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I recently dig up the 2005 December issue of Scientific American and went entry by entry through the Scientific American 50, a list of the most important trends in science that year. I chose 2005 because 10 years seemed recent enough for continuity between scientific questions then and now but also long enough ago for actual progress. […]

Number one on the list was a stem cell breakthrough that turned out to be one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud ever. (To be fair, it fooled everyone.) But the list held other unfulfilled promises, too: companies now defunct, an FBI raid, and many, many technologies simply still on the verge of finally making it a decade later. By my count, only two of its 16 medical discoveries of 2005 have resulted in a drug or hospital procedures so far. The rosy future is not yet here.

Science is a not a linear march forward, as headlines seem to imply. Science is a long slow slog, and often a twisty one at that. That’s obvious in retrospect, when we can see the dead ends and the roadblocks. It’s less obvious looking ahead, as we’re being bombarded with promising new drugs and wondermaterial breakthroughs. So let’s take a look together.

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