The next big scientific thing
As National Science Week celebrates scientific discovery in Australia, we ask what’s likely to be the ‘next big thing’ in some of the most exciting fields of science research?
From the rise of artificial intelligence to identifying dark matter and developing innovative solutions to climate change, big things are happening in the fast-moving world of science.
We spoke to five scientific minds about the next ‘big thing’ in their respective fields.
It’s estimated to make up 85 per cent of all the matter in the universe, but scientists are still working to establish exactly what dark matter is.
Professor Elisabetta Barberio heads up the Centre for Dark Matter Particle Physics, which is establishing a lab 1000 metres underground in Stawell in Victoria, and aims to detect the mysterious substance.
“It will be one of the biggest discoveries ever: what the universe is made of,” says Professor Barberio.
Scientists in Italy claim to have detected dark matter at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory, but their observations could also be influenced by seasonal changes.
That is why we need a lab in the southern hemisphere where the tests can be repeated.
“To see dark matter, we need to go very deep underground, to eliminate any ‘noise’ that comes from the cosmos, like cosmic rays,” says Professor Barberio.
“We are the first facility of this kind in the southern hemisphere.”
The scientists plan to run the tests in the next few years. For Professor Barberio, the results could be far-reaching.
“If we discover dark matter, it will be a completely new branch of physics and astronomy. It would be this exciting new thing to explore.”
Much like humans, animals leave behind traces of themselves as they move through environments, like skin cells or hair strands.
That’s where ecological geneticist Dr Andrew Weeks comes in. He works in the innovative field of environmental DNA (eDNA).
“With eDNA, we can track species at a scale that we’ve never seen before,” he says. “You no longer have to catch, handle or even see an animal to know that it’s present in an environment.”
Instead, scientists genetically test the DNA that animals leave behind. Older methods of mapping a species, like live animal tracking, only allow researchers to survey six sites a night, at most.
Now they can take eDNA samples from 20 to 30 sites a day.
“You can then understand distributional changes at an unprecedented scale. It’s particularly useful for species that occupy broader areas but might be undergoing some big changes.”
The next big thing in eDNA will be real-time, in-field information. Scientists currently process DNA samples in a lab, “but the technology is getting to the point where we can do some of that in the field,” says Dr Weeks.
That has major implications for biosecurity.
“Many invasive species come in Australia through shipping ports. Using current detection methods, it’s usually too late: we’ve picked up the species because it’s already here and abundant. But with an autonomous system, you’re getting it much earlier.”
The prospect of a hydrogen economy will be the next big thing in energy, predicts Professor Michael Brear, director of the Melbourne Energy Institute.
“Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, will deliver a national hydrogen strategy later this year,” he says. “Nobody really knows yet whether the hydrogen economy is economically viable … there will be a lot of debate over the next 12 months.”
Hydrogen can be made using electricity to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen using an electrolyser. For hydrogen to be “clean” that electricity will also need to be “clean.” That means a viable hydrogen economy will depend on a major expansion of solar and wind energy.
Right now, a big solar or wind farm might produce 100 to 300 megawatts, but Professor Brear notes that a a true hydrogen economy will need to be orders of magnitude larger.
Generated to industrial scale, that hydrogen could then be used to power all manner of industrial processes that underline our economy, from steel-making to heavy-duty road, rail and sea transport, and zero-emission fuels.
“We built the Victorian economy from big coal-fired power stations. Off that, we were able to build a whole bunch of industries and a big city: Melbourne. It’s about taking a similar approach where you do the whole thing on a very large scale.
“You’re creating a potential base on which you can have a multi-faceted and modern economy, including a vibrant manufacturing industry.”
Professor Lloyd Hollenberg thinks the moment a quantum computer outperforms a conventional computer for the very first time could be just a few years away.
“When that will happen, and what the problem will be, is hard to say. But that’s the point many people in the field are now looking towards,” says Professor Hollenberg.
Once computer transistors become smaller than atoms, they are governed by quantum mechanics, which are different to the rules governing physics on a larger scale.
One small example shows the potential of these different rules: whereas conventional computer bits are either a 1 or 0, quantum bits can be both simultaneously.
While a fully functional universal quantum computer could still be 10 to 20 years away, Professor Hollenberg says that demonstrating “quantum advantage” on a specific problem will be a major milestone for the field. And he expects to see education efforts increase dramatically.
“Training people to be quantum literate, to be able to program and understand what these computers do, will really take off in the next few years,” he says. “We’re working very hard on that front, too.”
The world of quantum computing is full of possibilities, but Professor Hollenberg says there is only one guarantee.
“No matter what, I’m sure that quantum will totally surprise us. It has done so, very reliably, in the past.”
Concerns about the role of artificial intelligence in surveillance and warfare, as well as its potential to cause job losses, means that ethics is the next big thing in the field, Dr Niels Wouters says.
“I think it will push innovation, and all of a sudden we’ll be talking about ‘AI for the greater good’ – for the public good – rather than purely for commercial interests,” he says.
“Another issue is that we’re offered all of these consumer devices that have some sort of AI built into them, and that are meant to make our lives easier – devices likes Amazon Alexa, Nest doorbells and so on.
The public need to better understand that in buying one of those devices, you’re becoming a guinea pig in somebody’s research.”
Still, the news isn’t all bad. Dr Wouters is particularly excited about AI developments in the health field.
“There’s a lot of innovation. AI is being used, for example, to detect illnesses like dementia and skin cancer – things that can take humans much more time to process.”
Dr Wouters says the opportunities for AI in healthcare are significant, because there’s always still a human that is using it.
“If an AI thinks a patient will eventually develop melanoma, there will still be a surgeon or trained doctor reviewing that information. But that’s often not the case when we’re talking about seemingly low-risk applications like surveillance and so on, where often an algorithm takes an action on its own.”
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