Science is how the mechanisms of our world, and of the cosmos, are understood by people interested in the Why and How of life. We learn through observation, experimentation, reading, and if we are lucky, through the language of mathematics (I’m not lucky). The following are examples of discoveries either made this year, or culminating in 2016.
Of the methods listed above, observation and reading top my list. And in the world of botany, observation is of primary importance. For example, in the 1950’s, botanists observed that lichens seemed to be directly affected by air pollution. Eventually, botanists determined that lichen diversity declined and some specimens died as the level of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants increased in the surrounding air. These observations and discoveries led the U.S. Forest Service to collect data from lichens in thousands of sites throughout this country for almost 25 years. These data will be made available to the public in 2017. Lichens are much like the canary in the coal mine in that they are immediately and directly affected by their environment. In my unscientific observations while working in a public garden I steward, I have observed a difference in health when comparing lichen growing near the parking lot, and of those growing farthest away from the parking lot in the shelter of large, old conifers. Though subtle at times, these differences are always easily observed. I didn’t understand what I was seeing until this year.
Botany has demonstrated that plants communicate with each other. Within the past 5 years, research in old growth forests of Vancouver, B.C. has demonstrated that Doug Fir mother trees share nutrients with all their offspring – even giving the lion’s-share of nutrients to the weakest youngster of the group. How the mother tree knows which seedling is weakest is not yet known. We know that plants communicate with nearby plants when under attack from insects or animals by the chemical signals they send – both through the soil and via air. In my garden, I have observed that a particular plant put up such a fight when attacked by chewing insects that when the second flush of growth appeared in late spring, the insects that remained on the plants’ limbs scattered. Later on, I observed the same insect infestation in my neighbor’s garden but not on my plant. The plant, Ribes rubrum, ‘Glorie des Sabions’, was ignored by these insects for 2 years after the initial attack. Spring 2016 was the first time I observed a return of the insects on the Ribes after a few years absence, and the insects did much less damage this time. This tells me that plants have ‘memories’.
In February of this year, astronomers announced the detection of gravitational waves created approximately 1.3 billion years ago, when two black holes collided. These waves demonstrate that spacetime stretches, ripples, and warps in response to energy created from celestial phenomenon. This discovery will help astrophysicists understand the nature of black holes, what happens when two merge into one, and may allow a greater understanding of the collapsed stars from which black holes are born. (This discovery may also bring us a deeper understanding of the nature of time, but I could be getting ahead of the game.) Yes, Einstein was right!
Also, this year biologists achieved something truly remarkable – an engineered bacterium that has only 473 genes – the smallest number of genes needed for an organism to exist and to reproduce (as far as we know now). Did we make life? Well, if the sole purpose of life is to exist and reproduce, we succeeded. I have mixed emotions about this achievement but I do see that ‘minimal genome’ cells could have tremendous benefits if used ethically. They could be used as models or templates for new medicines or vaccines; new and less toxic chemicals; or possibly, new materials to be used in product testing, thereby eliminating the need for animals in such testing. Since we have apparently decided to ‘play god’, why not mimic God and utilize compassion in science?
This year introduced us to the self-driving car. This controversial invention is celebrated by many proponents with claims that safety is greatly increased when a human driver is removed from the picture. Maybe so. But one concern I have is that a self-driving car removes one more reason to be attentive to the world around us. Also, I have found driving (especially driving a car with manual transmission) to be a distinct exercise in prediction, distance estimation, calculation, and patience. Much patience. I live in a city with many hills. I have learned how to predict where on a hill I may be stuck (especially in heavy traffic); how much distance to leave between me and the car ahead (I have no control over the car behind me); and how to engage the clutch without ‘burning rubber’ or killing the engine. These are skills I take pride in. Also, I tell myself that a certain amount of math is used when driving, and so far, I’ve not flunked a test.
The year 2016 has seen an exponential growth in our understanding in the fields of biology, botany, physics, and technology, in addition to other fields. Our knowledge of the intricate workings of these fields, and of the connections within and among these fields, has enhanced the lives of people throughout the world. It is my deep hope and prayer that our compassion towards all other life on this planet will grow in concert with science.