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Year in Review

What will be the big science stories of 2019? Here are our predictions

By
6:00am, December 28, 2018
image of the center of the Milky Way galaxy

In 2019, data from the Event Horizon Telescope could reveal an image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy (Milky Way center shown). 

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Entire disciplines are devoted to predicting the future. Trained forecasters use data, trends, human behavior and more to predict what lies ahead.

Exactly no one at Science News is a quantitative forecaster or futurist. But we do hear what scientists are buzzing about at meetings, on social media and while reporting stories. So when we asked our writers to predict the big science stories of 2019, each person brought well-informed insights, with a dash of optimism (and sometimes pessimism), to the task. Here’s what they had to say.

Mark your calendars

This first set feels a bit like cheating: Some already scheduled happenings will no doubt lead to big findings.

The Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, starts its third observing run in February. With upgrades, LIGO may detect many more black hole mergers than it saw in past runs, astronomy writer Lisa Grossman says.

And our moon will get a lot of traffic in 2019, she adds. China expects to land the first sample-return mission on the moon since 1976 (SN: 11/24/18, p. 14). India will head to the moon’s south pole. And the Israeli company SpaceIL will send its own spacecraft.

Grossman and physics writer Emily Conover also put their money on 2019 as the year we finally get a glimpse of a black hole – if the Event Horizon Telescope captures Sagittarius A* , the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Our prediction that the telescope would capture that prize as early as 2017 was a tad premature.

Meanwhile, the Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August, will fly close to the sun in April and in September to yield never-before-seen details about our star (SN: 7/21/18, p. 12).

In 2019, the Parker Solar Probe will make two of its planned 24 orbits of the sun. 

This is us

Bruce Bower, who covers behavioral sciences and human evolution, went meta with his main prediction. “Scientific focus will intensify on what it means to be human, and how evolution produced us,” he says. When did the current set of human characteristics emerge? How about the mental capacity of modern people? Did interbreeding with other Homo species play a role? “Anthropologists, archaeologists and geneticists will all weigh in,” Bower says.

Our brains are one thing that makes us human, and neuroscience writer Laura Sanders predicts that in 2019, scientists will finally figure out the purpose of the claustrum. This paper-thin sheet covers the insular cortex, a brain structure involved in emotional processing. The claustrum was once theorized to be the seat of human consciousness. “This is one of the most mysterious parts of the human brain,” Sanders says.

The 2017-2018 flu season was harsh, causing 80,000 U.S. deaths and sending some 900,000 people to the hospital (SN Online: 9/27/18). Biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham wonders if 2019 will be the year for a universal flu vaccine (SN: 10/28/17, p. 18). She also predicts we’ll see ramped up production of cell-based vaccines, which are reportedly 20 percent more effective than widely used vaccines grown in chicken eggs.  

A new record for a superconductivity cliché

We’ve started a handful of stories with “ultracold superconductors are heating up.” We’ll be saying it again in 2019, Conover says. She reported in September that lanthanum-hydrogen compounds under pressure showed signs of superconductivity — transmitting electricity without resistance — at 215 kelvins (−58° Celsius) to 280 kelvins (about 7° C), the warmest temperatures yet for superconductivity (SN: 10/13/18, p. 6). If those results hold up, the compounds will set the record for the highest temperature superconductor.

Conover will also be watching how work unfolds on layered graphene, which may show a type of superconductivity seen in other materials that scientists still can’t explain, she says (SN: 3/31/18, p. 13).

We hope we’re wrong

On to our gloomy predictions. Technology writer Maria Temming expects there will be more accidents involving self-driving cars in 2019 — because there will be more self-driving cars on the road from companies such as Waymo and General Motors (SN Online: 3/19/18). New safety standards may not require driverless vehicles to have steering wheels, mirrors or pedals. A hands-off setup would make it difficult — or impossible — for a person to take control if something goes wrong.  

Biology writer Susan Milius worries about the fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, nicknamed Bsal. It is attacking salamanders in Europe, spread from Asia via the pet trade. “I dread the morning I turn on my computer and see notification that this newly emerging pathogen has reached North America,” which is particularly rich in salamander diversity, she says. “Maybe I will be luckily wrong for another year.”

The regulatory balance

Regulatory agencies will keep busy in 2019. Staff writer Laurel Hamers has her eye on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, chemicals used in nonstick coatings and firefighting foams that have become persistent contaminants of U.S. water sources (SN: 11/24/18, p. 18). “It’s a topic area to watch, both research-wise and regulations-wise,” Hamers says.

Regulatory groups have their eye on the gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 as well. In 2018, the European Union set stringent rules on gene-edited crops. Will other countries follow? And what will be the fallout of the explosive announcement that gene-edited babies were born in China? Molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey wants to know.

Here come the data

Climate change will continue to be a big story. As earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling noted in our top story of 2018 (SN: 12/22/18 & 1/5/29, p. 18), the last year has brought studies connecting climate change to extreme events such as Hurricane Florence and Asia’s 2016 heat wave. These climate attribution studies will become more common, she predicts.

To slow climate change and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels will require technology that can remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. “I’m predicting that research on this will kick into high gear,” Gramling says. “Or maybe I’m just hoping.”

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