Last year, I listed three science stories to watch for in 2017: gravitational waves, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene splicer, and Planet 9. Gravitational waves ended up leading to a new type of astronomy in 2017, while CRISPR/Cas9 can now change DNA in human embryos and can prevent hearing loss. Still no Planet 9 though, we’re still looking for a ninth planet.

“If you change your mind, I’ll be first in line, I’m still free, take a chance on me” – Pluto

Still, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. Now that I’ve earned your undying trust, here’s three other stories to watch for in 2018.

NASA Launches a Probe to the Sun

I’ve given NASA a hard time in the past, but sometimes they come up with some cool things. Take, for example, the Parker Solar Probe, a robotic spacecraft NASA is launching to take a closer look at the sun. The probe will get within 6 million kilometers of the sun (Earth in 149.6 million km from the sun), where solar intensity is 520 times what it is here.

Accordingly, NASA has equipped the probe with the thirst-quenching power of Sprite

To get that close to the sun, NASA created a solar shadow-shield from a reinforced carbon-carbon composite, creating a shadow where the probe’s scientific instruments are located. That’s right, NASA’s big idea for reaching the sun is a giant awning. I assume they will also give it one of those little hand-held fans.

Behold the unspeakable technology of NASA

The Parker Solar Probe will check out the sun’s magnetic fields at the sources of solar wind, and find the flow of energy that heats the sun’s corona. The probe will also eventually orbit at 200 km/s, making it the fastest manmade object ever. NASA will launch the probe in the summer; it should reach its first orbiting distance by November 2018.

Or maybe it will just melt. Fun either way.

Flu Season May Get Real Nasty This Year

Creating flu vaccines is a constant battle. “The flu” actually refers to a series of influenza virus strains that constantly mutate and evolve, meaning flu vaccines have to change with them. Scientists have long worried about vaccines killing off weaker flu strains, leaving stronger, vaccine-resistant strains to evolve and create a super-flu pandemic.

Only Dr. Mario could save us then

I’m not saying there will be a deadly superflu in 2018, but it does look like the viruses could be getting stronger this year. Usually flu vaccines provide effective coverage in 40-60% of the time, but winter 2017-2018 is looking more like 10%.

Which, incidentally, was my average test score in undergrad epidemiology

This is because the most problematic flu strain – H3N2 – has split from one root virus to five, and flu vaccine effectiveness rates are dropping accordingly. Which means January and February could be particularly icky for everyone.

This is pretty much every subway this winter

Scientists are Boldly Pushing to New Horizons…in Politics

The biggest breakthrough in science in 2018 may not actually be a scientific breakthrough. See, 2017 was a kind of a terrible year for science policy, especially in the United States. From the CDC getting banned from using 7 science-based words (including “science-based”) to the EPA firing half the scientists on its advisory board and straight-up abandoning most of its climate change policies, American science got its teeth kicked in during 2017.

                  Who would’ve thought a man who intentionally stares at solar eclipses has no use for science advisors?

But scientists have mobilized. First there was the March for Science. Then they created 314 Action, an organization dedicated to recruiting people with science backgrounds into running for office. And they have candidates: the 2018 ballots for federal office will include a stem-cell researcher, a pediatrician, and software developer. Their rallies will no doubt be accompanied by PowerPoint presentations.

Their campaign flyers are actually poster handouts

The idea is that if politicians will push out science, then scientists will push into politics. Even if they don’t get elected, they can increase the interest in science policy and bring a much-needed voice for the scientific community in the political world.

“Can we overcome our crippling social inadequacies to make people care about science? YES WE CAN!”

So watch for 314 Action candidates on the federal ballots this year. Or check out their candidates now, on a page modelled to look like the periodic table. Heck, maybe someday a scientist will become President. It would be no worse than a reality TV star in office, and a scientist would be far better at reading.

Plus, every State of the Union would be broadcast over WebCT

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “314” in 314 Action represents the first three digits of pi. These people are nerdy as hell, and they don’t care who knows it!

“We’re here! We’re clear! Our work is reviewed by our peers!”
Dan can’t run for office due to several felony convictions. Have a question you want him to answer? Email him or post on our Facebook / Twitter to see your topic covered here.
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Dan Re