Six Rebel Things in Big Science That Predict Our Future
By Josh Wolfe
The Biggest News Comes From the Biggest Surprises, So Pay Close Attention To These Areas
One trick we use at Lux to predict the future (and find big themes where we may be investing big money next) is to look at the people inventing it. Everything in the future has to be possible, so look to the edge of the plausible, which is generally the frontier of science — and rebel scientists at that. The history of technology is pre-loaded by basic science that seems like it has no obvious commercial purpose at all. But the “adjacent possible”, the thing that happens because of the thing discovered, that’s what we have our eyes set on.
Nope, not children’s building blocks, but the building blocks of our universe. LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. These are two lasers — in the middle of the desert near Hanford, Washington — in the shape of an L that are trying to detect the tiniest ripple, smaller than an atom, that will give evidence that gravity is a force that ripples. This would be a historic step (already rumored to have happened shortly after the system has been turned on) towards a grand unifying theory between probabilistic quantum physics, electromagnetism, linear classical physics (movement of bodies) and the theory that space-time is like a fabric torqued and twisted along with a force of gravity. By coincidence, LIGO lies not too far from the operations of one of Lux’s most cutting-edge technology investments, Kurion, a company we founded from scratch just a few years ago with scientists now successfully tackling the nuclear waste problem worldwide.)
Why It Matters: Nearly all our technology, instruments and inventions work because of quantum and classical physics. New insights into new physics will create new inquiries into new forms of communication, manufacturing, energy and production.
2. Mars & Jupiter
This year, the orbits of Mars and Earth will be very close. We hear it’s a nice time to visit. In March, there will be two missions; one that tests the atmosphere and gases, and another that tests quakes (technically called “marsquakes”) and their composition. In the summer, NASA’s Juno mission will arrive at Jupiter!
Why It Matters: A combination of sci-facts, sci-fi and bold ambitions of inspiring entrepreneurs and companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and fast growing Lux investments including Orbital Insight, Planet Labs and Kymeta (our fellow space travelers here include our friends and partners Sequoia, Steve Jurvetson and Bill Gates).
3. ⌘X / ⌘V DNA
CRISPR, a technology for precisely cutting and editing DNA, has taken the medical research and biotech world by storm, with ethical considerations and guidelines following fast behind. Startups are already fighting over IP, and investors will soon be fighting over IPOs. China has successfully made micro-pigs, Lux partner Zack Schildhorn has long thought “perma-puppies” would be a thing, and if they are, they’re not far away and likely to happen in China first. The idea of gene therapy has long held promise but this takes it to a whole new level. The first target may be for hemophilia.
Why It Matters: We are a step closer to digital control over biology. Our genes are already information and instruction carriers encoding structure and function for cells, organs, life itself. The experimentation of CRISPR will lead to innovation in agriculture and animal/human therapy. The breakthroughs will be as big as the controversies. And the biggest controversy may be that China takes the lead with looser regulatory and ethics concerns, creating the first major global pharma company in China that threatens the leadership of US and EU pharma giants.
4. Sleep Decoded
Contrary to Kanye West’s recent rants (against liking people who actually sleep at 3am and don’t answer his calls) or rapper Nas’s poeticism that “sleep is the cousin of death”, sleep is equal parts importance and ignorance. We know so little about what regulates sleep and our dreaming. But scientists are close to decoding genes that may prove to not only reveal differences between people and how we dream, but also help with sleep disorders, psychiatric situations and maybe even creativity and imagination.
Why It Matters: Neuroscience, genetics and informatics are colliding and in some cases quite literally shining a light (through a technique called optogenetics, where light can trigger gene activation). Just as our dreams were once decoded using social science to reveal our desires and demons, now they may be decoded using empirical science to reveal big answers to big questions like why we sleep, what parts of the brain are triggered and how people’s patterns differ.
5. The Macro of Microbiology
The Earth Microbiome Project is now six years underway. We are now investigating “surfaces of surfaces” like soil in Siberia and colonies of bacteria on animal tongues. Mapping genetically and geographically, in an ever interconnected world, the billions of microorganisms that have colonized every inch from freezing cold to molten hot may reveal new leads for promising drugs.
Why It Matters: Think of the impact penicillin had! Think of what may come next. Already we have changed our thinking about bacteria. It ain’t all bad. In fact, some of it is necessary for proper homeostasis of human bodies, from fighting infection to proper digestion. We are “other” as much as we are “us”. I expect new drugs and new pathways where we can employ microorganisms to our advantage from cancer to heart disease.
6. Flipping Einstein, M = E/C^2
Nearly 80 years ago two scientists proposed the idea that light (photons) could be smashed together and create matter (a positron and an electron). In 1997, SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, where Lux happens to also be invested in a secretive startup that we think, when revealed, will change the world in a huge way) was able to make these electron-positron pairs by colliding photons from a very high energy electrons stream into a trillion-watt laser. But now the race is on to do this with just photons and no other particles.
Why It Matters: Matter from light?! This is how the universe may have been born. We easily make light from matter today, whether through fire or LEDs or lasers. But the opposite? To make matter, possibly an atom from light itself, may usher in a future that we have never imagined. Of course, it has taken eight decades to go from theory to possible proof it’s possible in a purist sense, but the ancillary spin-off of technologies in the adjacent possible is what has us keeping a hopeful watchful eye.