New scientific discoveries are made every day. From medical breakthroughs to the discovery of new species here on earth and new planets in our solar system, all these discoveries contribute towards advancing our understanding of the world and the universe we live in.
Actually, you only have to look at the number of scientific articles published every year to see just how much more we know about our world now, than we did ten years ago. To prove this, estimates suggest that 2.5 million new scientific research papers are published every year in over 28,000 peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Not all of these scientific discoveries will be as ground-breaking as E=mc2 or Alexander Fleming finding penicillin, but they will all have some implications for the future of life on earth – for good or for bad. They may also have implications for life on other planets in the universe too…
Of course, there are some scientific breakthroughs that sound more like something out of a sci-fi movie, and others whose potential implications might keep you awake at night! So, let’s look at the following list of some of the most disturbing scientific discoveries made in the last ten years. Which one gives you the most cause for concern?
15. 3D Printed Human Skin
3D printers have been one of the most intriguing inventions of recent times, and can be used to “print” everything from machine parts to working guns. In 2017, a Spanish university went a step further and created a 3D bioprinter than can print working human skin, complete with epidermis, dermis and collagen, which replicates the elasticity of real skin. Although this has the potential to have some very positive uses, such as in skin transplants or in cosmetic testing in place of animals, the idea of human parts being mechanically created by machines will seem disturbing to many people.
14. ‘Kryptonite’ Discovered
In 2007, a new mineral was discovered in a mine in Serbia. Scientists were intrigued to discover that its chemical formula – sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide – was almost identical to that of Kryptonite, the fictitious material which saps Superman’s strength. In the film Superman Returns, arch villain Lex Luthor describes the chemical composition of Kryptonite in great detail, and the new mineral, called Jadarite after the town where it was discovered, matches it almost perfectly, aside from the absence of fluorine and the fact that it doesn’t have a mysterious green glow. While this may not be disturbing to most of us, it will no doubt cause you concern if you are a superhero from Krypton living an incognito life in Metropolis.
13. Self-Replicating Synthetic Organisms
California researchers announced in 2014 that they had created the first self-replicating synthetic organism, which contained not just the DNA found in all life on earth, but also laboratory-made “alien” DNA. The team used E.coli bacteria and inserted their alien DNA. When the bacteria self-replicated, scientists found that the alien DNA had replicated along with the more conventional DNA normally found in E.coli. While the research was carried out with the honourable intention of creating new types of medical treatments, there are those who are also concerned about the prospect of augmented bacteria escaping the lab, and the diseases it could end up causing.
12. Micromotors Inserted In Humans
The idea of tiny machines moving about inside humans has been a favourite of science fiction movies for years, but in 2015 a team of researchers from San Diego announced that they had created nanotechnology which had successfully been fed to mice, and which could be developed in the future to be used to deliver medication to animal or human patients. The micromotors developed in their research were just 20 micrometres long and were no thicker than a human hair. Although these particular microscopic machines are being developed to do good, there is nothing to stop science fiction becoming science fact, if those with more evil intentions get a hold of the technology.
11. There Are 1 Billion Earth-Like Planets
If you are one of those people who worry about the prospect of intelligent life from other planets invading earth, then the NASA’s 2014 news about the number of potentially habitable planets will leave you lying awake at night. NASA scientists, looking at evidence from the Kepler space telescope, estimated that there are 1 billion earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. An earth-like planet is one which is around the same size and the same distance from a sun-like star as our home world, although there is not necessarily any proof that these planets have water or any of the atoms thought to be required for life. Nevertheless, this is one discovery which should have all of us watching the night skies with a little more interest.
10. Three Parent Embryos
The scientific breakthrough which allows for the creation of three parent embryos was made in 2013, and the first child of three parents was born in the US in 2016, after his parents underwent the treatment in Mexico. Three parent embryos can be used to help women who want to become pregnant, but who are worried about passing on genetic conditions to their children. Healthy mitochondrial cells from a donor are used to try and prevent genetic conditions from being passed on, while keeping the genetic information from both parents that would make the child theirs. The concerns here are ethical, as the idea of a child with three biological parents makes many people uncomfortable. There are also some doubts about the efficacy of this treatment, and no-one really knows what the long-term effects may be on children born as a result of this therapy.
9. Lab-Created Highly Contagious Strain Of Bird Flu
Many of the most important scientific discoveries in history have involved medicine, and some of them have involved some risky strategies in order to make progress. In 2011, a Dutch laboratory created a highly contagious strain of bird flu, in a bid to understand more about the disease and to work out how to prevent and treat it should bird flu naturally become more contagious among humans. Of course, there are risks with such experiments – not least the risk that such diseases can escape the laboratory, either accidentally or on purpose, putting thousands or even millions of lives at risk. Scientists have to make difficult decisions between safety and the need to learn more about our world – and the things that could put our survival at risk.
