Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking Back At 2011 and Forward To 2012

This blog started in May as an effort to focus my Wash Park Prophet blog by breaking it into a science blog and a general blog more heavily concentrated on law and politics, on the theory that the two sets of posts are more or less independent. After a brief transition period, the total output on the two blogs combined has turned out to be very similar to that of the separate blogs and the split was just about perfect in capturing close to half of the total in each blog.

The traffic and comments have taken a hit at this blog, but the quality of the comments has been good. There have been multiple comments from anthropologists and physicists in the fields covered and from some of the best bloggers in their fields, and this blog is starting to show up in more google searches of scientific subjects.

Posts with strong policy implications, like most of my posts on IQ and mental health, I've kept on the Wash Park Prophet side.

This blog has given me a space to think more deeply about the subjects covered and to explore them at a conceptual level that plays out their implications and corollaries. Enough of those insights have been plausible enough to make the enterprise interesting, whether or not they turn out to be correct. I've also learned and resolved several misunderstandings I've had about physics and anthropological data in the process, and filled many gaps in my understanding. For example, I have a much more solid understanding of how the Standard Model weak force works.

This year has had a bumper crop of new developments in physics, mostly related to the search of the Higgs boson, and several notable developments in neutrino physics, such as evidence for slightly superluminal neutrinos, evidence for more than three generations of neutrinos, and advances in pinning down their masses and PMNS transition matrix entries for neutrinos.

Hints of beyond the Standard Model CP violation and of mass differences between particles and antiparticles have been quashed. A Higgs boson has probably been detected. No other new particles not predicted by the Standard Model have been detected. The multiple exclusions of dark matter candidates in both particle physics, direct detection efforts, and astronomy constraints on dark matter properties have made within the Standard Model options, like neutrino condensates, look more attractive. Definitive evidence of hypothetical quantum physical behavior, like neutrinoless double beta decay, flavor changing neutral currents, magnetic monopoles, proton decay, evidence of extra dimensions, evidence of discrete structure in space time, and evidence of compositness in fundamental particles has remained elusive. The inconsistency between the radius of ordinary hydrogen and muonic hydrogen, perhaps due to inaccurate measurements of the former is one of the few laboratory scale anomalies that has lasted. The prospect of a particle physics desert now that a Higgs boson has been identified looms. The Higgs boson doesn't destroy SUSY, although it makes technicolor a historical curiousity. But, SUSY supporters are getting discouraged as more and more models in its parameter space are excluded, including the MSSM, the minimal supersymmetric standard model, and most R-parity conserving version of the theory.

In the area of anthropology, archaeology and pre-history, the big stories have been ancient DNA, evidence of admixture with archaic hominins, archaeological evidence of modern humans at very early Out of Africa dates in India and Arabia, the discrediting of mutation rate dating particularly for Y-DNA, and much more widely available whole genomes that are being collected and analyzed by bloggers outside the academy. Increased data make it possible to develop increasingly complex and constrained outlines of pre-history, although Jared Diamond's notion that technologically driven (often food producing technology driven) waves of migration with varying degrees of admixture have had a profound impact on population structure does seem to continue to be a major theme. Some legends and origin myths are being confirmed, others are being flatly rejected as counterfactual.

In 2012, the prospect for more ground breaking fundamental physics developments seems modest. Beyond the Standard Model theories are falling by the day. Majorana masses for neutrinos continue to be more and more disfavored by the evidence despite their theoretical attractiveness. The Higgs boson discovery profoundly increases the energy scale at which the Standard Model equations start to become pathological. The prospects of new physics at the TeV scale look ever more dim. The number of plausible fundamental dark matter candidates gets slimmer and slimmer -- direct detection experiments and astronomy constraints seem to disfavor the heavier candidates, while particle physics have closed the door on any light fundamental particles that interact with the weak force. Sterile neutrinos aren't ruled out experimentally, but the absence of evidence for Majorana mass in neutrinos weakens the case for them.

The prospects for new breakthroughs in pre-history in 2012 seems greater. The quantity of whole genome data and the quality of our ability to analyze it has grown, we are likely to get some new ancient DNA samples to add to a very limited data set, and new understandings of pre-history coupled with relatively low levels of armed conflict and fewer autarkic regimes are making it easier to identify and study archaeology in places where it is most likely to bear fruit relevant to the remaining open questions in the field. It is too much to hope that we might find a Rosetta stone to illuminate the Harappan language or some similar hotly debated pre-historic linguistic question, but simply pinning down more accurately the timeline of plant and animal domestication in Africa (particularly in the Sahel and Ethiopia), for example, could add a great deal of certainty and corroboration to models of pre-history and lingustics there that tell us more about sequencing and relative relatedness than they do about the historical moments at which key events happened and the technological and social forces that drove those events.

No comments: