Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A science news preview of 2014

As the new year begins, the BBC's science and environment journalists look ahead to what we can expect to see in the headlines in 2014.

David Shukman, science editor

With the fastest supercomputer in the world and a rover exploring the Moon, Chinese science is enjoying an unstoppable rise. And it's backed by spending on a scale that would turn most Western scientists green with envy.

One leading British scientist likens China to the United States in the late 20th Century with a large population, huge resources and boundless energy - and 'look what America produced in terms of science'. So watch out for advances in everything from cloning to robotics to spaceflight.

The scramble for energy, exacerbated by Chinese growth, is bound to throw up further controversy in the coming year. Russia's arrest of Greenpeace activists and Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices are both reflections of mounting tension over the future of fuel.

The Arctic is only one of several frontlines: Africa is emerging as a major new source of oil and gas as well. And, as prices rise for the most-needed resources, expect the launch of a new gold rush in a realm many would regard as too precious to touch: the ocean floor.

Jonathan Amos, science correspondent

There is little doubt in my mind where the excitement is going to come from in 2014 in the realm of space exploration. It is Europe's Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is 10 years since the Esa probe was dispatched to rendezvous with the 4km-wide hunk of ice, but the long engagement is very nearly over and the marriage ceremony is about to begin.

Rosetta will be woken from hibernation on 20 January. And after a period of instrument check-out and some rendezvous manoeuvres, the spacecraft should find itself in the vicinity of 67P in August. Mapping and remote-sensing will then be followed by an audacious attempt to put a lander, called Philae, on the comet's surface in November.

This will occur some 450 million km from the Sun. Assuming Philae gets down successfully, it will try to ride 67P on its sweep into the inner Solar System.

How long Philae can withstand any outgassing as the ices heat up on approach to our star is anyone's guess. But the little lander will try to hang on for as long as possible with the aid of ice screws and harpoons. This is one space rodeo you won't want to miss.

Rebecca Morelle, science correspondent, BBC World Service

2014 could be the year when scientists shed a spotlight on dark matter. Mysterious particles of this dark 'stuff' are thought to make up about a quarter of the Universe. But clear-cut evidence has proven elusive.

Early next year, the Large Underground Xenon detector (LUX), which is located at the bottom of a gold mine in South Dakota, will be switched on again. The results from its first phase have confirmed that it's the most powerful experiment of its kind - and during its next 300-day run it is set to probe deeper than ever before in the hunt for this enigmatic substance.

The prime candidates for dark matter are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles - or WIMPs. Most of the time, these are thought to stream through the Universe without interacting with anything. But scientists think that on very rare occasions these ghost-like WIMPs do bump into regular matter - and it's these collisions that LUX will aim to detect.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $2bn experiment that is positioned on the International Space Station, is also searching - in a distinct way. The first results, announced in April 2013, were encouraging. AMS detected promising numbers of electrons and their anti-matter counterparts known as positrons that are thought to shower deep space as dark matter particles annihilate each other - but the evidence was not conclusive.

James Morgan, science reporter

Every Christmas, children dream of the new hyper-promoted toy or gadget, and science reporters are no different. 3D printing - last year's stocking filler - has become this year's brussel sprouts. In 2014, it's all about 4D printing - objects that 'make themselves' by changing shape after they've been printed.

The coming year is also the 60th anniversary of Cern. The world's biggest physics lab will be celebrating six decades of pan-European endeavour with several special events, beginning in July in Paris at Unesco. But in terms of actual physics, there are unlikely to be any blockbuster results popping out of the sexagenarian institute. That's because the LHC remains offline until 2015 - undergoing a refit that will double its power. Supersymmetry and dark matter will likely remain mysterious for a little longer, though there could be a surprise or two sprung at the ICHEP conference in Valencia in July.

2014 is also the International Year of Crystallography - a new campaign to raise awareness of the wonderful technique that has revealed the secrets of DNA and drug discovery. It will also promote collaboration among scientists in Africa and Asia. And finally, this wouldn't be a 'preview of the next big thing' without graphene. The 'wonder-material' (a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon) has been championed for use in condoms and microscopes. And for its next trick... graphene will allow bendable touchscreens on smartphones, according to Physics World.

Mark Kinver, environment reporter

Since 1996, there has been a growing appetite for the concept of food security. Over the years, researchers have sought to gain a clearer insight into the social, environmental and economic drivers that shape our access to one of the most fundamental ingredients of life. Now, their efforts are bearing fruit. This year saw the first international food security science conference being held in the Netherlands, and one of the title themes of the 2015 Expo in Milan is Feeding the Planet.

On 23 September 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will convene a high-level UN Climate Summit and is inviting world leaders to bring 'big ideas'. Expect to see food security among them. When it comes to delivering future food security, there is a consensus among experts that the world needs a wide range of technologies and techniques to feed the changing tastes of a growing population.

But mention GM crops, and that consensus soon breaks down. While the rest of the world grows more and more genetically modified food crops, the EU remains a fallow landscape for the technology. But this politically unappetising issue can no longer be pushed to the side of the EU's policy plate and it will be on the menu again during 2014.

Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst

In theory this should be a big year for climate change, with three more reports from the UN Panel, amplified by Ban Ki-moon's heads of governments meeting, all as a precursor to the annual climate conference in Peru.

It will be the last conference before the big 2015 Paris meeting at which nations have promised at last to stop arguing and solve the climate problem; really... no really.

It's hard to imagine, though, that the mismatch between science and policy will magically shrink over the year, however many reports there may be. The pause in warming remains a puzzle and as the UN Panel's documents become more rigorously cautious, opponents of climate action will seize on uncertainties as a reason for doing nothing. So don't hold your breath on CO2.

One aspect of that troublesome gas is likely to feature more prominently in 2014 - the UN will also highlight ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of CO2 emissions by the seas.

The oceans generally are likely to receive a much higher profile. The Economist magazine will hold a 'summit' on the seas and so will John Kerry, the US Secretary of State. There will be focus on over-fishing, warming, dead zones, plastics and pollution of all sorts in the UN meta-review of ocean science, probably at the end of the year.

The Arctic will loom large too after Russian prosecutors arguably did Greenpeace a publicity favour by jailing its campaigners. Shell hopes to re-start drilling off Alaska in the summer and should expect more coverage than during their last venture.