The Royal Society was founded in 1660, self-styled as an "invisible college" of natural philosophers and physicians. Over the course of its near 400-year history it’s appointed more than 8,000 Fellows, with the likes of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Jocelyn Bell Burnell all assisting the Society in its function of enhancing our knowledge of the Earth and universe.
It's highly unlikely that you or I will ever make the "substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge" that is the requisite for the Society’s Fellows. Which is why, when tasked with providing a top-line overview of 2017’s biggest scientific developments, I didn’t dip into the vaults of my own knowledge, but instead got on the phone with two of the Royal Society’s finest minds.
Sir John Skehel is a molecular biologist whose pioneering work on influenza helped see him knighted in 1996, while Alex Halliday is a Professor of Geochemistry at Oxford University whose most recent work focuses on the early development of our solar system. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
SIR JOHN SKEHEL
VICE: Hi John, what would you say is the biggest scientific development of the past year?
Sir John Skehel: Genome engineering has hit the headlines because it’s become possible to manipulate genomes [the map of your body’s DNA] in cells much more simply. That’s because of the work on a particular system called CRISPR/Cas9.
And what does it enable scientists to do?
Very crudely, CAS9 is an enzyme which, when associated with what we call a guide RNA, can enable us to insert a new sequence of DNA into a genome. That might allow you to knock out a particular gene in a cell, or introduce a particular gene, or correct a particular mutated gene that you want to work better.
So, could you effectively "cut out" the DNA that causes particular inheritable illnesses in humans? Or even design embryos to a particular DNA specification?
This must produce lots of ethical questions.
Absolutely. Biological scientists of the world have gathered together to try and get some agreement about when such techniques can be used to modify animals, humans and any form of life. There needs to be rules of ethics and regulations as to when it can be used, how it should be reported and if it should be used at all. It’s an impact of biological science that has huge potential ramifications.
How could it be used in animals?
You could imagine it could be used, for example, to manipulate mosquito DNA. This might be attractive to prevent particular diseases, like malaria. Alternatively, you could hypothetically construct animals which have particular phenotypes [physical characteristics]. This could be very interesting for the meat industry. [Researchers in American have already started breeding hornless cows.] But both issues are fraught with ethical considerations.
How long do you think it will take for agreements to be reached regarding the ethics of this?
The appetite for it amongst the scientific community is good, and I suspect within five years regulations will be drawn up and agreed internationally.
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V**ICE: Hi Alex, what have been the biggest developments in your fields this year?** Alex Halliday: In astrophysics, the biggest breakthrough was the recording of gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two neutron stars colliding. The researchers were able to see the visible results of this collision, and the exceptionally bright object that was formed.
So what does this mean, in layman’s terms?
It’s not just an amazing gravitational wave observation, but also brings together several important elements of astrophysics or even geochemistry: how the elements are made, where gold comes from. It’s a phenomenally important way of looking at the processes of the universe.
Could it affect the way people think about the formation of the universe?
One of the limitations with trying to observe the formation of the universe is that the initial temperatures were so incredibly high that the early universe was a plasma; in that environment, no light was able to escape. So that had to cool down, which took about 380,000 years. Gravitational waves aren’t affected by the existence of that plasma. In other words, gravitational waves from the Big Bang and the earliest processes would be able to escape. We could study these and it could provide us with an understanding of what happened in those first years of the universe.
That is exciting. Anything else?
It’s a different field, but there’s been significant data revealed that the so-called "climate change hiatus" [a period between 1998 to 2012, in which it was thought global temperatures weren’t rising as sharply as before] did not actually occur. Data released in the summer suggested that, beyond some localised slowdown, temperatures have continued to rise as before.
Where did the concept of the hiatus come from?
Much of the hiatus theory was based on an effect in the Central Pacific [higher-than-average wind speeds above the Pacific led to heat being stuck underneath the surface of the water where readings were taken, leading to cooler temperature readings]. Also, it’s very difficult to build monitoring stations in the Arctic and Antarctic – which we know is warming rather quickly. We are now doing so, and this will give us better data, which can correct the earlier projections. There will always be local variations anyway.
So is this the final nail in the coffin for climate change deniers?
I don’t think climate change deniers are based in a scientific way of thinking, but it’s an important step. There’s always an issue around climate skepticism because people with vested interests don’t want to be limited in what they do. So we have to be careful and honest in what we do, but it was important to be able to show the hiatus has gone away.
How frustrating is it dealing with climate change deniers?
There’s at least an 80 percent chance that climate change is real – more like 90 percent. There’s a danger, because scientists tend to be cautious so they don’t get accused of scaremongering. But the economic, social and humanitarian consequences of climate change could be significantly worse than what people are predicting. I just think we should do more to ignore deniers now. It’s not really a scientific discussion any more.