A golden age of discovery starting right now

Giant leap: The UK is designing batteries powered by radioactive waste.

Are we on the brink of another scientific golden age? Hopes are rising that significant advances in clean energy, farming and medicine will end hunger and disease and stop climate change.

A power plant that fits in the palm of your hand. Clean, noiseless cars driven by super-intelligent computers. Cruelty-free meat, made in a lab and eaten with salad grown in the air. Is this science fiction or a vision of the near future?

Last week the American writer David Brooks hailed a “coming technology boom” to blow away the gloomy news stories of poverty, pandemics and climate change. It is fueled by an energy revolution happening right now. The UK is designing batteries powered by radioactive waste. US researchers have invented a small fusion reactor the size of a tennis court. And new geothermal techniques are mining heat from the Earth’s core and turning it into electricity.

Some periods of history are more dramatic than others. At the end of the 19th Century, the internal combustion engine provided the rocket-fuel to propel humanity from the age of the horse-drawn carriage to landing a man on the moon. In the span of a lifetime, the world changed beyond recognition.

But since then, the pace of change has slowed. The economist Tyler Cowen calls it “a great stagnation”. We have the internet and smartphones, but the way we eat, live and work has not changed significantly in fifty years. “We wanted flying cars”, complains the entrepreneur Peter Thiel, but instead we got Twitter.

But technology writer Caleb Watney says we can see signs of a new golden age of discovery if we know where to look. For example, vaccines used to take years to develop. The Covid-19 vaccine was designed and rolled out within months. Not only was it made in record time, it also uses radical new techniques that reprogram our cells to fight disease.

Similar biotechnology is being developed to treat HIV and cancer, whilst gene-editing could cure genetic disorders and prolong life. If they bear fruit, these advances will mean more of us will live longer, healthier lives.

But what will we all eat? Farming produces 10-12% of all greenhouse gases and the growing population is exhausting the land and fueling deforestation. The solution could be lab-grown meat. This year, the first-ever cultured “chicken bites” will go on sale in Singapore, without “killing a single animal or tearing down a single tree”. Environmentalist George Monbiot says it “may save humanity’s bacon”.

So could vertical farming: food grown indoors under LED lights, stacked seven stories high and suspended in nutrient-rich mist. This futuristic vision of farming uses less space, water and transport, but it needs cheap energy. Which brings us back to the promised revolution in green energy.

We may still not get those flying cars, but computers are now in the driver’s seat. Technology is set to radically change the way we live, says Brooks, but it will also bring enormous social upheaval. Luddites will resist change and we will have to learn to adapt.

Are we on the brink of another scientific golden age?

Brave new world

Some say no, dark times lie ahead. These inventions are over-hyped and still in development. They are unlikely to change the way we live for many years to come, by which time climate change will have had a much more radical effect on the planet. The inventions that do succeed will not be the ones that will save the planet, but those that make the most money.

Others say yes, a golden age is coming. Green energy, biotechnology and artificial intelligence have come of age and are being used together in exciting new ways. Climate change, disease and poverty present challenges, but they also motivate scientists and engineers to find brilliant solutions to the world’s problems. Covid-19 has shown how a global community of scientists can act quickly.

You Decide

  1. Does new technology always make us happier?
  2. What was the most important scientific discovery in human history?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of life in 2080. How will technology have changed our lives?
  2. You work for a company investing in new technology. Research a recent invention and write a page explaining why you think it will or will not be successful.

Some People Say...

“I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

Charles Holland Duell (1850 – 1920), Commissioner of the United States Patent Office.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that certain periods in history were golden eras for science and technology. Democratic Athens in Ancient Greece attracted a community of scholars including Plato and Aristotle. Peace and prosperity in 8th-Century Baghdad started the Islamic Golden Age of scientific discovery. Wealthy patrons have often been important, such as princes during the 15th-Century Renaissance and the Royal Society in 17th-Century England.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether we can fully understand the age we are living in. Historians look back at the past and pinpoint moments that were significant in the development of civilisation. But for every great invention, there are ideas that don’t take off. Some argue that only future generations will really know whether this was a golden era or a dark age for science. Others disagree and point to the number of registered patents and scientific papers as a measure of success.

Word Watch

Radioactive waste
Sellafield in Cumbria has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear residue. Scientists are researching how to harness these decaying isotopes to create powerful batteries that would last decades.
Fusion reactor
Fusion power replicates the atomic reactions that take place in the sun without creating harmful greenhouse gasses. US researchers hope the technology will be producing electricity within a decade.
Geothermal
The Earth’s molten core is roughly the same temperature as the sun and 0.1% of its energy would supply humanity with its energy needs for the next two million years.
Internal combustion engine
The German engineer Karl Benz (1844 – 1929) is widely recognised as the inventor of the first car in 1886. The first liquid-fueled rocket was launched in 1926 and the first jet aircraft flew in 1939.
Gene-editing
Scientists in China have successfully edited the DNA of mice to allow them to live 25% longer. Biologists believe the same results could be achieved in humans.
Lab-grown meat
Cells are taken from living animals and grown in a 1,200-litre bioreactor fed with plant-based ingredients.
Vertical farming
The US firm AeroFarms plans to build the world’s largest indoor farm, 90,000 square feet in the Abu Dhabi desert.
Driver’s seat
The Google-owned company Waymo announced last year that it would offer the world’s first driverless taxi service in the Arizona city of Pheonix.
Luddites
In 19th-Century England, mechanised looms replaced textile-workers, who organised to destroy factory machinery and preserve their livelihood. Named after Ned Lud, a weaver from Leicester, the name now refers to anyone opposed to new technology.

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