Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Is It Discovery or Uncovery?

Before launching into the Christmas Day science marathon, a few words on the meaning of discovery might be in order. It's probably the nerd side of me that gets enjoyment from reading the meaning and derivation of words in dictionaries. Take the word "discover"--it literally means a lack of cover and has come to mean finding something new for the first time. But discover carries a connotation of finding something new that wasn't there before. When I was growing up, I thought discovery meant just that.

As an adult, I have come to understand that it really means "uncovery"--finding something not new that has always been there but for our ignorance.
The same could be said of miracles. St Augustine put it bluntly: "Miracles do not happen in contradiction to nature, but only in contradiction to that which is known in nature." That there is nothing new under the sun is literally true--everything possible to know is already available and ready for uncovery when humanity has eyes to see it and is ready to receive it.

Sometimes, I play a mind game and turn the word around to make another. The exercise can be very enlightening and is full of meditative possibilities. Forget mindful meditation on an orange--words are so much more abstract and interesting. Sir Isaac Newton is a case in point. One can take his last name and and turn it into the words "Not New." I would bet that with his studies of ancient wisdom and things mystical, Newton was aware of the true meaning of his "discoveries" as partial uncoveries during the age of enlightenment.

But, I digress and must get back to the topic at hand--the most enlightening science changes or uncoveries of 2007 from DISCOVERY magazine, note that the groupings are mine:

#1 out of 100--"China's Syndrome: Tainted products and choking pollution spark anxiety across the globe"
together with #6: "Conservation gets a green light: can a fluorescent bulb save the planet?" and #21: "Quantifying Global Warming" where Al Gore's various accomplishments were listed as well as a list of the global warming studies all speak to the environmental issues that have certainly been the forefront of news story, both scientifically and politically. Probably because of Gore, this year saw the melding of science and politics to an extent not seen before. The fact that the magazine chose such a politically infused subject for its lead science story shows a definite lighted trend, although a little uncomfortable and messy for many at its inception.

#9--"The Genome Turns Personal: with individual sequencing, medicine may soon be custom-tailored to your own DNA" was the top-billed enlightened uncovery regarding DNA in 2007, a heady topic that also included: #43: Human Genome Reveals Signs of Recent Evolution. It would be my guess that because this relatively new area of uncovery is just in its infancy, it will be subject to much reinterpretation over time. In all likelihood, DNA, which science has now proved emits a small packet of light called a biophoton, has much to teach us.

#11--"Hormone Replacement Therapy Linked to Breast Cancer" was a vindication of the studies and findings of the late Dr John Lee who made this claim for years before his death. If you want to read the whole story of hormone replacement therapy, you can read Dr Lee's book "What Doctors Don't Tell you About Menopause." It was a courageous act of the Women's Health Initiative in July 2002 to abruptly ended its study when it saw the data unfolding about the detrimental effects of HRT because it went against the grain of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment at the time. The findings were confirmed in 2007.

#17--"Is Pollution Weeding Out Male Babies?" together with #22: "Pesticide Effects on Sex Last Generations in Rats" by epigenetic changes in DNA and #42: "California Bans Phthalates in Plastic Toys" as well as #51: "Wastewater Decimates Minnows" shows a trend that I voiced a concern about ten years ago and that I saw was flying under the radar until now. My thought at the time: so, this was how it was going to end. Humanity was going to be sterilized invisibly and no one was going to pay attention until it was too late. Because 4 out of 100 choices highlighted the topic of hormonizing pollution, there is new hope that the invisible will be made visible. Whether meaningful change can be made in time is another matter entirely.

#29--"First Steps Toward Wireless Electricity" together with #52: "Amazing Battery Made of . . .Paper?" shows a leap forward in the science of energy. Tesla, who died a recluse and penniless, would be vindicated with the uncovery regarding wireless electricity made at MIT. Humanity may now be ready for the next phase of energy uncoveries--including advances in the storage of energy-- for which it was not prepared in the early 1900's. Tesla was certainly a man before his time and a forerunner of things to come. Thank you MIT for picking up the pieces.

#39--"Plants Use Quantum Computers" was probably the most startling uncovery of the lot: "Using ultrafast lasers, they [scientists at the Lawrence Berkley National Lab] found that the interaction between the sun's energy and the chlorophyll molecules. . .relies on a piece of quantum mechanical weirdness known as superposition, where a single photon of energy can temporarily be in many different states at once. This allows photosynthesis to probe all the possible reaction pathways withing the various chlorophyll molecules. The most efficient pathway is selected and energy is transferred through the bacterium as the superposition collapses." The author of this piece goes on to quote one of the scientists, "This is similar to quantum computing in some sense. This is how quantum computing realizes its incredible efficiency and its ability to solve very complex problems, because it can evaluate many solutions at once." As a plant person, I had no idea that was going on in my leafy companions. I will have to show them more respect in the future.

And that leads us to #65: "Physics Exposes Light's Weird Quantum Nature" in which scientists have actually observed the collapse of the aforementioned quantum superposition, a first in 2007. Says the Harvard scientists who uncovered the previously elusive phenomenon: " 'This is the kind of research that people will immediately start teaching in physics classes when talking about quantum mechanics. . . this is the first time this basic building block of physics has been directly observed in a very beautiful, clean and textbook kind of way." Wonder if they talked to the scientists at #39. Probably should, don't you think?

#47: "Dimensional Math Problem Solved: More than 120 years after it was first discovered, mathematicians have successfully mapped out a 248-dimensional object called E8 " which is described as "one of the most complicated structures in all of mathematics and a table with more than 200 billion entries. Printed out on paper it would cover all of Manhattan." The principle uncoverers at MIT states that "E8 probably reflects the world somehow: everything interesting does." This one definitely warrants following because E8 could map the invisible, physical world. If nothing else, it's beautiful as illustrated by the colored, two dimensional drawing of it on page 49. Check it out, E8 might prove to be the ultimate mandala on which to meditate.

#78--"Tablets of Unknown Ancient Script Surface" in southeastern Iran: although some think the tablets are a hoax, some alternative historians might feel vindicated at the discovery. What ultimately might be uncovered is the remains of a culture not previously known to exist. Stay tuned, because this may be the first of many such uncoveries in the next 25 years.

And finally, life would not be complete without the uncovery noted at #96: "Function of the Appendix Explained." We all knew that little appendage has some use, right? Well, apparently it is a safehouse for bacteria. You know, you get the runs and wipe out all the good bacteria. To the rescue comes bacteria-in-waiting from the previously quiescent appendix. Good going, appendix. The secret you've kept all these years is now open to the public. Hopefully, you will survive the experience.

On Thursday, it will be on to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN's 50 top science stories. See you then.

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