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New Year Prediction

Entry 1258, on 2011-01-03 at 12:13:44 (Rating 2, Science)

Here we are in a new year and two popular activities seem to have proliferated: the first is going over what happened last year and offering commentary on it, and the second is predicting what notable events might happen in the new year. Predicting the future always seems more interesting than rehashing the past so I thought I might give it a try!

First I need to say that, according to a recent news item I heard (or read), experts are very poor at predicting the future. In fact, in many cases, they are worse than what you would expect from chance. I didn't see this broken down by area of expertise because I would expect business commentators and economists for example to get it wrong more than most, but it is a salient point I believe. But of course, I'm not an expert on most of the things I comment on so that removes that annoying detail!

I am an experienced amateur astronomer and science enthusiast so I want to make my first prediction in those general areas. So what exciting astronomy, cosmology, etc, related news item will we see this year?

I think one big trend will be the discovery of more Earth like planets, especially by the Kepler observatory currently in operation. This mission has already discovered many new potential planets orbiting other stars (I say potential because many have yet to be confirmed by continued and independent observations) but none have had conditions exactly like what we would expect to allow life similar to that on Earth to exist.

So I think many more planets will be discovered and the trend towards finding planets surprisingly different to those in our own Solar System will continue. But I also hope that small, warm, watery worlds might be found too. It will not be easy to confirm the presence of water at the distances involved but it's not impossible either. In fact, there are even techniques for detecting signs of life by examining the atmosphere of the planets as they transit the star.

So as well as more planets and some planets very similar to Earth I'm hoping that maybe signs of water and perhaps even signs of life might be found. Obviously this is pushing the abilities of observational techniques to their limits but none of it is impossible.

Then there's Mars. During the previous year there have been interesting discoveries there too but it might need to wait for missions further in the future (if they happen at all) before those questions are settled. So ironically there might be signs of life detected light years away on planets orbiting other stars while possible life on the second closest planet, a mere 100 million kilometers away, is ignored.

Just on the topic of the discovery of life I do want to say that I don't like the approach some organisations, such as NASA, are taking when making announcements on the topic. The recent press event where NASA announced the discovery of a life form which can utilise arsenic instead of phosphorous was rather unfortunate. I think it's important that science doesn't become too tied up with publicity and marketing.

The standard dishonest practices of engaging in hyperbole and self-centered selective reporting are OK in the business world but I would prefer to keep them out of science. Of course because of the political nature of some organisations that is unlikely so I can just hope that people don't equate popular science news from newspapers and some organisations with real science.

So there's my first prediction: that we will know a lot more about extra-Solar planets and that will affect the predictions of life elsewhere in the Universe. Stay tuned for more predictions in other areas for the year.


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