National Geographic

Will we ever…? My new column for the BBC

As of this week, I’m starting a new column over at the BBC, as part of their new science and technology super-site. The goal, based on feedback from the BBC’s readership, was to create a space for deeper, richer sources of science writing to complement their typical news pieces. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a goal that I have a lot of time for. There will be lots of features, and some regular columns. I’m providing one of the latter.

So the column is called “Will we ever…?” The goal is to take far-flung and possibly optimistic applications of basic scientific research and look at the steps and obstacles between now and then. You know that sentence in the fourth or fifth paragraph of most science news pieces? The fluffy one that says, “This discovery could eventually lead to [insert optimistic distant application here]”? This column will expand that sentence into a thousand words.

The first two columns on decoding dreams (up now) and growing new organs (on Friday) illustrate what I want to do with the column. Decoding dreams seems like a relatively straightforward topic but it is fertile ground for exploration. It’s really about the limits of our brain-scanning technology, our ability to understand how the brain processes images, concepts and more, and what makes dreams special. Growing new organs is something we’re doing right now, but I wanted to look at what it takes to do this, where we are technologically, and which organs present the greatest challenges.

In both cases, the leading question could be answered in a simple word: no and yes, respectively. But, as with the topics themselves, the point is in how the question is answered rather than the answer itself. The title provides a nice hook but it could equally be “How will we ever…” or “What’s taking so long for…”

I’m still feeling my way around what topics make for interesting columns. They can’t be too big or the piece will be too shallow (so “cure cancer” is out), and as per the editorial mandate, they have to be of broad interest or importance. But really, the main criterion is that the path to the answer (or the obstacles on that path) should be interesting in specific ways. If you have any suggestions of interesting questions, please feel free to share them.

There is a final and unfortunate catch. I can’t actually read the site. Nor can anyone from the UK. This is the message I get:

We’re sorry but this site is not accessible from the UK as it is part of our international service and is not funded by the licence fee. It is run commercially by BBC Worldwide, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the BBC, the profits made from it go back to BBC programme-makers to help fund great new BBC programmes.

I have absolutely no idea why this means that I can’t read the site at all, but c’est la vie. If this seems crazy to you, I’m not going to disagree. Here’s a hilarious workaround. Meanwhile, the compromise I’ve reached is that I get to republish the column here with a three-day delay.

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Frank
    February 22, 2012

    Fantastic news – really looking forward to reading it. Might hope on a train to Calais RIGHT NOW so I can.

  2. Brian
    February 22, 2012

    Ed – both Instapaper and Readbility work as a slightly less esoteric workaround.

  3. Richard
    February 22, 2012

    How about a piece on cloaking as something which seemed like fantasy not so long ago, and now seems to be moving into the realms of reality? There are a few examples of crude ‘working’ devices

    and plenty of papers on the potential for metamaterials to deliver this in the near future.

    Also if you can do the entire thing without mentioning Harry Potter then you earn instant points. I do have to challenge you to watch the video above without invoking the predator though.

  4. Matt
    February 22, 2012

    Great to hear that you’ve got this gig. Pity about the whole worldwide access thing, but I’ll take a short delay with a detailed analysis any time.

    One topic would be growing meat in a petri dish. I know it was covered recently by the BBC, but again, in a very shallow nature.

  5. Ed Yong
    February 22, 2012

    I like the lab-grown meat idea. That’s workable in terms of interest and scope.

    On invisibility cloaks… mebbe. It’ll surprise no one here that I plan on sticking largely towards biological topics, but never fear – we have a plan for a cool co-columnist who will handle the harder sciences.

  6. Simon
    February 22, 2012

    So, in response to feedback from readers, the BBC creates a resource that the majority of its readers can’t access. Brilliant.

    Really hope it becomes available to we UK people in some official capacity soon. Also… nice one!

  7. Ed Yong
    February 22, 2012

    I can confirm that my editors would much prefer if everyone could see it (without the workaround). As would I.

  8. Matt Gruner
    February 22, 2012

    There has been some interesting recent developments to engineer ‘nanobots’ for medicine such as a group at Harvard using DNA origami (www.nature.com/news/dna-robot-could-kill-cancer-cells-1.10047).

    Also, you could read Arthur C. Clarke’s last book in the space odyssey series “3001″ it imagines humanity a thousand years in the future.

  9. Gregory Ruderman
    February 22, 2012

    Will we ever get those flying cars? Or, will we ever stop asking “Where is my flying car already?!” :-)

  10. Hogo
    February 22, 2012

    I’m in Denmark, the link works fine for me. Or did they fix it? Quite a good read, found some new information in it I hadn’t heard before :)

    As for topics. Will we ever…
    … have human exploration/settlements on Mars?
    … find Higgs?
    … become cyborgs?
    … find a cheap and efficient, renewable fuel?
    … stop global warming?
    … be able to predict natural disasters days before they strike? (because right now it is too short a time span)
    … be able to, solitarily, fly? (the biological path(evolution of wings…) or the physical path(jetpacks, etc.)
    … grow plants without the need for water or sunlight? (or at least limited resources)
    … achieve telekinesis? (human or computer assisted)
    … be able to teleport?
    … be able to understand animals?
    … live underwater?
    … travel to the center of the earth?

    That’s all I have time for right now.

  11. Sam
    February 22, 2012

    Its a shame bureaucracy takes over us UK folks from viewing it. We blame people from censoring the internet, thus restricting freedom of speech. bureaucracy really isn’t much better.

  12. ColinB
    February 22, 2012

    Nice idea! I like the concept of exploring the hurdles involved in making the crazy what-ifs reality.

    How about

    * resurrect extinct species
    * suspended animation (may have already been done too much)
    * Use a brain-machine-interface, eg instead of device displays (ur OLED display is sooooo 2012…)

  13. Raman
    February 22, 2012

    This is good to hear that such initiatives are being taken to inform the world of the latest developments in Science. It would be great aif you can provide a link to the direct column page; easier for me to bookmark it :).

    Also a suggestion, Since your writing and approach would be to the general public, I suggest that you include links to detailed articles from which you researched for those who wish to get more in-depth knowledge. Will help out the theorists ;)

    Thanks… and again a great initiative.

  14. Berna Bleeker
    February 23, 2012

    Re-growing body parts/organs and teeth. I want a new set of teeth, please.

  15. Berna Bleeker
    February 23, 2012

    I also want a brain/computer interface. I want my smartphone built into my brain/body, so I can make pictures by looking at something and thinking ‘take photo’, and phone people, look things up on the internet, navigate via GPS, play games, read books, etc. without lugging a device around.

  16. Ian Wood
    February 23, 2012

    Congratulations, Ed. You’ve worked long and hard to get where you are. I hope it works out great for you.

  17. Chris
    February 23, 2012

    Next column. Will folks in the UK ever be able to access a site from the BBC?

  18. Veronica Akle
    February 23, 2012

    Great news about the new BBC column, sorry about the folks in the UK. Looking forward to reading it:
    Here are some “Will we ever… ” that people ask me when I say I study neuroscience
    Will we ever be able to reshape our memories or forget them?
    Will we ever transplant a brain?
    Will we ever communicate with animals?
    Best of luck.

  19. Jon
    February 24, 2012

    Another workaround for UK-based people who are blocked from the BBC’s “new science and technology super-site” – use a proxy/anonymizing service – eg,

    http://anonymouse.org/cgi-bin/anon-www.cgi/http://www.bbc.com/future

    or http://proxify.com/

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