TCS Daily

Things to Look For in 2004

By Kenneth Silber - December 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Leap years have a certain appeal, with their combination of presidential elections, Summer Olympics, and an extra day of life. Here is a selective guide to some of the more interesting events involving science and technology that are in prospect for 2004:

Cassini at Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft is expected to reach the Saturn system on July 1, beginning a mission of more than 70 orbits of the ringed planet and its moons. In December, the Cassini orbiter will unleash the Huygens probe toward the enigmatic, cloud-covered moon Titan. A joint effort of NASA and European space agencies, Cassini-Huygens (as it lately has been called) can be expected to produce a wealth of scientific data and spectacular imagery. If antinuclear activists had succeeded in stopping the project (the spacecraft's instruments are powered by plutonium), none of this would be happening.


DARPA's Grand Challenge. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will conduct its Grand Challenge, a race of robotic vehicles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, on March 13. Non-governmental teams, ranging from high-school students to major research institutions, will compete for a $1 million prize. DARPA, noting the military importance of unmanned vehicle technology, seeks "to draw widespread attention to the technological issues associated with autonomous vehicles and to generate discontinuous breakthroughs in performance." The project will likely generate more favorable publicity than earlier DARPA initiatives in "information awareness" and "terrorism futures."


Wearable Technology Fashion Show. In his futurist book Visions, physicist Michio Kaku predicted that wearable technology "will ultimately make any individual a walking node of the World Wide Web." He added that computing and communications technology built into clothing "could prove immensely liberating for people who ride in cabs, shop at the mall, or travel by airplane," and will prove useful in emergencies, even saving lives by monitoring wearers' vital signs. How far such visions have come toward reality will become clearer at a fashion show at the 3GSM World Congress, a technology conference to be held February 23-26 in Cannes, France.


Hamilton Death Anniversary. Alexander Hamilton, the founding father most focused on developing the United States into an industrial economy, was mortally wounded in a duel with his political rival Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804. Hamilton's death will be marked in its bicentennial year by events and exhibitions at several institutions, including the New York Historical Society. In Weehawken, New Jersey, where the duel took place, the event is memorialized by a bust of Hamilton; as historian and Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, the New York skyscrapers visible just across the Hudson River also are symbolic of Hamilton's legacy.


Sci-Fi Revival. Two classic works of science fiction will hit the movie theaters this summer. I Robot, based on the book by Isaac Asimov, is scheduled for release by Twentieth Century Fox on July 16. The film stars Will Smith as a detective who, in the year 2035, suspects that a robot has violated the Laws of Robotics by taking a human's life. In late August, Warner Brothers is slated to release A Sound of Thunder, based on Ray Bradbury's short story about time travel. Intelligent science fiction has received declining public attention in recent decades, a trend these movies possibly could help reverse.


Insect Genetic Engineering. Growing knowledge of the genomes of insects has raised new possibilities for controlling insect-borne diseases. Lab experiments, for instance, have produced mosquitoes resistant to the viruses that cause dengue fever. Genetic Manipulation of Insects, a conference on such research, will be held February 3-8 in Taos, New Mexico. Scientists will attend workshops on topics such as "Termite Gut Bacteria as Trojan Horses for Gene Expression in Termite Colonies," as well as regulatory and ethical issues involved in the genetic modification of insects.


Neutrino Mass. Neutrinos are ghost-like subatomic particles that interact little with other forms of matter (as you read this, countless neutrinos are passing through your body). The Fermi National Accelerator Lab is spearheading the NuMI-MINOS project, to determine whether neutrinos have mass (if they do, as some experiments suggest, then the Standard Model of particle physics is wrong). This involves placing a detector in a former iron mine in Minnesota, and then beaming neutrinos at it from Fermilab's facility in Illinois. The detector has already begun operating, collecting neutrino data from natural cosmic rays, and a second detector in Illinois will be completed in August. The most important data, however, may not come until Fermilab starts beaming neutrinos 450 miles through the ground in early 2005.

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