Celebrating scientific innovation in 2022

Hastings Humanist discussion in Sept 2022. This year’s best science developments and what they promise

I am a self-confessed technophile, and while I know that technology on its own, will not solve all our problems, I am also very aware that two of the greatest skills that we humans possess are

  • the ability to build tools and
  • the ability to co-operate in groups.

Just 300 years ago the invention of the steam engine ushered in the industrial revolution which has resulted in the greatest improvement in the human condition since the introduction of agricultural about 12,000 years before.

2021/2 has been an amazing year in which we have created some mind blowing new tools which are already delivering spectacular results. 

In a time of rather depressing news, let’s take a moment to celebrate some of these achievements and think about how they may impact on the lives of our children and grandchildren:-


Artificial Intelligence AI

AI is moving fast and is a key component for delivering those results.  Alpha is the UK company that Google bought and it is probably the leader in its field.  It has developed a basic AI engine that can take any game and learn by trial and error from first principles, how to become a world champion eg winning at GO last year but also beating DeepBlue at chess and proving its generalised ability to solve problems. 

Demis Hassabis is the Founder and CEO of DeepMind, the world’s leading AI research company, and now an independent subsidiary of Alphabet. Founded in 2010, DeepMind has been at the forefront of the field ever since, producing landmark research breakthroughs. A chess and programming child prodigy, Demis coded the classic AI simulation game Theme Park aged 17. After graduating from Cambridge University in computer science with a double first, he founded pioneering videogames company Elixir Studios, and completed a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UCL investigating memory and imagination processes. His work has been cited over 70,000 times and has featured in Science’s top 10 Breakthroughs of the Year on four separate occasions. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2017 he featured in the Time 100 list of most influential people, and in 2018 he was awarded a CBE.

‘Expert systems’ such as Deep Blue that won against Kasparoff in the world championship challenge were programmed with all our human expertise in chess (all the opening moves, best gambits etc).  Alpha is a system where the machine learns from first principles.

  • Min 5.30 Intro to AI
  • 22min to 28 min how it generalised to win any 2 player game
  • 36.5 to 40min The protein folding problem
  • 47.40 min What the predictions look like
  • 53 min – over Xmas we solved the Human proteum problem for 20,000 human proteins.

From <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jocWJiztxYA&t=4054s>

But the major advance of this year is Alphafold which has solved the intractable problem of understanding the 3D geometry of proteins and making that library of knowledge available as a free public resource – a complete game changer for medicine and the food industry.

https://youtu.be/1mFva7qa-5Q Tesla new AI supercomputer.


The James Webb Telescope

This year we have also put a new telescope into space.  It now sits 100m miles beyond Earth’s orbit of the sun in a stationary orbit looking out into the universe. It is protected from the sun, both by its orbit and by the massive solar reflectors it has successful deployed. It has components that are cooled to a couple of degrees below the ambient temperature of outer space, and as a result, the telescope takes pictures that are of unprecedented sharpness, deep into the infra-red spectrum which enables it to ‘see’ events that are billions of light years away and therefore right back in time to just after the Big Bang that created the universe.  The results are already challenging some of our best assumptions about how the Universe evolves.



The giant Hadron Collider at Cern – protons at 99.999999% of the speed of light.

This is one of the biggest machines on earth and it has just been restarted after a 2 year upgrade.  After the success in finding the Higgs boson (The God particle as the newspapers like to call it) that delivers mass to all the other particles, they are now focussing in on finding or disproving the existence of ‘Dark Matter’.  As we get closer and closer to understanding the details of Standard Model of the building blocks of the universe, who knows where this may take us???!! Imagine an infinite source of free energy or genuine anti gravity – how would that transform our world.


  • Large Hadron Collider Pt 4 – the pipe work
  • Atlas
  • Alice
  • CMS

10,000 scientists from different countries of the world all collaborating together.

Apparently the camera that captures the images of the collision is the equivalent of a 100M pixel 3D camera that takes 400m pictures every second.

It takes a moment for these numbers to sink in…

The idea that a camera can take 400,000,000 pictures every second at the level of detail implied by 100m pixels, and store all that information with a time stamp for each image, is simply mind boggling.

