Politically, 2016 has been a wildly, tumultuous year. We go into 2017 on a completely new footing. One that has many of us fearing we face a treacherous fall. Now is the time, more than ever, to reposition our global footing and keep climbing. It’s impossible to wrap up a year of writing a science column without talking politics. Deep and divisive political change is overshadowing science.
I just found out that a scientist whom I greatly admire is writing his first book. Only he’s not. He’s hired a writer to do the heavy lifting. The hired writer’s name won’t appear on the cover. He’s signed on the dotted line in the invisible ink. Ghostwriters don’t write about ghosts, but waft around in the background like them. Unlike real ghosts, such behind-the-scenes authors deal in reality, turning the ideas of ‘living’ authors into words for them to take credit for.
Even when speakers are proficient in English, Scientific English can still present challenges. Some bill it as ‘a foreign language’ even for native English speakers. Anyone who has learned how to use it might first laugh at that comparison and then grit their teeth on the grain of truth. Learning conversational English is a big enough task. Getting good enough to build a career in science fluently using Scientific English is a Herculean task.
Do you have back pain? Statistics show you likely do. Or you have had it in the past or will in the future. Back pain can be a million different things, and you can get it an equal number of ways. Until you’ve suffered it, you don’t realise how disruptive it can be. Trying to fix back pain is a superb way to make people understand the power of scientific method and how to use it.
We are all reeling from the vote for Brexit. No one in my scientific circle was for exit. Now all are heavily lamenting it. Even cursing it on Facebook. Scientists voted to stay. Seems the entire science sector was pro-Europe and for many good reasons. Many of the best UK science labs are filled with brilliant researchers from across the EU.
In science, perhaps the most famous recent award is for the prediction of the existence of the Higgs Boson particle, discovered at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Overall, the most famous recipient ever is likely Marie Curie. She went down in history as the first person to win two. She took Nobel Prizes in 1903 and 1911 for getting radium and polonium out of pitchblende, with her own elbow power.
But this question of conscience goes beyond science. There is one clear axis along which we are all asked to act in life – in favour of ‘self’ or ‘society’. Do we always do what is best when it comes to deciding the balance? In all pursuits there is an innate tension between the interests of self and society. This tension has existed as long as we’ve had human society of any complexity.
Many say now is the century of biology, the study of life. Genomics is therefore “front-and-centre”, as DNA, is the software of life. From staring at stars, we are now staring at DNA. We can’t use our eyes, like we do in star gazing, but just as telescopes show us the far reaches of the Universe, DNA sequencing machines are reading out our genomes at an astonishing pace.
2016 is a leap year. A leap year, or intercalary year, is a year with an extra day inserted to keep pace with the seasons. In the Gregorian calendar this falls every four years on Feb 29th. On Leap Day this year a wonderful piece of science was published about an equally rare part of nature – giant viruses.
Announced on January 13th by President Obama in his eighth and final State of the Union Address, the multi-billion dollar project will be led by US Vice President, Joe Biden, who has a vested interest in seeing new cures for cancer. Using genomics to cure cancer is being held on par with JFK’s desire in 1961 to land men on the moon.
2016 is here. The New Year is a time for renewal and resolution. It is also a time for dieting. Peak enrolment and attendance times at gyms occur after sumptuous holiday indulgences in December and again when beach wear is cracked out of cold storage in summer. As the obesity epidemic reaches across the globe we need new solutions. We need better ways to live healthy lifestyles.
Knowledge that we all have DNA and what this means is getting around. The informed public is well aware that our cells run on DNA software called the genome. This software is passed from parent to child, in the long line of evolutionary history that dates back billions of years – in fact, research published this year pushes back the origin of life on Earth another 300 million years.
It is hard to quantify the impact of ‘role-model’ celebrities on the acceptance and uptake of genetic testing and bio-literacy, but it is surely significant. Angelina Jolie is an Oscar-winning actress, Brad Pitt’s other half, mother, humanitarian, and now a “DNA celebrity”. She propelled the topic of familial breast cancer, female prophylactic surgery, and DNA testing to the fore.
Society owes a debt to Henrietta Lacks. Modern life benefits from long-term access to a small sample of her cells that contained incredibly unusual DNA. As Rebecca Skloot reports in her best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story that unfolded after Lacks died at the age of 31 is one of injustice, tragedy, bravery, innovation and scientific discovery.
Kuwait is changing the playing field. In early July, just days after the June 26th deadly Imam Sadiq mosque bombing claimed by ISIS, Kuwait ruled to instate mandatory DNA-testing for all permanent residents. This is the first use of DNA testing at the national-level for security reasons, specifically as a counter-terrorism measure. An initial $400 million dollars is set aside for collecting the DNA profiles of all 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million foreign residents
Today, the amount of global genetic data is doubling on the order of every seven months. This time span has shortened significantly over the past years as the field of genomics continues to mature. A recent study showed genomics is starting to compete with the data outputs of digital giants like Twitter and YouTube.