Noughtie but nice

There was much to celebrate in this decade: IT and medical breakthroughs and the further erosion of poverty.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

The year 2000 started with a panic about computer-induced meltdown, caused by the ‘Millennium Bug’. The fear was that important software was still in use from the days when using two digits to represent the year, rather than four, was actually a handy way to save expensive computer resources. But Y2K turned out just fine, and the subsequent 10 years have seen a great leap forward in computer and communication technology.

Back in 2000, I was a newly qualified computer programmer working on just the kind of old legacy computer code that threatened to be chock full of Millennium bugs. Then I left it all behind to work for spiked, Britain’s first dedicated, online current affairs magazine as IT manager. But my main memories of that time are tearing my hair out over the company’s internet connection. Our shiny new broadband connection – we got in early while everyone else still used dial-up internet – didn’t so much produce a torrent of data as a tap-like drip (see The Zen of ADSL, by Rob Lyons).

Things have certainly changed for the better. This is the decade in which broadband went from novelty to ubiquity. We now expect to be able to get megabits-per-second speeds not just on our workplace desktops, but even on our phones. Britain’s broadband is still way too slow, particularly in comparison to the gigabits-per-second connections now being rolled out in South Korea. But the internet came of age in the Noughties.

The result was endless communication: not just email, but MySpace (so new, but so over), Facebook, Twitter, Skype and a plethora of instant messaging services, spawning both endless new ways to keep in touch and innumerable PhD theses on the sociology of it all. Broadband may also be the death of the numerous traditional ways of delivering news, from radio and television to newspapers. We just haven’t figured out where the technology will take us, yet, and how we’re going to pay for it all.

While I was qualifying as a computer programmer, I sold PCs in a shop in Edinburgh. When I worked there, computers arrived with new-fangled gizmos called DVD drives. ‘What’s it for?’, the customers would ask. ‘You can watch films on it’, I would tell them, prompting sceptical questions about where such disks could be purchased. ‘Errr… the Sony shop has a selection of… ummm… 20 different titles!’ This was not a great selling point and, after a while, I stopped mentioning the DVD drives. Now, DVD has gone from new to standard to old hat. How we watch films and television, listen to music and play games has been revolutionised in the Noughties. Okay, it’s not France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, but it’s still pretty neat.

The transformation is in many ways summed up by the news that Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ is Britain’s Christmas number one in the music charts. It’s the story of a campaign created on a social networking website to buy a song which isn’t even available in a physical format like CD anymore and make it a hit. The song sucks, but the technology that enabled it to be a hit once more still manages to invoke astonishment. The World Wide Web, invented by geeks at a Swiss physics research centre to allow them to share documents more easily, has been as remarkable a technical and social change as we’ve seen since the Second World War.

Talking of Swiss physics research geeks, one of the other great scientific moments of the Noughties was the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Okay, admittedly the damn thing broke down due to, in the first instance, dodgy wiring and more recently a piece of baguette, but all seems well now. It can only be a matter of time before we find the Higgs Boson, whatever that is. The great thing about the LHC is that it is Big Science, ambitious enough to further the boundaries of our knowledge with no really obvious, immediate payback. There will undoubtedly be lots of benefits in decades to come, but for now we’re mostly just learning new stuff about the nature of the universe simply because it’s there.

The downside with the LHC is that nobody who doesn’t have a degree in physics has a clue what on earth it’s all about, whereas landing on the Moon or Mars is much easier to get your head around. This year marked 40 years since men first set foot on our nearest neighbour and it is sad to note that we haven’t been back for a long time. But in the past few years we’ve discovered that the Moon, and indeed Mars, have substantial amounts of water. That means the notion that we could visit other places in the solar system and set up camp is no longer a pipe dream (see The spectacular discovery no one is talking about, by Sean Collins).

We’ve also discovered loads of other places in the Noughties to go and visit in the future. Pluto, identified in 1930, controversially lost its status as a planet, partly because we’ve found a number of other not-quite-planets including, in 2005, a body bigger than Pluto called Eris. So now there are only eight proper planets and an increasing number of ‘dwarf planets’ in our solar system. This has opened up a whole new vista of worlds we might one day explore while starting innumerable pub quiz arguments led by smart arses who read New Scientist and know that Pluto’s not a planet. That’s not to forget the ever-increasing number of extra-solar planets – or ‘exoplanets’ – discovered in the past 10 years, including 75 in 2009 alone.

From extraterrestrial bodies to the inner workings of our own: the start of the Noughties saw the culmination of the Human Genome Project, the unravelling of our genetic code. A working draft was published in 2000 by the University of California, Santa Cruz with a complete version published in 2003. Since then, the ability to decode genomes has come on leaps and bounds, not least thanks to the same strides in computer processing power that allowed the communications breakthroughs mentioned earlier. Understanding our genetic make-up is no panacea, nor does it prove we are little more than the product of our DNA, but it will allow us eventually to have a better understanding of what causes some diseases and how to treat many more.

Genetics provided two other great, if very different, areas for innovation in the Noughties. Genetically modified crops really started to take off in the past 10 years, most notably through the popularity of pest-resistant and pesticide-resistant varieties of soya, maize and cotton. While Europe has turned its collective nose up at the technology, the rest of the world has been embracing it. GM isn’t the only answer to feeding the world and providing new sources of energy (through specially created plants for biofuels), but it could be a vital element of the solution to both hunger and ‘clean’ energy. Stem-cell research has tremendous promise, too, particularly following the work of Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, whose team in 2007 managed to ‘reprogramme’ adult skin cells to act like stem cells. In theory, this could allow the creation of any kind of human cell – perhaps even body parts – perfectly matched to the recipient, avoiding transplant waiting lists and organ rejection.

Yet the great breakthroughs of the past 10 years haven’t always been scientific. For example, the Tata Nano – a proper car for about 100,000 rupees or roughly $2,000 – didn’t really rely on any great technical leaps. Rather, it represents a social leap – making modern comfortable driving available to a much wider section of an up-and-coming society like India. It is also a four-wheeled rebuttal of the green demand that we all travel less. If we face problems, whether economic, social or environmental, the answer is to solve them so that we can get the things we want – like better transport – not run away from them and make do with less. The Nano is a neat embodiment of that aspiration.

But perhaps the real breakthrough of the Noughties was the emergence of new economic powers like India. The giant of them all is China. The country’s economic growth over the past 30 years has lifted 235million people out of absolute poverty and been responsible for 67 per cent of the recent total reduction in global poverty over that period. China’s gross domestic product has more than doubled in the past decade and it now vies with Japan as the second largest economy in the world after the USA, while Brazil (10th) and India (12th) are rising fast up the economic league table. If these trends continue, they will have a profound effect on global economics and politics for decades to come. For the time being, however, these new economies represent the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty at a rate unheard of in human history.

Such nations, each with their own particular problems and skills, also provide a whole new arena for science, innovation and technological progress. When Western societies seem increasingly struck with a malaise about science and technology, we need all the new minds we can get.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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Topics Science & Tech


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