If You Think Innovation Is Dead, Meet the Hydra

Is the process of discovery hitting a dead end? Are there ever fewer paradigm-shifting revelations to be had? These questions speak more to the poverty of our imagination than to our grasp of reality.

Lately, practitioners of various disciplines have suggested that most of the truly great things have been discovered or invented. Some economists say that we’ve already reaped the “low-hanging fruit” in technological innovation -- in sanitation, transport and education, for example -- and that future progress won’t be as easy or productive. Some physicists argue that humanity is pushing up against the limits of what can be known.

One needn’t look far for evidence that such thinking is wrong -- that the pessimism merely reflects our inability to fathom just how surprising our future discoveries may be. Consider a couple of findings announced just in the final two months of 2013.

The first challenges a fundamental tenet of biology: that all living things are somehow programmed to age and die. Most scientists believe that, in general, as organisms pass maturity and get progressively older, their fitness and capabilities erode, and they become more likely to expire.

A new study finds that this pattern doesn’t hold across all species. True, a 100-year-old human is about 20 times as likely to die in the next year as a human of average age. But there’s also a tiny tubular creature found in freshwater lakes and ponds -- known as a hydra -- that shows no signs of aging at all, according to the best available evidence. Keep one alive for 100 years, and you’ll find no physical difference to one just a few months old.

The hydra isn’t even the most extreme example. The desert tortoise seems to become more fit with age. Mangrove trees do, too. What we humans take as the norm isn’t at all the norm for other organisms.

The research opens a whole new world of questions and possibilities. If a hydra truly is “immortal,” might it be possible to engineer the same genetic or molecular mechanisms into other organisms, including humans? Speculation that there could be a “final generation” of humans, once we’ve learned to overcome aging, might not be as crazy as many people think.

The second discovery has more cosmic implications: Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler space telescope found in 2013 the closest thing yet to a planet similar to Earth in size and composition. Temperatures on Kepler-78b, as the planet is known, get far too hot for life as we know it. But its existence demonstrates that it’s only a matter of time before we find a planet that could support Earth-like life.

In the past two decades, astronomers have discovered about 1,000 planets in orbit around other stars, and their techniques get 10 times more powerful every few years. Current estimates suggest that there should be roughly 5 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. Michel Mayor, leader of the team that detected Kepler-78b, predicts that within five years we’ll find an Earth-like planet cool enough to have liquid water -- and potentially life of some kind.

We are, in a sense, just beginning to turn on the lights in our universe. It’s well within the realm of possibility that, in a decade or two, having discovered hundreds or thousands of Earth-like planets and monitored them with ever more sensitive instruments, we might discover another humanlike intelligence in our universe. It is difficult to imagine the world-changing shock to human thinking that would come from making such contact.

I’ve chosen my examples quickly and only from the last two months. There are comparably shocking discoveries in areas such as neuroscience, where recent research has shown how sleep helps to restore and repair the brain, or technology, where physicists have made some significant steps in learning how make ordinary objects effectively invisible. How about using plant xylem, ordinary tissues present in plants everywhere, to filter water for human consumption? The pace of discovery suggests that there are more innovations to come just as profound and far-reaching as the Internet.

None of this is to say that innovation will solve all our problems or save humanity from its own environment of economic mismanagement. But discovery is certainly not dead -- or even dying.

(Mark Buchanan, a physicist and the author of “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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