Potential Scientific Advancements in 2014: Looking forward from 2013

I was planning to write this blog post a few days ago to summarize the various scientific advancements of 2013 that attracted my eye. But I had other things to do on New Year’s Eve (and New Year’s Day) so this post was never written, and now it’s too late to write any post solely on 2013 events. But the beginning of the year is the best time to come up with new year resolutions and what’s better than making difficult to keep personal resolutions (which I may or may not have a few…)? Saying what I believe may be the up and coming innovations of 2014.

  1. Mathematics
    • Primes: Can’t talk about 2013 math without mentioning the two key innovations in the field of number theory. In April 2013, Yitang Zhang announced a proof for the finite bound on prime gaps. A prime gap is the difference between two successive prime numbers, N = p_{n+1} - p_n. Zhang proved that there exists a gap that is less than 70 million for arbitrarily large p_n and p_{n+1} (i.e. N < 7 \times 10^7). And this proof brings us closer to proving the Twin Prime Conjecture, which states that there are an infinite number of prime pairs that fit the form: p and p+2, both of which are prime. [Zhang, 2013] For the number theorists out there, Zhang’s paper can be found in the Annals of Mathematics.

      Directions for 2014? There’s been some rumors going around that it’s possible to get the bound N down to 16 (N \leq 16) using the method introduced by Zhang. So this is definitely something to look forward to in 2014. But it might be a few years (try 50 maybe?) before we find N \leq 2.

    • Primes Take Two!: 2013 was a great year for number theory. Another mathematician, Harald Helfgott, published a paper in May 2013 that proves Goldbach’s Weak Conjecture. Goldbach’s Weak Conjecture states that every prime number greater than 5 can be formed by the sum of three primes. (Compared to Goldbach’s Strong Conjecture that any even number greater than 4 can be formed by the sum of two odd primes.) To see the original set of papers that proves Goldbach’s Weak Conjecture, refer here, here, and here. Unfortunately, I’m not a number theorist, and the details of the proof are too intricate for me to explain, but Terence Tao provides an excellent explanation of the proof on his blog.

      Directions for 2014? To quote, Helfgott, proving the “strong conjecture is much, much, much harder.” So unlikely to be done in 2014…

  2. Biology
    • Game theory (again!) in cell interactions: In July 2013, researchers discovered that during the early stages of embryonic developments, cells “battle” for survival. Early embryos consist of (epiblast) cells with varying levels of Myc. The development of the embryo leads cells with higher levels of Myc to engulf cells with lower Myc levels and the nutrients of the losers of the “battle” are recycled and reused by the “winners.” [Clavería 2013]

      Directions for 2014? This provides more evidence that cells compete with each other in various stages of development. A far stretch maybe, but hopefully, we’ll see greater use of game theory (always a favorite of mine) in biological modeling in 2014 (and the upcoming years). Even providing a model for predicting which cells survive the early embryonic “battle” (involving and not involving Myc) would be a great feat.

    • Modeling brain organoids: In August 2013, a team of scientists published an article showing a technique they developed to grow human brain organoids from pluripotent stem cells. The organoid is far from having the intricate circuitry of an actual human brain, but according to the article that generated a lot of buzz in the scientific community, the team was able to model the early development of microcephaly using an organoid grown from a patient’s skin cells. Using this organoid, the team showed that premature neuronal differentiation (due to mutations in the CDK5RAP2) is responsible for the smaller size of a microcephalic brain. [Lancester et.al. 2013]

      Directions for 2014? We are still long ways from growing a human brain in vitro and this most likely will not change in 2014. However, what a brain organoid can be used for is modeling the development of neurological disorders in early brain development, and 2014 could bring increased knowledge of the development of brain disorders and diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and autism.

  3. Computation/Technology
    • Quantum Computing: Physicists in ETH Zurich earlier this year teleported information across a distance of 6 millimeters. [Steffen, 2013] Six millimeters doesn’t seem like a great distance but it was the first time that information has successively been teleported any distance using electronic circuits. This is a key step in creating a quantum computer, which can transmit and process more information in a shorter amount of time than classical computers (…and also change the way our cryptographic system is currently based).

      Directions for 2014? Constructing larger chips and teleporting information over greater distances is necessary in order to actually build a quantum processor. How much of a distance can we achieve this year?

    • 3D Remoting Touching Device: MIT Media Lab posted a video in November 2013 that showed a device that allows users to manipulate objects through a monitor. Rather than explaining the device in words, I recommend that you check out the original posted video.

      Directions for 2014? Although this device can allow users to pick things up, it doesn’t necessarily let users manipulate objects easily. One of the greatest advantages of the human hand is the detachable thumb, and there is nothing detachable in this current device. Simulating “detachability” is certainly more difficult and might require using a different material. Whether having simulated detachable thumbs is useful and worthwhile to pursue is a different story.

    • Google Glass: I don’t want to add to the already abundant number of reviews, critiques, blog posts, and articles on the topic.

      Directions for 2014? Looking forward to see what the commercial version of the product will be like in 2014.

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