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2015, the year that was: Science + Technology

2015 saw us complete our exploration of all nine planets (including dwarf planet Pluto) in our solar system. NASA

2015, the year that was: Science + Technology

2015 saw us complete our exploration of all nine planets (including dwarf planet Pluto) in our solar system. NASA

This year came and went almost as fast as NASA’s New Horizons probe zipped past the distant dwarf planet, Pluto. Yet New Horizons managed to pack a lot into its flyby, revealing astounding images of Pluto that show it to be far from a static icy world.

And its mission isn’t over yet; New Horizons will now venture deep into the outer reaches of the solar system, probing the expanse of the Kuiper belt and shedding light on this ancient and hitherto unexplored region of space.

Fuelling planet fever (dwarf or otherwise) was also one of the most scientifically accurate – and science-celebrating – films to emerge from Hollywood in recent times: The Martian.

Being suck on Mars has never been so fun. 20th Century Fox

Eye in the sky

Speaking of space, this year was the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, which has proven to be one of the most enduringly popular and most successful scientific projects in history.

Besides its triumphs of discovery, Hubble has also generated a startling array of wonderous images of our universe. Best of all is when those images are both beautiful and richly informative.

Happy 25th Hubble! NASA

And speaking of anniversaries, it was one hundred years ago that Albert Einstein altered the face of physics by publishing his general theory of relativity. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this revelation about the nature of space and time.

It’s also difficult to fathom how just one man was able to come up with a theory of such breathtaking accuracy, and such profound beauty.

Smart batteries, smart houses

More down to earth were significant developments in battery technology. While we might not think of batteries as the glamorous vanguard of technology, they underpin the mobile technology we’ve become accustomed to, and they can also potentially transform the way we generate, store and consume energy.

At least, that’s what Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is banking on with the announcement of the company’s home battery offering, Powerwall.

The Tesla Powerwall could make solar power work all day and all night. Tesla Motors

Another technology that promises (or threatens, depending on your perspective) to transform the world is artificial intelligence, robotics and automation more generally.

The first wave is likely to be in the form of driverless cars, which will not only be safer and more efficient than those driven by hairless primates, but also could change the way we think of things like car ownership.

But then, what will happen to all those people who currently make a living from driving? Like many, they may lose their jobs to increasing automation. We may need to create new jobs in the wake of the robot invasion, but even that might not be enough.

More menacing is the prospect of lethal autonomous weapon systems, colloquially called “killer robots”. There are already defensive weapon systems that can operate autonomously, but this year saw a call by many of the leading AI and robotics researchers to ban offensive autonomous weapons.

The robots are coming, although they probably won’t look like this. Shutterstock

Digital scapes

This is not to say we don’t already have challenges to face in the digital world. Cybercrime is still a scourge, with it become more professional and businesslike over the year.

Hackers have a growing range of tools at their disposal to steal your identity, extort you, pilfer your information or even penetrate business or government. They can even remain hidden in the “dark web”.

Ultimately, there may be no simple technological panacea, except for us each to maintain vigilance. Although would be little solace to those exposed in the hack of dating website Ashley Madison.

They’re getting better at their business. Brian Klug/Flickr, CC BY-NC

True or false?

But you can’t believe everything you hear. This is especially if it sounds too good to be true, such as that eating chocolate helps you lose weight. Or that climate change is not real.

But there are things you can do to protect yourself – or inoculate yourself, if you will – from anti-science and quackery. There are a few techniques you can use to help debunk science denial when you see it.

Got to defend against the bad vibes. Bryan Rosengrant/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The Abbott government itself hit some bumps when it came to its support for science, particularly when it threatened to cut funding to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, or NCRIS.

Then Education Minister Christopher Pyne was hoping to hold NCRIS ransom to encourage researchers to back his proposed higher education reforms, but the scientific community was as one in its opposition to the cuts, arguing they’d hurt science, the economy and the nation at large.

The government eventually got the message and capitulated, with Minister Pyne continuing funding in the short term, then solidifying that funding following the change of Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull – at which point Christopher Pyne switched to the Innovation, Industry and Science portfolio and changed his tune on research considerably.

In fact, the Turnbull government’s gushing appreciation of science and optimistic spirit when it comes to innovation – backed by over A$1 billion in funding for science and commercialisation – changed the way many scientists felt about the government.

The new government has set a very different tone when it comes to science. AAP/Lukas Coch

2015 has been a year of milestones and triumphs for science and technology, although laced with a few cautionary messages. We’re now half way through the second decade of the 21st century, and it’s starting to feel like we’re genuinely living in the future – albeit not the future as envisaged by many in the 20th century.

With a new drive for innovation, greater appreciation of the role of science and the emergence of (dare we say) paradigm shifting technologies, such as automation and artificial intelligence, we may feel the lingering traces of the 20th century fall further into the past as 2016 takes over.

Top ten Science + Technology stories by readership in 2015:

  1. Explainer: what is the dark web? by David Glance
  2. Four easy tips to make your batteries last longer by Valentin Muenzel
  3. It’s often the puzzles that baffle that go viral by Jon Borwein
  4. Inskip beach collapse: just don’t call it a ‘sinkhole’ by Stephen Fityus
  5. The ‘other’ red meat on the ‘real’ palaeodiet by Darren Curnoe
  6. Seven myths about scientists debunked by Marguerite Evans-Galea, Jeffrey Craig
  7. European invasion: DNA reveals the origins of modern Europeans by Alan Cooper, Wolfgang Haak
  8. The verdict is in: feel-good exercise hormone irisin is real by Eliza Berlage
  9. Brain-to-brain interfaces: the science of telepathy by Kristyn Bates
  10. The smell of rain: how CSIRO invented a new word by Howard Poynton