Year End Special: Top Ten Science Stories of 2012

Science doesn’t stay still and 2012 was no exception. This gives bloggers, like myself, a happy problem of choosing a few from the plenty. Amidst the smoldering mental rubble created by the various disparate pieces of science news, ranging from the best to the worst, there lie those which just cry out for a mention. Yes, a top ten list can never be satisfactory for everyone; neither the included topics, not the order in which they are arranged can cater to all. The following list is thus a work of great mental labor with the expectations of being rebuffed for getting the list ‘wrong’ or not including something important. Thus, this is a personal list; a list of things which I, the author, thought was impactful and will be so in the near future. And like any human being, I can be horribly wrong – or wonderfully correct.

So here goes…

Choice 10: SpaceX goes to space

Last year we had NASA retiring the entire fleet of space shuttles, making the routine visits to space, and especially to the International Space Station, a thing of not such daily trivialities. NASA now has to depend on the Russians and their unpredictable space program in order to ferry man, machine and supplies to the ISS. However, NASA played what they believed was an ace up their sleeve – they let private companies enter space! SpaceX is being nurtured in the NASA equivalent of the marsupial pouch with both money and technology. And finally, SpaceX took the giant leap – sending their own capsule into space.

SpaceX falcon rocket launch

Yes, there were a few glitches and the delays drew critics! But not a thing should go wrong. The first launch was scheduled for the 19th of May. Technical glitches delayed it, but it was eventually accomplished. SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, who is also co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, dreams big! The Red Planet is his goal!

Choice 9: Venus goes in front of the Sun

It was a celestial event to be repeated again only after 105 years. Venus would make its journey across the face of the Sun, and we would watch the block dot moving across! What’s so fascinating about that you ask? Well, the transits of Venus are important for many older calendars. The cycles of Venus are deliciously intricate and who doesn’t like a miniature Solar Eclipse?

We gave you the all you need to know guide about the Venus Transit here. If the weather played spoilsport, like it did in many parts of India, NASA was always streaming it live and Youtube is always there for later reference.

Choice 8: The Large Hadron Collider: The Hot and the Anomalous

It’s hot and really really hot! The ALICE experiment at the LHC, specializing in the collision of heavy ions achieved the hottest temperature ever recorded when they created quark-gluon plasma at a whopping 4 trillion degrees! Yes, 4 trillion, which you write down by writing 12 zeros after the initial ‘4’. Impressive? You bet! Story here.

The ALICE detector

In another detector of the LHC, the LHCb, specializing in the physics of the heavy ‘bottom quark’, there was a surprise! It turns out that the rare decay of a rare particle, called the ‘Bs-meson’, to two muons is at the exact expected rate! What’s bad about that? Well, it rules out the possibility of any physics beyond which we already know. Specifically, it seems that supersymmetry – that old cherished theory – is in deep trouble. However, things, especially things in particle physics, are not as simple as that. Supersymmetry still lives, though it appears that it is living on borrowed time. Story here.

Choice 7: The American Bald Eagle lives on, and so does faith in humanity

Science is cold, science is just rational, science doesn’t have a heart! Right?
Well, it can give back a beak to a bird, after people without any heart shoot it off! Here is the heart-warming story of Beauty, an American Bald Eagle, who had a prosthetic beak surgery, allowing her to survive. She won’t be able to live in the wild, granted, but at least she can lead a life! Cold heartless rationality called science can produce heart-warming stories. My colleague Darrin Jenkins reports: Beauty and the Beast

Choice 6: Mirages, on a cosmic scale!

Einstein’s theory of gravity – the General Theory of Relativity – is strange! It makes you see double or sometimes more! Literally.

The “Einstein Ring”: a result of gravitational lensing

Taking advantage of the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, which is basically using matter as a lens for light coming from a long distance, scientists can definitively say that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. And make more specific observations, leading to answers about dark energy! Einstein’s theory easily accommodates an expanding universe mathematically, but what is dark energy really? We still don’t know and that’s why these kinds of measurements are so very important!

We’re at the half way mark. The top five stories coming up!

Choice 5: Infamy: Neutrinos break light barrier. Then do not!

In a stunning claim, the OPERA group announced that their experiments had revealed that neutrinos travel faster than light. This superluminal claim immediately created intense controversy as expected. Statements such as ‘I will eat my hat if this is true’ did the rounds. Credit to the experimentalists for doing a very thorough experiment and then NOT claiming that this violates special relativity.

The OPERA experiment came in for intense scrutiny. Icarus repeated the experiment and found nothing anomalous, weakening the OPERA results. OPERA repeated, getting the same anomaly. While everyone was waiting for MINOS or T2K to conduct the results to check for reproducibility, the OPERA group announced that a faulty cable connection had been the culprit. The structure of physics stood strong, OPERA gained infamy and the saga ended sadly with the sacking of the OPERA chief.

Choice 4: Curiosity soars and lands on Mars

Spirit and Opportunity had lived way past their age. They have done a lot more than what was expected of them. It was time for something new! Curiosity, the most sophisticated machinery ever to roam another planet, was launched. It landed safely on Mars, being completely blind when doing so.

The giant rover.

Curiosity is just too cool and here are 10 reasons why! And it sent back photos of the Martian surface, just those preliminary ones with the promise of better to come. Our curiosity shall be fulfilled.

Choice 3: The organism: completely modeled

In a major breakthrough in computational biology, scientists created a complete model of the Mycoplasmia genitalia. Yes, the whole deal, everything about the organism. The model has predictive power! If you tell it the genotype, it will tell you the phenotype! And more than 1900 parameters went into this model.

So there it is: the first computer simulation having all genetic and molecular components, able to predict an organism! Beat that.

Choice 2: Stem Cells, Nobel Prize and All the Promises

This one’s just too big for one year, but 2012 has clearly been a great year for results in stem cell research. It even got a Nobel prize!

A number of related pieces of news have come in this field. We told you about AIDS cure possibilities using Stem Cells, which has been tested successfully on mice. We also reported the wonderful story of a 10 year old girl’s life being saved due to stem cells. Stem cells helped her get a new vein – a vein taken from a dead man was stripped of all genetic information and grafted with stem cells grown from the girl’s bone marrow. This was replaced in place of the blocked vein near her liver!

More success came when a lymphoma patient was treated successfully using stem cells grown in her bone marrow. Stem cell research scored victories even outside the operation theatre or the lab, winning several court cases filed against research.

The icing on the cake? The Nobel Prize. My good friend and our new biology expert speaks on the Nobel Prize in medicine here.

And the top story of 2012 is…

Choice 1: The Discovery of the Higgs Boson

And this is probably the biggest news of the decade! A particle, predicted by physical theories in the 60’s, was finally announced to have been discovered by the Large Hadron Collider, putting the biggest feather yet in the already bulging cap of CERN. The media frenzy surrounding the Higgs Boson was huge, the excitement palpable and the interest heartening. Here is what it really means.

The CMS detector

A massive particle, decaying within a tiny fraction of a second, forming only very rarely tells us that there exists a Higgs field, which endows all massive particles in the universe with mass! What beauteous mystery Nature provides and how wonderful the answers!

There you have it. Some stories have been heart-warming, some informative, some exhilarating and some infamous. It is indeed heartening to see two of the top three stories going to medicine, a field destined to dominate scientific endeavours in this century.

Agree or disagree, send in your feedback in the comments; we’ll love to hear what your choices might have been. As the year dusks away, we look forward to a glorious new year, where science and technology will take man to heights justified by his intelligence.

From me and the entire Techie-Buzz team, we wish you a magnificent New Year.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.