New year, new science

What does 2019 hold for science?
08 January 2019

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What science would you like to see in 2019?


Chris Smith asked Richard Hollingham, Anne-Laura Van Harmelen, Giles Yeo and Francesca day what breakthrough, development or discovery, they would really like to see happen in 2019.

Richard - I would really like to see Virgin Galactic succeed in flying space tourists or maybe even Richard Branson into space properly. Just before Christmas they managed 50 miles high in their test spacecraft. I hope they can keep doing this successfully, so the whole space tourism market starts to take off. This isn't just a plug for Virgin Galactic. This is because I have a bet with a friend that Virgin Galactic are going to do it because he was convinced they never going to do this. But also the more companies that get involved in space, particularly these more innovative space plane type technologies, then that's going to really drive down the cost of access to space and maybe one day we can all go into space.

Chris - I used to think I really wanted to go into space, but then since I met you and I've thought about it a lot more and you introduced me to the exigencies of space and you put your wife in a human centrifuge etc., I've lost the inclination.

Richard - Space is horrible, really really really horrible. My favorite quote is from Star Trek, from McCoy in Star Trek, “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” .

Chris - Francesca you work on things in space, you’re an astrophysicist, so what would you like to see happening in the year ahead?

Francesca - Well if we're wishing for things, I would like to see one of the many experiments that are searching for the identity of dark matter come up with a positive signal and then we might finally find out what it is.

Chris - Why does it actually matter that we understand this? If we know we've existed,
we have no problem existing in our cosmic neighborhood, why do we need to know what this mystery stuff is all about?

Francesca - Well firstly because I really want to know and I think a lot of other people feel the same way. There's just this real drive to uncover how the universe works. Secondly, on a more practical level. Anything we can do that helps us uncover the laws of physics I think it's actually very likely to have technological applications that at this stage we could really only dream of.

Chris - Talking of brains and dreaming, terrible segue I know, but Anne-Laura, anything you would like to see solved and in 2019?

Anne-Laura - Yeah. Good segue-way. I'd like to see scientists use or harness social media in order to better identify adolescents who are at risk for mental health problems.

Chris - Why is this an issue? Not that they have a problem but why is it an issue spotting them?

Anne-Laura - It's an issue spotting them because we don't really know what makes adolescents vulnerable to mental health disorders and especially we don't know what the critical at risk behaviors are. And we haven't really been looking at social media in order to answer that question. I think that that is a really new thing that we can harness and it will give us lots of new information.

Chris - A radical change in the way that we all live our lives isn't it.

Anne-Laura - Yes.

Chris - And Giles?

Giles - I'd like to see us better model the human brain in a dish, like converting stem cells either into neurons themselves which we can do now or actually make brain organoids. The reason why is because I study obesity, that's what I study, and obesity, as we'll talk about perhaps later, is a brain disease, it involves genes within the brain. And obviously if we're trying to study it, at the moment we're using models, we can't legally get into a human brain while they're still alive for obvious reasons and so we need better technology in order to ask the questions in a human context.

Chris - And ask a petri dish why it wants to get fat?

Giles - Exactly. We get Anne-Laura coming in and saying why do you think you're getting fat?

Chris - Giles thank you. While you sort of think about all of that, we have a little guess who game, which we're going to play right across the program for everyone at home to listen to. What we do is give you a sequence of clues as the hour unfolds and you have to try and work out what this thing is. I'll tell you for free it's an animal. The first clue is: this is what it sounds like. Any clues? We'll give you a bit more information later on as the program goes. But for now let's start with this question for you Richard.


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