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Opinion | What Am I Thankful for This Year? Amazing Scientific Discoveries.

Admin By Admin Nov25,2023

I’ll wager that the event of 2023 that will change our lives the most in coming years is not the sighting of a Chinese spy balloon, the failure of Silicon Valley Bank, the fall of Kevin McCarthy’s speakership or any of the other eruptions that transfixed us this year.

More likely, the event that’s judged most transformative will be some scientific or technological advance that only a handful of people know about right now — because that’s how things almost always go. The first time the word “transistor” appeared in print was in an article in The New York Times in 1948, on Page 46, following a report on two new radio shows, “Mr. Tutt” and “Our Miss Brooks.” I think we can agree that the transistor has had more impact on our daily lives in the 75 years since than either of those bits of entertainment.

The ups and downs of the business cycle that I usually write about are important. Elections matter. Wars matter. But over the sweep of history, it’s been the advance of science and technology that has changed our lives the most, and mostly for the better. That’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving.

So here’s to the domestication of animals, such as turkeys; the harnessing of fire, for cooking turkeys; and the invention of the wheel, or rather wheels, upon which to Grandmother’s house we go. Not to mention Covid vaccines, without which Grandmother wouldn’t let us through the front door.

This holiday weekend, I’m taking a break from the usual economics fare to celebrate some of the past year’s scientific and technological advances. Partly because they’re important and partly because they’re just so cool.

Here’s one: Artificial intelligence is battling the scourge of multidrug-resistant bacteria. In May, scientists from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and elsewhere reported in the journal Nature Chemical Biology that they had used machine learning to come up with a compound against Acinetobacter baumannii, which can infect people with catheters or on ventilators in hospitals. The scientists tested around 7,500 molecules for their effectiveness against it, then poured the data into a neural network that looked for commonalities among the effective ones, then used the resulting model on 6,680 molecules it hadn’t been exposed to before. The one that was the most potent against A. baumannii had originally been explored as a treatment for kidney damage from diabetes.

Artificial intelligence has its scary aspects, but in this case it’s doing something unquestionably good.

While we’re on medicine: University of Minnesota researchers reported this year that they had managed to preserve rat kidneys for 100 days at ultralow temperatures, rewarm them, and successfully transplant them into other rats. That’s fantastic news for rats, but also for people with failing kidneys. The researchers infused the kidneys with protective fluids and iron oxide nanoparticles and then rapidly cooled them without forming ice crystals. The main advance was rewarming them from within, rapidly and uniformly, by placing them in an alternating magnetic field that caused the nanoparticles to oscillate and generate heat, as Science and Scientific American explained. The researchers hope to start trials on human-scale organs.

A little over a year ago, researchers from China and Japan reported that they had devised a better way to produce ammonia, which is heavily used in fertilizer production and will likely be an important energy carrier in the hydrogen-based economy of the future. Synthesizing ammonia the standard way, using iron-based catalysts at high temperature and pressure in a process known as Haber-Bosch, uses a lot of energy and generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Ruthenium, a relative of platinum, catalyzes the synthesis without that high pressure and temperature, but it’s an expensive metal. To lower the cost, researchers have tried using catalysts consisting of metals such as nickel or cobalt on a “support” of lanthanum nitride. But the lanthanum nitride is easily broken down by moisture. The scientists added aluminum atoms to the lanthanum nitride, which chemically stabilized it.

These are just examples, of course, and maybe not even the best ones. I’ve gone into a bit of detail on them to convey the researchers’ cleverness. Nature reveals her secrets grudgingly. The people at the leading edge of science and technology, who discover those secrets, are the best of the best. These three discoveries alone could make our lives materially better: fewer hospital-acquired infections, more kidneys available for transplantation, fewer greenhouse gases.

There’s also knowledge for the sake of knowledge. As the newsletter Laboratory Equipment reports in its own year-end review, an international team of scientists used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope “to detect a new carbon compound in space for the first time.” The compound, methyl cation, which was detected “in a young star system” in the Orion Nebula, is a precursor to carbon-based molecules that are “the foundation of life as we know it,” as NASA posted, dramatically. (Beautiful images here.)

We won’t be checking out those methyl cation molecules firsthand because it would take around 1,350 years to get to them, even traveling at the speed of light. But it’s good to know they’re there. Just as it’s good to know that, as Science Daily wrote recently, “10 newly discovered species of trilobites, hidden for 490 million years in a little-studied part of Thailand, could be the missing pieces in an intricate puzzle of ancient world geography.” The trilobites, by the way, “breathed through their legs.”

Science and technology. So great. So worthy of our thanks this Thanksgiving weekend.

I worked as a union ironworker years ago on a plant of WaferTech, which is a subsidiary of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company plant in Camas, Wash. The construction company brought in nonunion workers from Arizona to help with the job. Now Arizona is facing the same labor shortage. Many of our construction companies chose to go with untrained, nonunion workers. Now our country is paying the price. What is next? Get rid of the rest of our skilled tradesman? Make this country like Saudi Arabia?

Bill Decker
Bullhead City, Ariz.

“Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods.”

— C.S. Lewis, “The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II” (2004)

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