I have heard for years that the rate of acceleration of the growth of human knowledge is getting faster all the time. I may be remembering the quote wrong, but I recall an article I read a few years ago that claimed that the knowledge mankind has gained in just the last few years is greater than all of the knowledge that has been gathered in all of mankind’s history.
That is an amazing claim, but there is a lot of evidence that it’s true. Consider this article that talks about the major scientific announcements that have been made public just in January and February of this year. The list is astounding. Here are just a few of the things on that list:
- Scientists have discovered teixobactin, the first new antibiotic in 30 years.
- The first map of the human epigenome has been completed: these are the switches that can turn individual genes in our DNA on and off.
- There is a new electron microscope that can see individual atoms.
- Physicists have found a way to accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light without the application of any external forces.
- Researches have been able to grow human skeletal material in the lab that acts just like the real thing.
- Stem cells have been used to create cells that can grow human hair.
- Astronomers have found a black hole that is 12 billion times as massive as our sun.
- Cosmologists have developed a new physics model that suggests there was no big bang and that the universe has existed forever.
- Scientists believe there are two more planets beyond Pluto.
Every one of these claims is a big breakthrough, and yet there are so many scientific discoveries being made that most of them barely get any press. I follow tech and science and I had not heard of nearly a third of the items on this list.
I was always interested in science as a kid and I remember even at a young age avidly reading articles in places like Life Magazine that talked about the discovery of how DNA worked, the invention of polymers, or finding the early hominid Lucy fossils. It seemed like there was a major scientific breakthrough a few times each year and such things got wide coverage. As I got a little older I would read Scientific American and other sources of information about science and would see the same thing. There was progress here and there in scientific fields, but nowhere at the pace of what we are seeing today. I have no idea today how scientists stay current since there is so much happening in so many fields. It’s always been understood that any important discovery often leads to progress in other fields of study as scientists understand the implications of various discoveries.
Certainly there are good reasons for the breakthroughs today. Probably first is that we have better tools. We are able to look deeper in space with amazing light and radio telescopes; we can look at smaller things with electron microscopes. And with modern computers, we can crunch the data from experiments faster and more accurately. Science for many years was more about handling the data from studies than it was about doing the actual research.
What is most amazing is how un-amazing this all seems. Twenty or thirty years ago most of the above recent announcements would have been major news. But when we are bombarded by amazing discoveries every time we browse news articles, the amazement gets a bit dulled.
The real excitement for me is all of the areas of research that are getting close to major discoveries. Just in the medical area there are breakthroughs expected in areas like cryonics (keeping people in suspended animation), nanobots for fighting cancer and other diseases from inside the bloodstream, laboratory-made replacement organs, reversing or halting aging, and brain and memory enhancement. And every field of science and technology has its own similar list of amazing things that will probably become reality within just a few years.