AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is an organization of scientists from a wide swath of disciplines all involved in advanced research. The scientific discoveries of the year are discussed here in papers and panel sessions. New breakthroughs in medicine and physics are revealed here to the press.
AAAS produces a monthly peer-reviewed journal called Science which is one of the primary vehicles the science community uses to publish research. Publication in Science is considered to be an official announcement of scientific progress. The yearly meeting is a not-to-be-missed event for either a researcher or reporter looking to disclose the latest breakthrough to the public.
This year the AAAS meeting was held at the McHenry Convention Center, which is a mere 15 minute drive from Chez Owl. The blonde-haired girl had registered and signed up for a variety of workshops. She's looking for a job in science, and there is no better place to rub elbows with the science community - or the media reporting on science - than the AAAS conference. So she spent all day Thursday striking up conversations and handing out business cards. On Saturday I attended the AAAS meeting so that I wouldn't have to sit around alone in the house watching YouTube videos or reading physics text books (I'm studying General Relativity these days.) It was 78 degrees and sunny. Between sessions, we overheard scientists and media people discussing the foul weather back at their homes while my blonde wife sat giddy with joy that we could spend Valentine's day in the best way possible - absorbing science.
This does not seem like a normal romantic impulse to me. Rather, it seems like something from the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which has more actual parallels to my life than I could care to admit. But there it is.
It cost me $225 to get a day pass to the conference. The steep price is to keep out the riff-raff, I suppose. But not enough to keep me from letting them swipe my AMEX while I wondered what Valentine's-y things I could have done that day with $225 rather than gaining access to lectures and seminars for 12 hours. Amazing to me is that the wife didn't want another dozen roses or dinner at the expensive Greek place in town.
So let my financial burden be your gain. There are many parallel tracks of lectures and a schedule that runs from Thursday through Monday. I was only able to attend four 1.5 hour sessions on Saturday, so this is far from a complete accounting. I only attended one session in its entirety - and that's the one on the prospects for the second run of the LHC. The others I only attended for about 1 hour each while I scrambled through conference center while wading through the dense program handouts. They also had an extensive vendor exhibit area (mostly technical book & software publishers) where I was convinced to part with $99 to join AAAS. I also picked up some NASA SWAG that was pretty cool.
The results of the panel discussion on "geoengineering to mitigate climate change" were picked up by the press and published on Sunday. Undoubtedly you'll find a much more cogent accounting for the discussions done by professional journalists. I'll give you the opinion-laden, iceowl-E2 take.
The scientists of the world are getting weary of the climate change debate. To them, arguing against the reality of the affect of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations is like arguing against pi. The ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is a difficult irrational number, irrespective of how the legislature of the state of Kansas feels about it. To atmospheric scientists, geologists, biologists, climatologists, chemists, and anyone who takes seriously the investigation of the physical universe - arguing global warming is a gargantuan expenditure of effort and you can see the wear lines on their faces when they speak about it.
To the attendees at the AAAS, modifiction of the earth's climate is a known. It's a truth. The argumentation is now something for politicians and talk shows. They have moved on to, "what happens next?"
The what happens next - apparently - is the risk that somewhere there are people who have a lot to lose when the oceans rise and that they might try to do something about it. The U.S. Military has already advised the president and congress that climate change presents a clear threat to the security of the USA. Nations who are now facing major geographical modification might lash out at the countries they feel are responsible for the most CO2 emissions.
In addition to the military threat, there is a more subtle but yet ever so diabolical technical threat. One speaker from UCLA called it "The Dr. Evil Affect."
The debate on climate change to date has centered around carbon emissions. This is why the major oil interests have spawned massive campaigns against the very concept that CO2 emissions drive climate change. That debate has vast economic impact and those interests have used the time-honored tactic of pitting religion versus science (think : Galileo vs. the Catholic Inquisition) to advance their case.
While the carbon-emission conversation has dominated the bandwidth on the subject - there is another angle on the subject that has gone unnoticed. And why? Because the scientists feel that the mere mention of the idea will send the political world into a tailspin and hamstring the science for an extended period, after which attempting science will be moot (sort of like global warming). Thus the scientists at this session stated they wondered if they would even bring up the idea of funding to research the topic of Geoengineering for fear of the consequences.
What they are talking about is this: you can spray various sulfate compounds into the stratosphere and create giant clouds of chemicals that will reflect back into space a big piece of the sun's infrared emissions. That is - you can increase the albedo of the planet, make it more reflective, and therefore bounce a lot of the sun's warmth right back into outer space. Apparently, the technology to do this is well within the reach of anyone with a couple billion dollars.
The questions the scientists brought to the table were first the obvious: what happens if you do that? Would it just simply balance out the CO2-driven warming, and keep everything stable? Or, more likely, would it drive the climate past yet another tipping point and bring on an ice age, or worse, the equivalent of a nuclear winter?
The problem is that nobody knows, and nobody wants to ask for funding for research to looking into this because the mere idea of it will send various politicians, nations, and concerned-rich-people, into a frenzy of well-or-ill-intentioned activity. And the intention of that activity might be detrimental to some, or all of the earth.
For instance, could such technology be used as a weapon? Could China freeze the US, reducing climate heating, while leaving themselves untouched to emit carbon for decades to come? The island nation, Vanuatu, faces total immersion in the Pacific. Could they enlist the help of a well meaning billionaire to seed the atmosphere to prevent the ice caps from melting, while throwing the northern and southern hemispheres into a mini-ice-age? Could India unilaterally decide they would rather not see the southern half of the subcontinent submerged in the Indian ocean and use their satellite capability to cool the planet?
And what of the ecological result of all these sulfates eventually reaching the surface?
