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Tech person of the year: Nature

From DNA's data storage to space tourism, CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says science is stealing the spotlight.

The Northwest Passage, a sea lane running across the top of Canada, won't materialize anytime soon, but a similar channel will probably appear over Siberia in a few years.

Global warming and the melting of old polar ice will likely create a Northeast Passage over the next decade, according to University of Colorado researcher Mark Serreze. Some Russian ships can already make the run, but warming will allow it to become a warm-weather channel for general ocean traffic and create territorial and environmental conflicts in its wake.

"This one is really going to be opening up, and you'll be able to take boats from Tokyo to Halifax," Serreze said at a recent American Geophysical Union meeting.

The above anecdote underscores one of the more prominent trends in my job in the past year. That is, biology and environmental sciences are increasingly where the action is. If I had to pick a person of the year, it'd be nature.

The evidence can be seen in a variety of areas. In semiconductors, chip designers are developing molecules that can assemble themselves into chips via natural chemical forces. A group in Israel started conducting experiments to see if the patterns formed by amino acids in DNA could be used to store data. Security experts regularly now warn of the dangers of monocultures.

Biology and environmental sciences are increasingly where the action is. If I had to pick a person of the year, it'd be nature.

Several companies and noteworthy scientists are urging more research into solar power and alternative energy. This year, one of the most popular courses at Stanford's engineering school--birthplace of Yahoo and Google--is about fuel cells. The electromechanical devices have also emerged as one of the major subjects of corporate research grants.

Astronomy, meanwhile, has re-entered the public consciousness through projects like the Mars rovers and the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

A prime force behind the trend, of course, is that we can. Advances in recent years have opened the door to biological experimentation. Genetic splicing essentially gives humans the ability to produce new compounds and molecules that would take huge amounts of money to create.

"Microbes excel at producing complicated molecules," said Jay Keasling, a University of California at Berkeley professor and a pioneer in synthetic biology, which involves grafting gene strands from one species onto the genetic code of a microorganism like E coli that can be cooked up in a half a day.

A number of start-ups focused on exploiting the labor of small life forms made the news this year. In England, for example, NanoMagnetics is working on a way to use a uniform protein globule from a cow to create memory cells.

These are also big, interesting problems. The successful flight of SpaceShipOne will no doubt draw many into the field of aeronautics.

By comparison, information technology as a field in itself has become somewhat less interesting. Maybe not dull, but it seems to have hit a plateau of excitement after three decades of stupendous accomplishments. Think of it--eight years ago, digital cameras were still somewhat exotic. Next year, 5-megapixel cameras will come in phones. Supercomputers, meanwhile, are built out of desktops.

The news that Google will put the books from five major libraries online signaled, in a sense, the end of the age of exploration of the Internet era. For years, futurists predicted that someday, all of civilization's knowledge would be found on the Web. Even in 2000, that sounded dreamy and unattainable.

With the Google deal, as soon as the low-paid office workers can scan all the volumes in, most of what civilization needs to look up more than once will be online. From there, it's really all downhill.

The complete works of Allen Drury. Bootleg and live versions of "Judy in Disguise." Old episodes of that '60s sitcom in which astronauts go back in time and team up with cave men. They'll all be online as soon as the paperwork is completed.

Don't get me wrong. IT companies will continue to generate interesting products, but the spotlight seems to be moving elsewhere.