8. Bees Have Emotions
London-based researchers discovered in 2016 that bees feel emotions – or at least they feel something like happiness after they received a treat of sugar water. The team found that bees that were given the treat were quicker to respond to stimuli than those who had gone without, leading to the conclusion that they may feel a physical version of the emotion we could describe as “happiness”. Why is this a disturbing scientific discovery? Well, for those who have a fear of bees – or more accurately of being stung by bees – the news that they can feel happiness leads to the very obvious conclusion that they can also feel negative emotions. And no-one wants to deal with an angry bee.
7. Lab-Grown Donor Organs
Scientists across the world have been trying to develop new technology to tackle the shortage of donor organs. A Japanese team looking into this very issue became the first to “grow” a functioning human liver from stem cells in 2013, but we are a long way from the first stem cell liver transplant. There are also still a lot of problems that need resolving before synthetic organs will become the norm. In addition to fixing the technical problems of rejection and infection, scientists will also have to overcome ethical objections to the use of stem cells, and the squeamishness that some people – though probably not those needing the donor organ – will feel at the idea of using livers, heart and kidneys that have been created in a laboratory.
6. Plastics Cause Infertility
Bisphenol A or BPA is found in a lot of plastic products, including many food storage boxes and containers – even soda cans. For years, no-one gave BPA much thought, but then research began, and in 2014, it was found that not only can this chemical find its way into the food and drinks the containers are holding, but also, once it has been consumed by humans, BPA acts as a synthetic oestrogen. Consequently, exposure to BPA can lead to fertility problems or the growth of tumours in the uterus; long-term exposure can also increase the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, breast cancer or having a heart attack. The FDA has called for more research, but it has already outlawed the use of BPA in baby products, such as sippy cups and bottles, suggesting that future bans might be on their way.
5. There Is A Frozen Lake On Mars
The idea of little green men on Mars has been a staple of science fiction novels and movies for decades, but in recent years, NASA has thwarted all those plotlines with numerous definitive proofs that there is no life on Mars. However, what they haven’t been able to definitely state is that there was never life of Mars. In fact, in 2016 NASA scientists discovered that there is a frozen lake under the surface of Mars that holds about the same amount of water as Lake Superior. Seeing as water is widely considered to be one of the essentials for any life, especially microscopic life, it could well be that in past millennia, Mars wasn’t the lifeless planet we see today. And maybe, if the temperature on Mars increases and all that ice melts, it could support human settlements in the future!
4. There Is Artificial Amnesia
Scientists at the University of Cambridge developed an intriguing new technique for treating phobias and other anxieties in 2016, using artificial intelligence to wipe or overwrite the unpleasant memories of their test subjects. The technique involved using artificial intelligence to look for patterns in brain activities, and to offer the subject a reward when it sensed that they were about to feel fear. This could help doctors in the future to deprogram people from being afraid or feeling anxious about certain objects or situations. Naturally, for something which has been developed to do good, this sort of technology could also be used to reprogram the brain in other, less altruistic ways.
3. Robot Surgeons
In 2016, the first autonomous surgery was carried out by a robot, paving the way for future mechanical medics to take the place of human doctors. Although this first operation by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) was carried out on a pig, the technology has been developed to work on humans, to carry out specialist surgeries faster, and with more accuracy than human surgeons can currently manage. Whether patients would be happy to put their lives in the “hands” of a robot remains to be seen, but machines are playing an increasingly important role in medical treatment, and this new innovation could be seen as simply the next stage in that process.
2. Intergalactic DNA Can Access Earth
This is another disturbing scientific discovery for those who fear the invasion of creatures from another planet. In 2014, a team of Swiss and German scientists discovered that DNA can actually survive re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, despite the high temperatures and enormous changes in pressure. This has added a little weight to the strange theories that human life only started when meteorites from another world landed here billions of years ago, but it also means that DNA, including intergalactic bacteria and diseases, could still make it to earth at some point in the future, as our atmosphere offers us no protection from these space sicknesses.
1. Greenhouse Gases Record High
Last but by no means least, the scientific discovery that should disturb us no matter our age, location, income or profession is the increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and their implications for climate change and human survival on earth. In 2016, the World Meteorological Organization announced that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide had reached a new record high of 400 parts per million, during the previous year. This is a figure that goes up every year and is just one part of the catalogue of evidence which proves that climate change is real, and governments around the world need to take action to prevent health problems, rising sea levels and extreme weather events.