Science heroes and villains of 2008
By Rowan Hooper The collective brain of New Scientist has come up with 8 scientist heroes of the year and people to look out for in 2009, 3 non-scientists who deserve special mention – and two possible bad guys. Heroes first: Chu, Nobel laureate and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab director, was named in December as US energy secretary in Barack Obama’s incoming administration. The blogs erupted with excitement at the news. As a strong advocate both for scientific solutions to climate change and for carbon-neutral renewable sources of energy, Chu could well have made our list anyway – as energy boss of the most energy-hungry nation in the world, it seems certain that Chu will be one of the most influential scientists in 2009. Church, of Harvard University, launched the first company to offer complete genome sequences to customers (Knome, tagline: “know thyself”), started the first phase of an effort to publish 100,000 complete genomes, and is engineering bacteria to produce biofuels. On top of that, he published a cool paper showing that soil microbes – “ultra-bugs” – can use antibiotic drugs as their sole source of food. Pääbo, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, pioneered the sequencing of ancient DNA in the face of impossible-looking odds. This year, Pääbo and colleagues announced they had almost finished sequencing the genome of a Neanderthal (other researchers completed a rough draft of the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth). A real-life Jurassic Park remains science fiction – a Pleistocene Park might not be. In any case, Pääbo’s lab is doing amazing things on the technical side of sequencing and genome assembly that should pay dividends in biomedicine and forensics, as well as evolution. Stern, former NASA space chief. Stern resigned this year after refusing to cut costs on basic space research programmes. In late November, he wrote a scathing criticism of cost overruns at NASA for the New York Times and earlier in the year joked that the new term for distant, Pluto-like objects – plutoid – sounded like “hemorrhoid”, so it’s likely that we’ll hear from him again on a variety of topics in 2009. Pendry, of Imperial College London, works on a subject that caught the public imagination again this year: invisibility cloaks. While it’s going to be a while before we can play at being Harry Potter, Pendry gets credit for bringing fiendishly complex physics into the mainstream media. Smith, of the University of Arizona, is NASA’s chief scientist for the Mars Phoenix lander mission. Phoenix, the first mission to touch down in the Martian arctic, returned good news for people who want to find that there is or has been life on Mars, and thrilled millions with its images of the Martian surface. Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution, has been investigating geoengineering claims for years. This year he was brought in by the British government to talk about ways in which we could geoengineer the climate to save us from global warming. If we don’t get greenhouse gas emissions down, we’re going to need a Plan B – and people like Caldeira to do the research for us. He’s also been asked to organise a session on geoengineering in Copenhagen next year, where world leaders will meet to sign the successor to the Kyoto protocol. Evans, the boss of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, is the figure behind the biggest science story of the year. When the LHC was switched on in September it seemed that everyone was talking about God particles, dark matter, and whether other dimensions exist. A billion TV viewers watched the switch-on: physics has never been so sexy, and once the thing is repaired, we can look forward to getting some answers. Philip Munger, a music teacher and blogger in a Wasilla, Alaska, high school, did his bit for science in September. Munger confirmed that Sarah Palin, then the US Republican nominee for vice-president, believed that dinosaurs and humans coexisted 6000 years ago. Plenty of scientists offered their advice to the presidential candidates, but we nominate Munger for doing his bit to counter creationism. Claudia Castillo suffered a collapsed windpipe after a severe tuberculosis infection, and was barely able to breathe. She then made world headlines by becoming the first recipient of windpipe tissue constructed from a combination of donated tissue and her own cells. As one of the surgeons involved said, Castillo helped usher in a new age of surgical care. Barack Obama promised a new era of scientific innovation when he was elected in November, and has already picked an all-star science team to form his first administration. Environmentalists can now hope for leadership from the US when it comes to dealing with climate change. Bruce Ivins, the US army biodefence expert now blamed for the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US , died in July – an apparent suicide. The FBI are confident that Ivins was behind the attacks, which killed five people, and if they are right, Ivins is surely the “evil mad scientist” of the year, if not the decade. Yet whether the FBI’s evidence would have stood up in a court of law is unknown, as the scientific details of any genetic link between the anthrax spores posted in the attacks, and those in his lab, have not been released. Dale Hall, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), was instrumental in getting the polar bear listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act – the first species listed because of the threat of global warming. But a month after the polar bear was listed, Dale’s agency found itself in hot water when it was accused of granting oil companies the right to harass polar bears. Who have we missed out? And who is on our list that shouldn’t be?