Bet against Darwin at your peril – but a flutter on Lamarck might be an advantageous adaptation to evolving circumstances say the bookies, too. Bookie’s odds: 5/1 Lamarckian evolution confirmed Proof that Acupuncture Works Acupuncture is undoubtedly popular. But does sticking needles into your skin at designated points actually cure pain, or do people merely think it does? Felicity Bishop, a health psychologist at the University of Southampton, UK, is relatively confident. “I would be willing to place a sizeable bet that acupuncture is better than a placebo pill for pain,” she says. “I would also bet that, in a properly designed and powered trial, acupuncture is better than so-called ‘sham’ acupuncture for pain” – where a stage-dagger needle prods the skin but doesn’t pierce it. Such tests have yet to be done to everyone’s satisfaction. But they might not be persuasive enough on their own anyway. Acupuncturists engage strongly with their patients, showing empathy and interest that is likely to elicit positive mental and emotional responses. They also recommend lifestyle changes that could account for a reduction in pain. It’s hard to control for such a “super placebo” effect, Bishop admits. So while the bookie’s odds on this one are relatively short, evidence that will convince them to pay out may be hard to find. Bookie’s odds: 5/1 Conclusive proof that acupuncture works universally as a treatment for pain relief Human clones In the past few decades we have cloned cows, mice, chickens and, most famously, sheep: we have extracted the DNA from a living animal and inserted it into an egg with its nucleus removed, to make an identical copy of the animal. So are humans next? Some argue human cloning could “resurrect” a lost child, or be a source of organs or tissue for someone with an incurable illness. Ethically speaking, it’s a minefield, but there are many technical hurdles, too. Cloning is hard to perfect and live births are elusive. Dolly was the first success in a batch of 277 attempts to clone a sheep that lived to adulthood. She mated and gave birth to lambs normally, but developed osteoarthritis and died from a lung condition relatively young, aged 6. That might just have been bad luck: other sheep cloned later from the same source lived to ripe old ages. Subtleties with humans make things more complicated. In primates, spindle proteins, structures vital for cell division, sit very close to the nucleus. These tend to get damaged when the original cell nucleus is extracted, diminishing the chance of cells dividing without catastrophic errors. Alison Murdoch of Newcastle University is one of only two researchers in the UK with a licence to clone human embryos. She says she’s not aware of any serious scientific, ethically approved program working on human cloning. To her eyes, the bookie’s assessment seems rather optimistic. “As a scientist, I can’t ever say never but I estimate the odds being close to zero.” Bookie’s odds: 10/1 A viable human clone by 2027 Psychedelics licensed as pharmaceuticals The evidence is piling up: mind-altering drugs help people with stress disorders and depression, or those with a terminal illness. So how do you lock ravers up for taking ecstasy while simultaneously condoning its use in traumatised soldiers? The dilemma has made it difficult to research substances such as MDMA, aka ecstasy, and psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms. Getting hold of and storing the drugs requires expensive licences, secure storage facilities, not to say laborious access and accounting procedures. Still, things are only moving one way, says Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London, who last year conducted the first clinical trial of psilocybin as a treatment for depression. “I think it’s quite heavily odds on that a government somewhere will approve psilocybin as a therapeutic by 2025,” says Carhart-Harris. “If I could get evens, I’d put most of my savings on it.” Bookie’s odds: 14/1 All Class A drugs to be licensed for medical use in the UK Commercial nuclear fusion A huge doughnut-shaped reactor under construction in the south of France represents humanity’s best hope of taming the power of the sun. But there’s an old joke about nuclear fusion: it’s four decades away, and always has been. “Fusion is a difficult business,” says Thomas Klinger of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany. ITER, the French project, isn’t exactly breeding confidence. The internationally funded “tokamak” reactor is 11 years behind schedule, and is now due to start up properly in 2027. Despite its $20 billion price tag, it’s only a demonstration model, not generating enough power to be connected to the grid. Nuclear fusion as a significant energy source within 10 years seems a long shot. Unless one of ITER’s rivals can strike gold. Klinger works on the billion-Euro Wendelstein 7-X “stellarator”, a doughnut with added twists and turns. Its plan is to achieve 30 minutes’ continuous operation in 2021, but it too is just a demonstration model. The immediate prospects of any of the numerous smaller fusion start-ups seems similarly doubtful. “The so-called ‘alternative schemes’ have no scientific basis to be faster than tokamak or stellarator,” says Klinger. For Klinger, the lack of progress has a simple explanation: lack of funding, over the past four decades to be precise. For this bet to come off, someone will need to punt a few billion. Bookie’s odds: 20/1 Nuclear fusion power to be the predominant source for electricity worldwide Perpetual motion machines Roger Shawyer is not shy of making predictions for his invention, the EmDrive. “If you are asking what is the probability of a commercial EmDrive by 