Or, could bringing up this discussion at all divert attention from the root cause of climate change: carbon emission?
No new antibotics for human use have been discovered/developed since 1987. Since then the bacteria we fight with these chemicals have mutated and become resistant. There are now versions of common diseases which are resistant to literally everything we have at our disposal.
Before the introduction of peniclilin, 45% of all deaths in the western world were due to infection. Afterward, this number dropped to single digits. Current global trends point to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria driving up death by infection back to where it was before penicillin.
Development of new antibiotics is not profitable. Drug companies are more likely to put their research money into development of drugs which are used to treat chronic conditions. Cholesterol, blood-pressure, and sexual function meds are much more profitable as the user is guaranteed to consume them for a lifetime. Conversely, antibiotics are only used for a brief period. When the infection clears up, the customer is gone.
Government funding for all research is drying up in the US as fiscal conservatism tends to focus on reducing scientific investment. With both the government and private sector focusing elsewhere, the danger of drug resistant organisms grows yearly. We now face staph infection we cannot treat. Untreatable Tuberculosis. Compound all of this with the current trend in the US to avoid vaccination of children, and the dangers quickly multiply.
And this problem has a second parametric axis - that is - use of antibiotics in the food chain. A typical US farmed salmon has consumed its entire weight in antibiotics by the time is makes it to your dinner plate. The largest consumer of antibiotics in the US is the cattle industry - both beef and dairy.
Europe has taken great strides to reduce the introduction of antibiotics into their food supply. But US and Asian interests have resisted almost completely.
This use of anti-bacterial drugs drives the generation of drug resistant strains of bacteria against which we, a modern society with all the percs of technology at our disposal, are utterly powerless.
Diversity in Science Policy
I was not able to attend this entire discussion but it consisted of a fascinating group of science "diplomats" who debated the current issues in international science focus. In attendance were the Prime Minister's science advisor from the UK, an advisor to Obama from US, and the French, German, and New Zealand ministers of science and technology.
These people mostly argued with each other, politely, about the differing focus each nation has on particular areas of interest. I am certain a thorough and cogent treatment of these topics are available in the legitimate press on the web. But let me sum up my take away from the one point I witnessed thoroughly, thus:
The German Minister of Science mentioned that his nation had utterly outlawed the use of dogs in medical experimentation. Therefore, they had saved the lives of millions of canines to the delight of the German voters.
Meanwhile, Japan and China require proof of tests on dogs before any drug/chemical/cosmetic can be introduced to their population. Thus, the German cosmetic, drug, and chemical industries have placed themselves out of the markets of the largest pools of Asian consumers in the world.
Discussing Science with Religious Students
Unfortunately, I was able to attend only a small fraction of this discussion. But the summation was this - some members of the AAAS have created a website where the objections of various religious dominations are characterized and correlated. For instance, you might be able to open a dialog with someone of the Jehova's Witness faith on the ideas of dark matter in the universe, but they will be utterly closed on issues of anthropology or medicine.
In any case, as you would expect from the science and engineering communities - the approach they have taken is one of mechanization and categorization. If you're looking to publish something, and you wonder what the objection will be from a particular religious sector, you can go to a speciic website (unfortunately I do not have the path at this time) and with a couple clicks figure out how they are going to object to your research.
What's next for the LHC
The Large Hadron Collider has been off line for almost 2 years undergoing renovation after the Higgs result. It will come on line again next month with higher beam energy and luminescence. That is - they have raised the maximum energy per collision from 8Tev to ~13Tev, and they have raised the overall luminosity by an order of magnitude. That means - each proton-proton collision will have ~50% more impact (as much as a freight train, they say), but even better is that there will be 10x more particles whipping around the beam than before. That means 10x more collisions, and they will each be higher energy. In addition they can accelerate more than just protons - such as lead ions, which are hundreds of times more massive. Smashing heavy atomic nuclei into things yields more impact - literally - than just single protons (the nucleus of the Hydrogen atom) and there is a diverse list of experiments that will benefit from that.
The plan for the LHC extends to 2050 with four multi-year upgrade breaks, and 4 multi-year runs, during which time the beam luminosity will increase by 1000x and the energy will increase to about 15Tev.
What do they think they will discover?
Well, in addition to the Higgs boson they've discovered a multitude of new baryons (particles consisting of 3 quarks - like protons and neutrons) and certainly at higher energies there will be even more to come. There's the possibility they may find some of the particles they predict for supersymmetry which might begin to unlock the mystery of dark matter.
Also, they announced that there is some additional work that needs to go on in the area of the Higgs boson discovery. The weight of the Higgs has not been precisely determined. In fact, at one point they thought they might have found a more weighty cousin-particle to the Higgs. But for now they're considering that "statistical error," rather than a discovery. The higher energy of the LHC will put that to rest.
But the truth is they don't know what to expect, and several of the scientists pointed to that fact as part of the pure joy of the work. None of them wants a "complete" theory. They love the idea that they will obtain unexpected results and that the universe will be a tremendous puzzle to decypher beyond our lifetimes.
So for those of us who yearn for the ultimate answer to everything - for now we'll all have to be satisfied with 42. Because we're not even close to an answer.
The question in this lowly owl's mind after seeing the presentations and sitting in the same room with all those famous researchers is this:
Why 17? Why are there 17 particles in the list of subatomic particles of matter/antimatter?
Seventeen is such a weird number. In addition to being odd it's prime. You would think things came in pairs? Or in some multiple of a fundamental mathematical constant, like the Planck Mass or Newton's Gravitational constant.
To me it's weird they're happy with 17. But - if there's any reality to supersymmetry then there are actually 34 subatomic particles and that feels oddly complex, but at least there's a pair for everything.