From <http://stephenmilton.me.uk/hadron-collider/>


Quantum Computing

In the last 40 years since I studied Quantum Physics at university, it has gone from a very abstract theoretical idea to a practical device that enables us to solve whole classes of problems that were previously impossible to handle.  Today you can even have a play at programming a quantum computer on line via the Internet.  Let a thousand flowers bloom!

A somewhat irritating description of an actual quantum computer UNBOXING A QUANTUM COMPUTER! – Holy $H!T Ep 19     1:00 introduction      6:38 the heart of the computer

Types of problem that it can solve

  • Quantum encryption
  • Considering how intercepting the data would corrupt the communication, can anything get better than securing communication from interception or eavesdropping? Well, quantum encryption has to its rescue. With this in place, the person disrupting the particle cannot get usable information, and the recipient can be alerted to the eavesdropping attempt.
  • Simulation of quantum systems
  • What cannot go unnoticed, is the fact that even if a few qubits of quantum systems are to simulate, it’d be extremely expensive when it comes to the resources required. This is where quantum computing serves to be no less than a blessing.
  • ab initio calculations 
  • (Ab initio calculations are computations of electronic orbitals with no other hypotheses than Coulomb interactions between all electrons and nuclei with …
  • Ab Initio Method – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
  • https://www.sciencedirect.com › topics › materials-science
  • First principle ab initio methods for self-consistent calculation of electron-density distribution around moving ions provide the most accurate modelling) 
  • Classical computing is of very little help when the task to be accomplished pertains to ab initio calculations. With quantum computing in place, you have a quantum system simulating another quantum system. Furthermore, tasks such as modelling atomic bonding or estimating electron orbital overlaps can be done much more precisely.
  • Solving difficult combinatorics problems
  • Yet another difficult area that quantum computers cater to is that of solving difficult combinatorics problems. The algorithms within quantum computing aim at solving difficult combinatorics problems in graph theory, number theory, and statistics. Well, the list is likely to continue in the near future.
  • Supply chain logistics
  • Logistics is more or less related to a set of problems that cannot be solved using a brute force algorithm. Rather than meeting the set objectives via numerous individual operations, quantum computers do it in the easiest manner possible.
  • Optimization
  • One of the most difficult problems that quantum computers can solve is – “optimization”. One major aspect of this includes determining optimal weights for neural nets, so a classifier would be as good as it can be on a set of training data.
  • Finance
  • Economics is associated with numerous sophisticated models of market behaviour in the hope of predicting important and disruptive events. With quantum computing, we can now process and retrieve data from incredibly large data sets and make predictions about markets that can have an outsized global impact.
  • Drug development
  • The drug industry, without a doubt, has a lot of experimentation and discovery happening at the back end. This is not only time-consuming but also expensive. A quantum computer, on the other hand, can process all the variables concurrently and will greatly reduce the time and cost necessary to develop new drugs.
  • Data analysis
  • The growing data is posed as one of the biggest challenges for classical computing. This is where quantum computing came into play. Quantum computers have the ability to process large data sets in record time.
  • Weather forecasting
  • With many environmental variables in place, it becomes quite difficult for classical computers to forecast weather. However, a quantum computer can not only forecast near-term weather patterns well but also predict the effect of climate change.

From <https://www.analyticsinsight.net/10-difficult-problems-quantum-computers-can-solve-easily/>

A more technical description of quantum mechanics and super position (quantum entanglement) works Quantum Computers, Explained With Quantum Physics



If you stop looking for a week you will miss the next big development, let’s look what is coming and how fast it is all developing.  In the 1970s it was said that programming a computer to play chess was relatively simple compared to solving the problems enabling a robot to pick up a piece and moving it on a chess board. Combing strength and dexterity with AI controls is producing fabulous progress  – I will show you some fun examples.

I really could go on all year (fusion tech, batteries, 3D printing, new sources of clean energy, carbon dioxide capture from the air, etc etc) and I am sure some of you will have your own favourites to bring along.

The bigger story is that Human society has got to a stage where the scope for group specialisation in different areas of innovation is creating an exponential growth in new opportunities (because individuals do not have to worry about the time consuming basics of life – building a house, growing food etc which they can leave that to other specialists).

Managing this increasing level of specialisation and the rate of change it generates, is a major challenge. I feel confident that we will be able to direct it to the benefit of all of us, but only if we pay it sufficient attention.