2025, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is 100 per cent,” he says. His confidence comes from “knowledge of existing commercial projects”. Many people would wager against that: they claim the EmDrive is nothing but a perpetual motion machine. It consists of a cone-shaped chamber where bouncing microwaves generate a small thrust that pushes the narrow end of the cone away from the wider end – movement from nothing according to the critics, in contravention of all known laws of physics. A NASA evaluation of the EmDrive published last year did find a net force acting, albeit only around 1.2 millinewtons per kilowatt of electricity, far less than conventional electrically-driven thrusters can produce. One suggestion made in the report is that an as-yet unsubstantiated hidden process in quantum theory (see “Proof there’s no quantum weirdness”) might offer an explanation. That is somewhat reminiscent of the “law of conservation of mysteries”: explaining one mystery by invoking another completely unproven phenomenon. John Baez, a mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside, is unconvinced: the idea the EmDrive can work as claimed is “graduate-level baloney”, he says. That’s certainly the bookies’ take on perpetual motion machines. Bookie’s odds: 5000/1 Construction of a perpetual motion machine Proof there’s no quantum weirdness Quantum theory is a bookie’s theory: it never tells you what’s going to happen, only what the odds are. That’s a bit of a downer for a theory that, mathematically at least, is meant to explain the fundamentals of our world, where things definitely happen and causes have definite effects, or so it seems. There are various unsatisfactory explanations for quantum theory’s vagueness. The dominant “Copenhagen” interpretation, for example, says there is no meaningful physical reality until we make an observation or measurement. In the “many worlds” interpretation, by contrast, all possible states of reality actually do occur, and what we see is a manifestation of interference between these parallel universes. An alternative is that there is a more concrete, physical explanation for quantum weirdness – some “hidden variable” that we can’t yet see and that calls reality’s shots. Almost since quantum theory’s beginnings, a small band of physicists, notably Einstein and exiled American David Bohm, have championed this view, albeit with a notable lack of success so far. Might we ever make such a breakthrough? Basil Hiley of Birkbeck, University of London, who worked with Bohm, says we’re not there yet. “I know of no hidden variable theory that provides a completely satisfactory account of quantum phenomena,” he says. And the odds that might change any time soon? “I cannot answer with a one-liner.” We may yearn for a theory we understand a little better, but it seems we need to learn to live with it for now. Bookie’s odds: 50/1 Proof of a “realistic” interpretation of quantum theory A Better Theory of Gravity We invented dark matter, an unseen substance that outweighs normal matter by more than four to one, to explain why gravity doesn’t work – why, for example, galaxies and galaxy clusters whirl around far faster than they would if there were only visible matter there. Yet despite decades of searching, we have found no peep of the stuff. Perhaps our understanding of gravity is wrong instead? Dark-matter sceptic Stacy McGaugh of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, is wary of getting any bets to stick. “I’ve been down this road before,” he says. In 1999, he publicly wagered that close analysis of features in the cosmic microwave background, the radiation left over from the big bang, would disprove the then-standard model of dark matter. It did – then the model changed. “Free parameters were pulled out of the bag, knobs were dialled, data were fitted,” he says. McGaugh has published various further tests of his ideas, but still no one has bitten. His latest wager is that he can predict the distribution of individual stars’ velocities within a dwarf galaxy “without any reference to a fictitious dark matter component”. But, he says, “The trick is finding someone who will take the contrary bet, and actually stick to it.” Bookie’s odds: 66/1 Proof dark matter doesn’t exist Alien contact In Hollywood, aliens are all over the place: here to take over the planet, save us from ourselves, or just passing by. In the real world, not so much. We have yet to get a convincing signal from extraterrestrials, despite several telescopes looking. The closest thing was the Wow! signal, spotted by Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in 1977. A continuous radio signal observed over 72 seconds, Wow! is still to be explained, although last year, Antonio Paris of St Petersburg College in Florida suggested it came from a comet. That doesn’t deter Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California. SETI experiments are gaining in power and number, he says, and by 2030 we should be well set up to receive alien broadcasts. “By that date, assuming that funding to do the work can be found, we’ll have checked out roughly a million stellar systems for signals,” he says. He is personally willing to stake only a cup of coffee on a discovery, though. Milan Circovic, a SETI researcher at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, is similarly sceptical in the short term. He puts the odds of detection at no more than 5 per cent by 2030 – although “by the end of the century, I would give the odds no less than 50 per cent – barring nuclear winter, pandemics or abuse of nanotechnology which could destroy civilisation on Earth,” he says. So if we don’t get us, the aliens still might.

New Scientist, 10 May 2017 ;http://www.newscientist.com/ ;