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Science


As 2013 was winding down, I asked Danielle Fong what she considered the biggest scientific breakthroughs in the last year.

Fong is the co-founder and chief scientist at LightSail Energy, a Khosla-backed company trying to reinvent the energy grid by storing excess energy in the form of compressed air. (Fascinating profile of Fong, who started college as a tween, and LightSail here.)

Fong’s answer arrived a little late for the obligatory wave of looking-back-at-the-year-that-was stories. But … the response was so compelling we decided to run it in full (edited lightly for clarity, length and to make Paul Graham look sexist — kidding!).

Stick through to the end for hints of some potentially exciting things coming up for LightSail, a company I’m planning to watch closely in 2014.

Danielle Fong, chief scientist at LightSail

Photo Credit: Robert Schlatter Danielle Fong, chief scientist at LightSail

My top two picks are, really, themes, and they represent a deepening of our understanding, and an increasing perfection of technology.

It’s hard to pin down exactly one “breakthrough.” The paradigmatic examples are in fact not what they seem.

For example, Alexander Fleming isn’t even the first one to have discovered or written about antibiotic properties of penicillin (as early as the 1870s the mould was written about). He was in a position to look for antibiotics, given his work on antibacterials during the war. And he made the initial discovery in 1928, abandoned clinical work on it in 1931, restarted in 1934, and continued to try to get a chemist to purify it until the 1940s. The development of antibiotics was not just one thing.

For that matter, the lightbulb was a filament, plus a vacuum, plus a high resistance, plus a whole electrical system — generator, mains, feeders, the works. Bulbs existed before Edison, but he brought a system forth to provide lighting.

And the Wright Brothers weren’t the first ones to have achieved flight, but heavier than air (Zeppelins were first) *controlled* flight. They needed to invent new flying paradigms, wing warping, new engines, new propellors, control systems, developed elevators and wings. They tested in wind tunnels, an invention of their own. It wasn’t just one thing — though there certainly was a moment of truth in the air!

Hence, themes. My two picks for the most exciting things in science last year:

1) Exoplanets! – so many worlds teeming with life, all in the sky, perhaps within reach.

So much happened this year. We are in a galaxy with perhaps 100 billion worlds, 17 billion “earth like.” The galaxy may be a fertile garden of life.

What’s driving all of this is an incredible refinement of the transit technique for the detection of exoplanets, culminating in the Kepler spacecraft.

Researchers are really finding their stride in data analysis and techniques, and a plethora of discoveries have resulted.

These discoveries have helped make it possible to imagine humanity spread throughout the stars, and innumerable worlds, and lifeforms abound, waiting to be discovered.

2) How Genes Really Work

Specifically, steadily increasing control and understanding. Take a look at how many of these advances listed here involve epigenetics or gene therapy or the discovery of an important gene or the sequencing of a new species or the use of genetic modification to understand a new organism.

We’re still only scratching the surface here. But genetics isn’t like computer code; it’s chemistry and systems science and ecology. Genes are regulated by the environment, and other genes, and genes regulate the environment in turn. We’re understanding more and more how to introduce genes into new lifeforms, how they’re expressed, regulated, how they mutate, change, how they fold (we caught a ribosome in mid fold!).

We can now even make machines — it is a stretch to call them robots — but machines, nanomachines, out of DNA. (See video below.)

I’m both excited and disappointed with my two picks. They give us amazing new capabilities — dreamt of for a long time, now made real. But they are not the broad new continents of possibility that some hope for in breakthroughs.

Personally, I think that at least one of three things I’ve been working on in 2013 should be on there, eventually. In the future, perhaps, on whatever Wikipedia page you’d read, you’d read that I came up with the idea in 2013. But since none of it is public, and none of it has been proven yet, you’ll only hear about it in a few years, and if LightSail is any indication, it will be another three years before anyone writes about it as a breakthrough, and another three until it is actually real.




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