March 16, 2018

Will 2018 be a year of scientific breakthroughs - or frustrations?

Author : Philip Ball / Publisher: The Guardian

Quantum computers

This will be the year when we see a quantum computer solve a computational problem that conventional computers can't, using the rules of quantum mechanics to manipulate data, potentially making them much more powerful than classical devices. Many researchers think that the prototype devices built during the past year will soon be able to achieve "quantum supremacy" - the solution of a task that would take a classical computer an impractical length of time. This doesn't mean that quantum computers are yet ready to take over the computer industry, but this will be the year that they start to become a genuine commercial proposition.

Quantum internet

Using quantum rules for processing information has more advantages than just speed. These rules make possible some tricks that just aren't imaginable using classical physics. Information encoded in qubits (units of quantum information) can be encrypted and transmitted from a sender to a receiver in a form that can't be intercepted and read without that eavesdropping being detectable by the receiver, a method called quantum cryptography. China has developed "quantum-capable" satellites that could ultimately host an international, ultra-secure "quantum internet". Many experts put that at a decade or so off, but we can expect more trials - and inventions - of quantum network technologies this year.

RNA therapies

The announcement last month of a potential new treatment for Huntington's disease, an inheritable neurodegenerative disease for which there is no known cure, has broad implications. The preliminary tests showed a lowering in the levels of toxic proteins in the brain, suggesting that the method might work for other dementia-related conditions.

Gene-editing therapies

Diseases with a well defined genetic cause can potentially be cured by replacing the mutant genes with properly functioning, healthy ones. That's the basis of gene therapies, which have been talked about for years but have so far failed to deliver. The discovery in 2012 of a set of molecular tools, called CRISPR-Cas9, for targeting and editing genes with great accuracy has revitalised interest in attacking such genetic diseases at their root. But is the method safe enough for human use? Clinical trials kicked off last year, particularly in China but also in the US. It should start to become clear this year just how effective and safe these procedures are.

High-speed X-ray movies

X-rays are used to figure out the structures of biological molecules, an important element in drug design. A new "X-ray free-electron laser" in Hamburg, inaugurated in September, is the fastest and brightest of these sources of intense X-rays to date, capable of taking high-speed movies of such molecules in action. Two others in Switzerland and South Korea are starting up, too, and another at Stanford in California is getting an ambitious upgrade. As these instruments host their first experiments in 2018, researchers will acquire a new window into the molecular world.

A hundred thousand genomes

By the end of 2018 the private company Genomics England, set up by the UK Department of Health, should have completed its goal of reading the genetic information in 100,000 genomes of about 75,000 volunteers. Given so much data, it should be possible to identify gene mutations linked to cancer and to some of the many thousands of known rare diseases - information that could point the way to new therapies and drugs.

Beyond the standard model

The so-called standard model of particle physics, which accounts for all the known particles and forces in nature, was completed in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful particle accelerator, at Cern in Switzerland. The trouble is, it can't be the whole story. What's now needed is some clue from particle-smashing experiments for how to extend the standard model: some glimpse of particles, forces or effects outside the current paradigm. Researchers were hoping that the LHC might have supplied that already - in particular, many anticipated finding support for the theory called supersymmetry, which some see as the best candidate for the requisite new physics. But so far there's been zilch. If another year goes by without any chink in the armour appearing, the head-scratching may turn into hair-pulling.

Crunch time for dark matter

That's not the only embarrassment for physics. It's been agreed for decades that the universe must contain large amounts of so-called dark matter - about five times as much as all the matter visible as stars, galaxies and dust. This dark matter appears to exert a gravitational tug while not interacting significantly with ordinary matter or light in other ways. But no one has any idea what it consists of. Experiments have been trying to detect it for years, but all have drawn a blank. The situation is becoming grave enough for some researchers to start taking more seriously suggestions that what looks like dark matter is in fact a consequence of something else - such as a new force that modifies the apparent effects of gravity. This year could prove to be crunch time for dark matter: how long do we persist in believing in something when there's no direct evidence for it?

Return to the moon

In 2018, the moon is the spacefarer's destination of choice. Among several planned missions, China's ongoing unmanned lunar exploration programme called Chang'e will enter its fourth phase in June with the launch of a satellite to orbit the moon's "dark side" (which permanently faces away from the Earth, although it's not actually in perpetual darkness). That craft will provide a communications link to guide the Long March 5 rocket that should head out to this hidden face of the moon in 2019, carrying a robotic lander and rover vehicle to gather information about the mineral composition of the moon, including water ice in the south polar basin. It's all the prelude to a planned mission in the 2030s that will take Chinese astronauts to the lunar surface.

Voyage to Mercury

Exploration of the solar system won't all be about the moon. The European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency are collaborating on the BepiColombo mission, which will set off in October on a seven-year journey to Mercury, the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the Sun. BepiColombo should provide information not just about the planet itself but also about the formation of the entire solar system.

Mapping the brain

It's sometimes said that understanding outer space is easier than understanding inner space. The human brain is arguably the most complex object in the known universe, and while no one seems to be expecting any major breakthrough in our view of how it works, we can expect to reach next Christmas with a lot more information. Over the last summer the €10bn European Human Brain Project got a reboot to steer it away from what many saw as an over-ambitious plan to simulate a human brain on a computer and towards a more realistic goal of mapping out its structure down to the level of connections between the billions of individual neurons. One vision is to create a kind of Google Brain, comparable to Google Earth, in which the brain structures underpinning such cognitive functions as memory and emotion can be "zoomed" from the large scale revealed by MRI scanning down to the level of individual neurons.

• Philip Ball is a science writer

This article was written by Philip Ball from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to