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Prof. McCray contributes to NPR Science item on 2012 breakthroughs

Author of The Visioneers says “breakthroughs” aren’t always recognized at the time.

‘McCray, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says revolutionary discoveries don’t necessarily announce themselves when they happen. Consider this story: In 1988, a French scientist and a German scientist independently discovered a basic physics phenomenon known as giant magnetoresistance.

‘The discovery seemed so arcane it didn’t make a splash, like the Higgs boson. But, as it turns out, this phenomenon provided an extraordinarily powerful new way to get data on and off a magnetic disk, “and became the basis for a multibillion-dollar market for computer hard drives,” McCray says.

‘One classic example of this is the observation that the Earth’s surface is always rearranging itself, as continental plates drift around the globe. This theory, now called plate tectonics, was first proposed in 1912, “but it took decades for enough evidence to be accumulated to support the theory, and also for scientists to come around to the idea that the continents were moving,” McCray says.

‘Plate tectonics is now an indispensable way of understanding many things about our world — not just about what drives earthquakes, but how animal species came to be distributed around the planet. This kind of slow burn happens more often than you might think.’

hm 1/4/13