A decade of science in list form

Ah the top-X-list. A succinct way to sum up a period of time, and neatly wrap up a decade that had nearly as many names — the “naughties,” “noughts,” “oughts,” — as it did scientific and technological breakthroughs.

The next few lists will attempt to sum up my feelings about what was, from my perspective, the most awesome decade in the history of human awesomeness.

So sit down, or if you’re already sitting, stand up. If you’re on a bus, and your stop is coming up, ignore it — you can get off on the return leg — because what lies before you is 10 years of Internet, computers, biology, chemistry, engineering, space exploration and lots of other things which can be brought under the banner of science and technology in point form, and put in particular order — none of that “in no particular order” nonsense here, this isn’t elementary school.

Top five technological letdowns

5) 2010 Toyota Prius and Honda Insight
Yes, these are the 2010 models, and it can be argued that these should be saved for the science section’s 2020 top five list, but they were released in 2009, and are therefore fair game.
“Why do they belong on a list of technological letdowns?” you may be asking yourself. They belong on this list because they both failed to take advantage of the hype and openness toward green vehicles created by the mini-fuel-crisis of 2008. Neither represented a leap forward for the hybrid, and both were made to look antiquated and uninspired by the Chevrolet Volt, a car that hasn’t even made it to production yet.

4) The human genome project
If you watched a science-y television program in the early 2000s on the human genome project, you could be forgiven for thinking that the publication of someone’s entire genetic code represented the end of human disease.

Unfortunately, as with the best riddles, the human genome project created far more questions than answers, and demonstrated just how much further we had to go to before we could hope to understand how our DNA created us, and how we could apply our knowledge of the genetic code for our benefit.

Among one of the strangest findings of the project: we are the result of a mere 20,000-ish genes, or about 20,000 to 30,000 fewer than previously imagined. Interestingly, the way those 20,000 genes work, interact and are regulated is the real secret to our complexity, and the subject of new research.

3) The International Space Station
Fans of magazines such as Popular Science may remember, like me, the sense of elation and excitement they felt upon learning that a massive space station was going to be launched into the Earth’s orbit. It represented, to me at least, an important step toward our colonization of space. Star Trek couldn’t be far off, could it?

Unfortunately the International Space Station (ISS) turned out to be about as interesting to lay-people as smooth peanut butter, and really was only able to generate headlines when acting as a hotel for a billionaire-cum-spaceman.

Need more proof that the ISS is a bit of a flop? According to Michael T. Suffredini, NASA’s ISS czar, the station is set to be de-orbited (read “dropped into the ocean”) in 2016. Leaves one wondering “what was the point?” doesn’t it?

2) Windows Vista
If you based your expectations on the pre-release hype, then Windows Vista should have been the biggest and best thing to happen to computers since the mouse. Insider reports on “Longhorn” — the code name given to the development project that would become Vista — talked of revolutionary changes to the graphical user interface and described the next version of Microsoft’s OS as a game-changer.

The product that was released in 2006 may have been these things, however a silly “Vista Capable” campaign, which saw the software pre-loaded on machines barely capable of running Windows Vista — let alone taking advantage of its clever gimmicks — jaded the public, and saw a rash of customers demanding that their new PCs come loaded with the older, “more reliable,” Windows XP.

The release of Windows 7 less than three years after Vista hit the market can be interpreted as Microsoft’s acknowledgment of Vista’s supreme failure.

1) The Large Hadron Collider
Ok, full disclosure here. I freaking love the Large Hadron Collider (LHC.) What could be cooler than a 27-kilometre long machine whose sole purpose is ramming sub-atomic particles together at speeds approaching the speed of light? For a science geek, not a heck of a lot can even begin to approach the LHC in terms of coolness. However, even I must admit that it has been a massive letdown so far.

When you give something a nickname which includes the word “god” you’re going to raise expectations, as scientists did when they named the Higgs boson — the particle the LHC was designed to find — “the God particle.” What’s more, those expectations, once raised to a dizzying height, have that much farther to fall when your giant machine fails to work properly.

Between electrical short-circuits requiring a complete shutdown of the LHC, birds dropping bread on the darned thing — which is apparently dangerous enough to activate the LHC’s safeguards — and other delays, the world’s largest machine has barely been given a chance to find the Higgs boson, and as such, represents my biggest technological letdown of the past decade.

Top five most annoying gadgets

5) Bluetooth headsets
OK, I admit, with new laws, which thankfully make holding a cell phone while driving illegal, Bluetooth headsets are handy. But you’re not driving your car while in Walmart, are you? Take the damned thing off!

4) Text messaging
I personally love text messaging, but I suffer from a completely made-up condition, which makes me terrified of talking on the phone. So I use it when I don’t want to talk to someone. It’s the kids who do nothing but text that get to me. Put the phone down and leave it alone for five minutes. I promise the world will probably not implode.

3) In-car GPS
It’s Winnipeg, everything is pretty much off of Main, Portage, Grant/Roblin, Fermor, Bishop Grandin or Pembina. Failing that, take the Perimeter Highway. You don’t need a GPS. But if you must use one, don’t trust it completely, One-way signs are important.

2) Netbooks
Maybe it’s because I have larger hands than anyone standing a mere 1.7 metres tall has any right to have, but I find those teensy-weensy little computers to be completely unusable. Furthermore I fail to see the point when adult-sized computers, from good brand names, can be had for less than $500.

1) Non-iPod MP3 players
Let’s face facts, none of them are as good as an iPod, none of them have software better than iTunes, and all they really say about you is that you’re either a bit cheap, or an Apple hater. Neither of which will impress anyone important.

Top five dead or dying technologies that I won’t miss

5) Compact Discs
I don’t know about you, but the average amount of time a CD in my collection remained scratch-free was about 12 minutes. Long live digital media! Viva!

4) VHS
In 2020, try telling your kids that you used to have to rewind movies. When they stop laughing tell them you were only joking, maybe they will still respect you.

3) Cathode ray tubes
If someone tries to tell you that old TVs and computer monitors — the ones made largely out of glass — were superior because they produced a better black pixel, I recommend that you back away slowly. They are obviously insane.

2) Desktop computers
When was the last time you heard someone say, “You know what I like about my desktop computer? The fact that it’s really hard to take places.”

1) Video stores
Late fees, judgmental staff laughing at the fact that you’re renting Navy Seals, having to leave your house to obtain and return said movies, late fees . . . I don’t exactly see what there is to miss.