With 2017 in its concluding days, NewsClick reviews how the last year has been in terms of scientific developments and discourse. While the year saw scientific progress with some amazing discoveries, we have also regressed as we continue to fail to take serious action to combat climate change. In India, myths and science continue to be mixed and confused with a nationalist government in charge, intent on promoting Hindutva at the expense of logic and rational thought.
Here, we sum up the year 2017 in science:
Credits: NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
Perhaps the most important discovery this year was when observatories throughout the world witnessed the collision of two neutron stars. This observation led to scientists gaining important information about gravitational waves and the formation of elements heavier than iron. It also tested Einstein’s relativity theory further than ever before.
Apart from this, astrophysics this year was marked with several discoveries of exoplanets, including an entire system similar to our solar system. We might be closer than ever before to finding alien life.
Humanity also took huge strides towards gene editing. New breakthroughs were made in this field in the form of base editing — a technique that lets us make precise changes in DNA. It allows for switching DNA base pairs, and can pave the way towards curing untreatable genetic disorders.
An experiment to eradicate malaria has been proposed in India, by introducing genetically modified mosquitoes in the wild. These mosquitoes will be modified to resist the parasite that causes malaria, hence stopping its spread. The environmental and ecological impact of this experiment, however, is unknown. This change to the environment will be irreversible, and the modified mosquitoes will spread throughout the planet.
Artificial intelligence has continued to progress. While these developments are remarkable, they are wreaking havoc on employment with increasing automation. India’s IT industry witnessed huge lay-offs, a lot of which were due to automation made possible by AI.
An interesting technique was formulated to make AI perform language translations without any human intervention or training.
UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) met to discuss rules that should govern Lethal Autonomous Weapons. These weapons take decisions using AI. They identify targets and launch attacks without any human interference. While the Convention did not call for an outright ban, most nations did agree on the need for a “legally binding instrument.”
In other areas as well, AI is making decisions that should be made by humans. While backers of AI say that algorithms will be more objective than humans, experts have observed that human biases get coded into these algorithms, with the persistence of racial and cultural prejudices.
Credits: National Geographic
Coming to climate change, the year saw disappointing commitments towards the planet’s future. Conflicts between developed and developing nations continued in COP23 this year. No significant action was taken or promised for combating this global crisis. While Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the United States persisted to make the rules for the Agreement as watered down and weak as possible.
In India, as a further blow to the changing climate, the Modi-led BJP government has been on a rampant path of granting developmental and infrastructural projects without environmental damage assessments. Forests are being struck down, with the government being of the opinion that planting trees in other areas can make up for the loss of these ecological systems.
With the rise of right wing forces in our country, science is seeing some hard times. Funding cuts for important research centres and universities sparked country-wide protests. While this was happening, unscientific thoughts and research were given more space and recognition.
Many new studies, however, debunked Hindutva claims. A study of genetics of South Asian population showed that there were significant migrations from Eurasia into India. This disproves the myth propagated by religious ideologues that the Indo-Aryan languages originated on the Indian landmass, not from immigrants.
Last month, a teaser of a Science Channel show, What on Earth? went viral in India. It suggested that there is new evidence that the Ram Setu could be man-made. It was circulated by BJP union ministers as well. No one, however, waited for the entire story before making loud proclamations of Hindutva victory. The episode, when it came out, had a small 4 minute segment on the Ram Setu, which ended by saying that new studies are being performed which can shed light on how the structure was formed. No evidence proving the nature of Ram Setu, man-made or otherwise, was presented.
2017 has seen fascinating ups and downs in science. But with increasing influence of right wing forces across the world, scientific thought and temper will continue to face challenges. We end this year with the hope that 2018 will fare better for the climate, and for rational thought everywhere.