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Science in the 21st Century: From studies of single-celled organisms to distant planets, Dædalus examines how science is changing our world


Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – From the invention of new life forms to the discovery of life beyond Earth, science is reshaping our understanding of the universe in the twenty-first century.

In the Summer 2012 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, leading scientists describe emerging advances in nanoscience, neuroscience, genetics, paleontology, microbiology, mathematics, planetary science, and plant biology, among other areas. The authors examine how their disciplines might address some of this century’s most critical challenges, such as treating an explosion of degenerative neurological disease and providing food, fuel and a habitable environment for a global population predicted to reach nine to ten billion by 2050.

Acknowledging that predicting the future is an inherently unscientific enterprise, guest editors Jerrold Meinwald, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Cornell University, and May R. Berenbaum, Professor of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked ten physical and biological scientists to answer the question: “What secrets will science unlock in the coming decades?” Their answers are full of the sense of wonder that drives scientific inquiry.

Bonnie L. Bassler (Princeton University) offers a tribute to the lowly bacteria. These one-celled organisms, she notes, are giving scientists new knowledge that “holds great promise for medical, agricultural, industrial, and technological applications.” In “Microbes as Menaces, Mates & Marvels,” Bassler writes that “microbes are the most promising source for the next generation of environmentally and politically neutral fuels.” Microbes also have unique characteristics that give them the ability to “consume, sequester, and degrade greenhouse pollutants.”

In “The Search for Habitable Worlds: Planetary Exploration in the 21st Century,” astronomer and planetary scientist Jim Bell (Arizona State University) foresees huge breakthroughs within the coming decades in the quest for life-supporting environments beyond Earth. He notes that recent discoveries of organisms able to thrive in environments previously believed too harsh to support life–miles below the ocean’s surface and deep in the Earth’s crust, for example–broaden the possibility that habitable environments exist on other planets. Planetary scientists, Bell writes, have “a list of the ‘greatest hits’ destinations” within our own solar system that will be observable through “more capable (and complex) human exploration.”

In “Small Machines,” Paul L. McEuen (Cornell University) describes the coming age of nanometer-scale machinery. “The lessons learned as we try to build ever-more sophisticated nanomachines will almost certainly inform our understanding of the origins of life,” McEuen writes. He speculates that within fifty years “we will have solved the riddle of the origin of life and will have created a few more examples of life in the process.”

Advances in genome sequencing and a “mechanistic understanding of plant biology” will allow scientists to modify many of the 180 plant species that humans rely on for food, feed, fiber, or fuel, according to Chris Somerville (University of California, Berkeley). In “Deciphering the Parts List for the Mechanical Plant,” Somerville predicts that through improved breeding techniques and genetic engineering, we will be able to optimize production for many climates and soils; make plants resistant to pests, pathogens, and drought; and grow crops in saline soils. Scientists may even be able to convert some annual species into perennials, Somerville writes.

Also in the volume:

Nima Arkani-Hamed, Institute for Advanced Study (“The Future of Fundamental Physics”), contends that while fundamental physics in the twentieth century was devoted to developing theories that unified relativity and quantum mechanics, the twenty-first century will be dominated by the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the origin and structure of space-time.

Daniel G. Nocera, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“Can We Progress from Solipsistic Science to Frugal Innovation?”) advocates “frugal innovation” in new energy technologies that can be adapted for use in the developing world–specifically, technologies that are light, highly manufacturable, robust, and low maintenance.

Gregory A. Petsko, Weill Cornell Medical College; Brandeis University (“The Coming Epidemic of Neurologic Disorders: What Science Is–and Should Be–Doing About It”) describes advances in our understanding of the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and the new therapies they suggest, while also urging increased investment in basic research by government and the private sector.

Neil H. Shubin, University of Chicago (“Fossils Everywhere”) writes that even ancient fossils have future relevance. The recent ability to link genes and fossils, Shubin explains, means that genes can predict likely places to find fossils, and that fossils can in turn help scientists interpret insights from genetics.

Terence Tao, University of California, Los Angeles (“E pluribus unum: From Complexity, Universality”) explains the mathematics of universality in complex systems, providing examples ranging from natural processes to social phenomena such as policy preferences.

David Tilman, University of Minnesota (“Biodiversity & Environmental Sustainability amid Human Domination of Global Ecosystems”) describes the increasing threats to Earth’s biodiversity caused by the demands of a rapidly growing world population.

“The essays in this volume provide a provocative look at cutting-edge science and how it shapes the world in which we live,” said American Academy President Leslie C. Berlowitz. “These emerging scientific advancements will play a major role in shaping our society.”

Order print and Kindle copies of the Summer 2012 Dædalus.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ( is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Current Academy research focuses on science, engineering, and technology; the humanities, arts, and education; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the world.


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