Tue. May 30th, 2023
LIGO, the facility that made the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves - and possibly dark matter.

LIGO, the facility that made the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves – and possibly dark matter.

It’s a new year, but it’s not just any new year. 2015 will be a huge year for scientific exploration and discovery plus science policy. There are some important decisions that will be made this year on climate change, three parents in vitro fertilization, and more. Those momentous decisions will hopefully be matched by discoveries no less historic. Both the LHC and LIGO will reopen, potentially opening new horizons for physics and astronomy, while NASA will begin visiting dwarf planets and preparing another journey to Mars.

In addition to these major projects, other cutting-edge laboratories will open, advances will be made in understanding our evolutionary history, and new medical advances promise to improve lives. With so much going on, we thought it would be a good time to outline some of the developments we look forward to in 2015.

Much of this information comes from two new pieces in the magazine Naturebut we have expanded them with our own resources.

Advances in the medical field

In 2015, Sally Davies, UK Chief Medical Officer, will push through the World Health Organization for an agreement to tackle antimicrobial resistance. She notes in one Nature piece that, as the effectiveness of antibiotics diminishes over time, a lack of preparedness wreaks significant havoc. But with strong diplomatic efforts and the support of the British government, Davies hopes to reach a global agreement on practices that will mitigate the problem and promote new treatments. “I want to see global action by the end of 2015,” she writes.

Pharmaceutical companies have been competing to market drugs that lower cholesterol, and two of them appear set for approval this year. The drugs have already been shown to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in clinical trials, and both are assured of rapid assessment. The decisions are expected in the summer.

In 2015 further progress will be made in the fight against Ebola. Vaccine trials are already underway, with results expected in June. Several drugs are being tested, as well as treatments using blood from Ebola survivors, which is rich in antibodies that neutralize the virus. If proven effective, the blood treatments can be rolled out quickly and effectively. In the meantime, health workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will need to continue to expand the use of proven measures — such as rapid identification and isolation of those infected — to bring the Ebola epidemic to an end.

The LHC reboots

The Large Hadron Collider will restart in March after two years of inactivity. Incredible as the massive particle accelerator was, the last two years (and £97m/$145.9m) have been spent upgrading it. Before the refit, the LHC discovered the Higgs boson, which plays a role in imparting mass to other particles.

The Higgs was the last particle predicted by the Standard Model that had not yet been discovered, meaning we have completed the model’s series of particle predictions. Now that the model is a great success, what is the next step? Tear it off. OK, maybe the next mission won’t be as dramatic, but researchers will now try to find particle behavior that the Standard Model doesn’t cover.

The upgraded LHC will produce collisions at 13 trillion electron volts, nearly double the previous peak. With such high energies, it’s possible we could find unexpected particles or discover what’s behind dark matter. “When we turn on with these new higher energies, we should be able to produce new particles and look for new processes, if they exist,” Dave Charlton, spokesman for the ATLAS project, told the BBC. radio show Today.

One model likely to be affected by the LHC’s next set of experiments is supersymmetry, which, despite its appeal with many physicists, has not gained support from the latest round of LHC experiments. Those experiments failed to find evidence for the predicted particles of supersymmetry, since the model predicts a number of particles that are counterparts of the Standard Model particles (but with different spin values). Failing to find evidence for the predicted particles of supersymmetry in the LHC’s upcoming experiments could be the final nail in the coffin for some of the most popular versions of the model.

New laboratories

A number of new scientific laboratories will be opened in 2015. The Francis Crick Institute, a multidisciplinary medical research institute, will open in London in November. With 1,250 researchers, it will help us “understand why disease develops and find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, infections and neurodegenerative diseases,” according to the institute’s website.

Further north, the National Graphene Institute will open at the University of Manchester this spring. The institute, as the name implies, will work with graphene, a carbon material that is amazingly strong (about 100 times stronger than steel) despite being only one atom thick. For comparison, a sheet of paper is about a million atoms thick.

Graphene can be used to build everything from lightweight aircraft components to flexible touchscreens. The new institute hopes to be a springboard to eventually creating a ‘graphene city’.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Allen Institute for Cell Science opens its doors in Seattle, Washington. Funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, the site will host scientists interested in delving into the world of the human cell.

Agreement on climate change

Amidst all the breakthroughs, milestones, and discoveries we look forward to in 2015, a darker milestone is inevitable: Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas whose presence traps heat in the atmosphere, should reach 400 parts per million this year. It is the first time in millions of years that carbon dioxide has reached that level.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to climate change. In 2014, the United States and China, the world’s largest producers of carbon dioxide, signed a historic agreement to reduce their emissions. And at the United Nations talks in December, we hope that these and other countries will sign a legally binding post-2020 agreement. “Never before has there been such public support to act and the political will to act,” Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), wrote in a piece published in the journal popped up Nature.

Whatever decision is made in December will be historic and we will feel the effects for quite some time to come. “What happens in the run-up to Paris will shape the quality of life of future generations more than ever before,” Figueres said.

A skeleton of Homo heidelbergensis from the cave in question.
Enlarge / A skeleton of Homo heidelbergensis from the cave in question.


Old people

What about real science? Paleogeneticists have been hard at work deciphering the genome of an ancient, 400,000-year-old human. The specimen was found in the cave Sima de los Huesos (pit of bones), located in northern Spain. In 2013, the specimen’s mitochondrial genome was decoded, a feat that required an incredible effort given the bone’s decayed state. Now the researchers want to go further and get their hands on the complete genome.

This will be even more difficult, as nuclear DNA is very scarce in the remains. But completing the task comes with a reward: The specimen could hold the key to figuring out the complex evolutionary relationships between humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans and how they are related to Homo erectusthe species that preceded them.

LIGO upgrade

Gravitational waves are an exciting theoretical phenomenon. When objects with strong gravitational fields move vigorously (such as two co-orbiting supermassive black holes, for example), they can emit waves of gravity. These waves can travel at the speed of light and cause very small, almost imperceptible distortions in the space they pass through. To detect such a wave, extremely sensitive instruments are needed. Until now, efforts to do this have relied on powerful interferometers.

An interferometer is a device that can measure distance changes very accurately. It does this by sending lasers to two identical arms and bouncing them back, eventually checking to see if one laser took longer than the other to complete its journey.

No ordinary interferometer is sensitive enough to detect a gravitational wave. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) is an extremely sensitive interferometer, but so far it has not been able to definitively detect any gravitational wave. This is not entirely surprising, as even with LIGO’s sensitivity, the waves would be difficult to detect. But like the LHC, the three facilities that make up LIGO have been upgraded. By the end of the year, they will become more sensitive than ever.

Observing gravitational waves would not only provide crucial details for our understanding of how the universe works, it would also be a new tool for astronomy, potentially allowing astronomers to glimpse phenomena they cannot observe by using different wavelengths of light. Among other things, it could allow us to take a closer look at the Big Bang.

In addition to LIGO, the European Space Agency’s own gravitational wave detector, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), will begin testing similar technologies for detecting the waves this fall.

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.