December 10, 2013 | 1
I’ve never been particularly nostalgic, despite loving history (and science history in particular). But it’s fun sometimes to take a look back on more recent events — if by recent one means nearly 20 years ago — to remind ourselves of how quickly things change and perhaps provide a bit of perspective on the hectic pace of our daily lives.
Case in point: I came across this nifty video compilation by Slacktory of highlights from 1994. It’s pretty heavy on the music, film, television and video game categories — Jen-Luc Piquant cannot believe that Pulp Fiction is nearly 20 years old! — but there are a few news items included: Nelson Mandela becoming the first democratically elected South African president, the O.J. Simpson car chase, the Northridge earthquake, Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan being attacked by rival Tonya Harding, the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson marrying Lisa Marie Presley, and the horrific massacre in Rwanda, to name a few. But there’s only one item even remotely related to science: the first genetically engineered food product (a tomato) around the 7:20 mark. Science gets maybe 3-4 seconds, less time than devoted to Dumb and Dumber, unless you count all the video game technology, or the brief sampling from the romantic comedy I.Q., starring Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein, as science.
This cannot stand. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that Slacktory went for a broad mashup rather than limiting it to just film, or music, or whatever. But no cultural snapshot of 1994 (or any year) can be complete without including a bit more science in the mix; it’s just as relevant as the sensation caused by Jennifer Aniston’s haircut. Granted, it’s not easy to find that information online; despite the penchant for compiling lists of the top scientific breakthroughs every year by various popular science publications, search engine results for hot science stories from 1994 don’t produce much — not even in the Scientific American online archives. That’s a testament to how much the world has changed right there, although there seems to be an abundance of entertainment from 1994 readily available. Clearly the science sector needs to upload more vintage stuff.
Here’s just a sampling of all the cool science that happened in 1994:
* Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 — or the fragments thereof — smashed into Jupiter.
* Archaeologists discovered the earliest known cave paintings in southern France (the Chauvet Cave).
* After seven long years of construction, the Channel Tunnel (a.k.a. the “Chunnel”) between England and France opened, making it possible to cross the English Channel in half an hour.
* Biologists managed to get green fluorescent protein to express in a nematode; it’s now a workhorse of modern biology because of its usefulness as a fluorescent marker.
* Scientists discovered the first gene linked to Alzheimer’s Disease (APOE-e4), coincidentally the same year the world learned that former US President Ronald Reagan had been diagnosed with the disease; they didn’t find another relevant gene until 2009.
* Linus Pauling, one of the greatest scientists in American chemistry, died; he won the Nobel Prize not once, but twice, and helped found the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology.
* Clifford Shull and Bertram Brockhouse won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics for adapting beams of neutrons to probe the atomic structure of matter.
* A mathematician named Andrew Wiles devised a proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem.
That’s just what I found in a quick perusal on Wikipedia. But it was a bit light on physics, so I turned to the online meeting archives of the American Physical Society to jog my memory about what physicists were talking about among themselves in 1994. This was just two years after the historic results from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) were announced, mapping the ripples in the fabric of space-time left over from the Big Bang, prompting George Smoot to famously declare, “If you’re religious, it’s like seeing God.” Physicists were still busily investigating the ramifications of that stunning breakthrough in 1994.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration was just two years old; it wouldn’t become operational until 2002 (and is currently being upgraded after shutting down in 2010). The MACHO project was looking for dark matter, specifically Massively Compact Halo Objects. The 1994 APS March Meeting featured numerous sessions on the Quantum Hall effect, perhaps because that year’s Oliver Buckley Prize honored work in that area by Aron Pinczuk. There was also a session on the future of data storage, and another on giant magnetoresistance, the fundamental advance from six years earlier that would ultimately provide a technological solution. (It’s why we can store more than 50,000 songs on our iPods.) The Global Positioning System was just about to become fully operational the following year; now we can access that information on our smartphones.
My search also revealed that science moves at a relatively glacial pace compared to popular culture. One policy session at the 1994 April Meeting explored the hysteria over potential biological effects of extreme low-frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) — an issue that still gets discussed today on occasion. There was also lots of research into quantum dots and superfluids, on fractals and fullerenes (carbon nanotubes, etc) , on smart materials, quantum lasers, and continued development of applications for laser cooling and trapping of atoms. Physicists have made tremendous progress over the last two decades, of course, but these remain very rich and active areas of research.
That’s what I managed to dig up over the course of the last hour. I welcome readers to share their own favorite science moments from 1994 in the comments.