The more you know
March 24, 2008 5:18 PM   Subscribe

How has our understanding of Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, etc. changed in the last five years?

When I first started university I heard a lot of tales on how an education doesn't really instill 'facts', but instead improves a student's overall thinking ability. The key point in a lot of these lectures was that by the time I was five years past graduation most of what I had learned during my degree would be proven wrong, or at least incomplete.

So, fast forward a bit, and I'm wondering. How has our understanding of the world/ourselves really changed in the last five years?
posted by Orange Pamplemousse to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Pluto isn't a planet.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:26 PM on March 24, 2008

World famous scientists answer the question: What have you changed your mind about? Why? in Edge magazine here. Some truly fascinating answers.
posted by peacheater at 5:34 PM on March 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

"The key point in a lot of these lectures was that by the time I was five years past graduation most of what I had learned during my degree would be proven wrong, or at least incomplete"
I think that's one thing you learnt during your degree that's turned out to be wrong. Certainly sometimes major things can change in the space of five years, but I struggle to think of anything since 2003 that's really overturned the large part of a subject area.

I don't think Pluto counts. We've changed the label that applies to it, but not dramatically changed our opinion of what it is.
posted by edd at 5:42 PM on March 24, 2008

The universe was calculated as 13.7 billion-years-old to within an estimated accuracy of <1>
The north pole is melting faster than the global warming models predicted.

Stephen Hawking said he was wrong about black holes.

This summer the Large Hadron Collider will either start finding the Higgs Boson or physicists may have to revise the Standard Model of fundamental particles.
posted by McLir at 5:49 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

The <1> up there was to supposed to mean "less than 1 percent."
posted by McLir at 5:50 PM on March 24, 2008

The key point in a lot of these lectures was that by the time I was five years past graduation most of what I had learned during my degree would be proven wrong, or at least incomplete.

It is a completely absurd statement.

I mean, if you want to be very open minded about reading the statement, you could find some truth.. Most workplaces insist you know certain tools (just look at Jobs to see what I mean), and certain tools can become obsolete quickly. Knowledge in the hard sciences though.. No.

CBC Radio's Ideas is doing a great series: How to Think About Science, which might bring some interesting perspective to the rest of your question.
posted by Chuckles at 6:10 PM on March 24, 2008

biology has changed with the constant improvement in stem cell research and transplanting techniques.

Chemistry has changed/improved with regards to controlling molecules/atoms on the nano-scale. The manipulation of things like carbon nanotubes has improved greatly. OLEDs and molecules for storing data have had similar improvements.
posted by Hypharse at 6:13 PM on March 24, 2008

In physics, the last major major advance was about ten years ago, with the discovery of the acceleration of the cosmic expansion in 1997. This caused a revolution in cosmology; our answer to the question "What, on the whole, is the matter and energy in the Universe comprised of?" is radically different than it was back then.

More importantly, though, I think you're underestimating the amount of time that it takes for conceptual shifts to occur in the natural sciences. The case for the cosmological constant (the main new idea in cosmology) wasn't really iron-clad until 2003, when the first results from WMAP were released. Even then, it wasn't really a fundamental reconception of how the Universe worked, on a deep level; it was merely a discovery of a hard-to-detect form of energy that we had previously missed. The truly fundamental changes in the ways of thinking about things, in my opinion, take decades to take root.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:21 PM on March 24, 2008

What mclir says about the 1% measurement - sure, cosmology has got more accurate, but nothing has changed fundamentally since the events Johnny Assay describes. Here's a summary of the state of affairs in 2002 and the cosmological model is the same as it is now, just with more tightly constrained parameters. Certainly none of the basic cosmology someone would have learnt at that time (2002) has been overturned, so it doesn't apply as an example of what the questioner is after. If this question had been asked five years ago, Johnny Assay's answer would have been the perfect example of this sort of thing, and people are still being taught things that are wrong in school ten years later because textbooks have yet to be replaced and (bogglingly for me) even some exam boards have yet to catch up. I'd worry if the incorrect material was being taught at college level though.
posted by edd at 6:44 PM on March 24, 2008

Sounds like a job for Thomas Kuhn. You need to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This is a good book about the history of (hard) science, and specifically how fast (or how slow) science changes. Because it's not linear. Sometimes you'll find yourself in the middle of a period of rapid change (revolutionary science) and at other times, in periods of "normal science" which is to say incremental science.

The book won't answer your direct question above, but it's a great / quick read.

My take on your question: We are about to enter into a period of radically changing the standard model of relativity and gravity and the whole kit-n-kaboodle of cosomology. The goddam galaxies and galaxy clusters are NOT predicted to be the way they are by our current understandings of cosmology. This is why physicists have to invent crazy exotic shit like "dark energy" and "dark matter" in order to explain it. Oh yeah philogistan? Oh yeah aether? Edd's comment is right on... but only for now. There are some huge things that are not (well) explained by the current cosmological theories. We are about to enter (IMO) a period of revolutionary science in astrophis and cosmology. I can't wait.
posted by zpousman at 7:28 PM on March 24, 2008

A couple of medical changes have come to light (probably outside your span of 5 years, but close enough) that I think have led and will lead to more upturnings of medical "facts". That HPV, a virus, causes cancer. I think we'll find more cancers that are caused by viruses. And that ulcers are caused by infection, not (just) bad diet and luck.

zpousman- I agree. Or at least I hope- I agree with Einstein's "god doesn't play dice with the universe" quip. Some of the hacks they are coming up with to explain things don't pass my (admittedly ignorant) smell test.
posted by gjc at 8:10 PM on March 24, 2008

We have more states of matter, or at least we now realize that.
posted by caddis at 9:47 PM on March 24, 2008

You could do a search at Science magazine for the breakthough of the year (and the runners up) for the last 5 years. This is a pretty good indicator of what the scientists judge as most important discoveries.

The last 5 years:

2007: Human genetic variation is much much more (and of a different form) than expected
2006: Poincaré Conjecture solved
2005: Evolution in action (chimp genome, speciation, evolutionary medicine)
2004: Mars once had water
2003: Dark energy and Matter, aging and speed of expansion of the universe
posted by scodger at 9:54 PM on March 24, 2008

the importance of noncoding 'junk' dna seems to be a pretty big revolution in genomics. IAMNB (biologist) but that and the decoded genome seem like they fit the bill.
posted by Large Marge at 10:37 PM on March 24, 2008

'2003: Dark energy and Matter, aging and speed of expansion of the universe'
As I said just before, we only really got more accurate on that front. I don't consider anything that happened then as really showing our knowledge was incomplete or wrong. In fact, to some extent given the improvement in constraints we did get in 2002 it's more surprising it didn't change. It was more a remarkably strong confirmation of what was already believed.

I'm no biologist, but it sounds like 2005's 'breakthrough' is in the same camp.

Maybe it goes to show how often things do get overturned if we think it's a breakthrough when they don't!
posted by edd at 7:11 AM on March 25, 2008

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