Five Things We’ve Learned From Science

Because there’s not been much progress in the fundamentals of physics – the Standard Model is still essentially the same as it was 30 years ago – it can sometimes feel that we’ve not learned that much new recently. Sure, we have a lot of exciting technology, particular computers and smart phones, but these are all operationalistions of existing basic science rather than based on anything new.

I think this is a classic example of the current time paradox, where we see what’s happening now as unexceptional and don’t notice all the things that are actually transformative. So in celebration of science marching on, here are five new things we’ve learned that we simply didn’t know when I was a child.

Extrasolar planets. For me this is the biggest and most exciting. When I was young, we literally had no idea as to whether there were planets round other stars. Now we’ve detected hundreds; we know that planets are actually pretty common and even have some idea of what they look like (their size, at least). I’ve sure this is behind the recent upsurge in slower-than-light science fiction: the universe has just become a little bit smaller.

Genetics is more complicated than we thought. I remember the human genome project and how we thought at the time that this would unlock the whole of human biology. Well, that was an impressive project – and now we’ve mapped thousands of genomes of different species – but even more interesting is the way we’ve discovered how complicated the whole thing is, going far beyond ‘this section of DNA codes for a protein and that’s it’. Overlapping genes, ‘junk’ DNA being less junk than we’d thought, the whole fields of proteomics and epigenetics – a whole new vista has opened since the ’90s.

Neutrinos have mass. I don’t know what implications this has, mainly because we’ve still not discovered how to do a whole lot with neutrinos, but it feels pretty fundamental. This was discovered in 1998, so I can really remember books going from ‘we don’t really know if neutrinos have mass’ to actually learning how they acquire mass in third year physics.

AI. You could put this down as a technology – and it is – but there’s a real element of discovery, too. People used to claim that once a computer wouldn’t be able to beat humans at chess until we had real AI – well, they’ve beaten us at Go now, and we’re still clearly not there. It’s a fascinating field: we’ve made huge strides in computer’s abilities, from IBM’s Watson to self-driving cars, but also learned a lot about what broad-spectrum intelligence means, and how sophisticated it is.

Bose-Einstein concentrates. We’ve discovered a huge amount about super-cooled states and condensed matter. The new state of matter that is a Bose-Einstein concentrate (essentially a macroscopic state that shows quantum properties), the slowing and halting of light in 2001 and more – these seem to be pushing at the edges of knowledge in a way the nuclear physicists were in the mid-20th century.