As we close out a year of scientific discoveries, many of which attracted discussion here on Sciblogs, its worth looking at some of the big science-related stories that captured public attention in 2012.
My colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre has done most of the work for me – issuing just before Christmas a top 10 of scientific discoveries of 2012. I’ve included it below – minus a couple I’ve swapped out with discoveries I think are more significant.
The science media has also been busy assembling its top 10 lists.
And here’s the list put together by the AusSMC, with some changes included by me (numbers 4, 7, 9 and 10).
1. Physicists found signs of the Higgs boson
– CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) announced in July that the long-sought-after Higgs boson is real following a series of experiments conducted in the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs boson, first postulated by Peter Higgs in the 1960s and often referred to as the ‘God particle’, explains why mass exists, and is the final particle required to confirm the Standard Model of physics. “Australian researchers have played a significant role in this research,” said Dr Martin White, a Research Associate with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale and the University of Melbourne.
2. Curiosity landed on the red planet – NASA’s $US2.5bn rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August. After a 36-week voyage, the rover has started studying potentially habitable Martian environments. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which CSIRO manages on NASA’s behalf, was the main tracking station for landing activities. See NASA media release.
3. Our genome was unravelled – Far from being junk, the vast majority of our DNA acts in at least one biochemical event in at least one cell type, according to the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project. Analysing the entire genome to map regions of function and modification has expanded our understanding of how our blueprint is modified, and has identified new leads for understanding the genetic basis of many common diseases. ENCODE was published in over thirty research papers in four journals, including Nature.
4. SpaceX successful mission to ISS – Not a discovery, but proof that the private sector can play an integral role in the future of space travel and exploration. The mission wasn’t flawless with an engine outage causing engineers some heart in mouth moments. But ultimately, the Dragon capsule docked successfully with the ISS paving the way for a deeper partnership between SpaceX and NASA.
5. A quantum leap: Aussie ‘spin doctors’ led the field in quantum computing – Australian engineers brought the futuristic world of quantum computers a step closer in September. UNSW-led researchers created the first working quantum bit (qubit), the basis of quantum computing, by controlling the electron ‘spin’ – or magnetic orientation – of a single atom in a silicon chip. The research was published in the prestigious journal Nature. Several other discoveries by this research team helped move the reality of quantum computers closer this year. They created the narrowest silicon conducting wire and the smallest transistor.
6. Our microbial companions were mapped – A consortium of scientists mapped for the first time the genomes of the microbial community that lives on or within the human body. Healthy humans host ten times as many microbial cells as human cells, including bacteria and viruses, and our minute companions play a critical role in human health and disease, say The Human Microbiome Project scientists. This research was published in Nature and PLoS ONE.
7. Scientists drill through to Lake Vostock – A Russian team of scientists drilled down 2.2 miles through Antarctic ice to reach the largest underground body of fresh water in Antarctica. The water there has been sealed away for as many as 20 millions years. Scientists testing samples of the water have found no signs of life, but further searches are underway.
8. The first embryonic stem cell study in humans was completed – In the first report of embryonic stem cells being used in humans for any purpose, US researchers reported that transplants for eye disease (macular degeneration) in two patients appeared safe and gave them some improvement in vision after four months. This was published in the The Lancet.
9. Scientists create synthetic DNA that can evolve – Scientists created a new molecule – dubbed XNA that is similar to DNA and RNA but slightly tweaked. The synthetic molecules carried genetic information but were also able to evolve. Scientists suggest the new molecules could be more useful than DNA and RNA in various applications of bioscience and could form the building blocks of new forms of life.
10. Jame’s Cameron’s record-breaking dive – Movie director and explorer James Cameron took his one-man submarine to a record 11 kilometres below the Pacific Ocean, reaching the floor of the Mariana Trench – the deepest point on the Earth’s surface. It was the first solo descent of its kind and during the short period Cameron was on the sea floor, several previously unknown life forms were observed.