This was an incredible year for science and engineering. We sent a powerful robot scientist to Mars, and we discovered the elusive Higgs Boson particle, plus there were world-changing innovations in medicine and materials science. We sequenced the genome of a human ancestor, and looked into the mind of an artificial intelligence that recognized the content of images on the web for the first time (of course it included cat faces). Here are the seventeen biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2012.
The Universe is beautiful.Which is interesting. It doesn't have to be; it could be all colorless and weird and lumpy. Instead, it's bursting with color, sculpted by vast forces, molded into fantastic shapes that please our eyes and delight our brains--especially once we understand what we're seeing.Every December I pick my favorite images from the previous year to display, a task that is extraordinarily difficult. I always wind up with a list of about 60 or 70, and I have to cull it down mercilessly. Such is the case this year again, and I could pare it only to 21, a score and more of gorgeousness for you to soak in. I choose the pictures not just for their beauty but also because they are interesting, and different--ones that stand out from the crowd somehow. I usually put them in order with my favorite one last, but this year I just can't. I'll let you know my favorite when you get to it--I expect you'll agree--but other than that it's just a dead tie.
A new report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development paints a grim picture of the world in 2050 based on current global trends. It predicts a world population of 9.2 billion people, generating a global GDP four times the size of today's, requiring 80 percent more energy. And with a worldwide energy mix still 85 percent reliant on fossil fuels by that time, it will be coal, oil, and gas that make up most of the difference, the OECD predicts.
Brian Greene told the audience at TED that the wonder we see is not only mysterious, but a limited-run engagement. Greene is a theoretical physicist who has been engaging the public through books, PBS specials, and by organizing the World Science Festival. Here, Greene was in cosmologist mode, talking about how the Universe is going to change in ways that will fundamentally alter how it can be observed.Astronomers in the far future will not have the beautiful night sky we have. In fact, unless they have our knowledge and scientific records, they will think that the Universe is a dark, static and unchanging place. Why will our night sky go black? The expansion of our Universe will eventually push other galaxies so far from us that we will no longer see them, even with advanced equipment. Light cannot overcome all distances, Greene said, describing a future where all we can see are the galaxies in our immediate neighborhood.
Nasa has announced that 1,091 new transiting extrasolar planet candidates have emerged in data received from planet-hunting space telescope, Kepler. It brings the total count up to 2,321 exoplanet candidates.That number comes from data spanning May 2009 to September 2010, where nearly 5,000 periodic planetary transit-like signals (where a planet passes in front of a star, revealing its presence) were received, and subsequently vetted against known phenomena that could be masquerade as a transit.An example: eclipsing binary stars. When two stars orbit each other and block each others' light, it can look like a planetary transition.The data shows a clear trend towards finding smaller planets at longer orbital periods -- meaning planets more like Earth than like Jupiter. This latest data dump contains over 200 Earth-size candidates and more than 900 that are smaller than super-Earths (double our planet's 12,756km diameter).
The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that life had evolved quickly and progressively on Earth. They figured our galaxy holds about 100 billion stars, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extraterrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked, simply, "So, where is everybody?" That is, if extraterrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.
If all goes well, tomorrow morning at approximately 10:02 a.m. Eastern time (GMT-5), NASA will launch its newest rover named Curiosity from Florida's Cape Canaveral, headed on a nine-month trip to the planet Mars. The $2.3 billion mission will send a capsule into the Martian sky in August of 2012. After decelerating in the atmosphere, a series of entry events will quickly take place, ending with a rocket-powered sky crane lowering the rover gently to the surface. Curiosity is a beast of a rover, weighing one ton, measuring ten feet long by seven feet tall (at the top of the mast), and powered by a plutonium-238 fueled electrical generator. The rover carries ten instruments, including several high-resolution cameras, and a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument called ChemCam that can vaporize tiny amounts of minerals and analyze their components. If all goes according to plan, Curiosity is scheduled for a stay on Mars of about 668 Martian sols, or nearly two Earth years, starting in Gale crater. Researchers hope to use the tools on Curiosity to study whether the area in Gale crater has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed. I will update this entry with more photos later, after the launch takes place. [34 photos]
Physicists are not panicking about the fate of the Higgs yet, but they may be getting frustrated. If the Higgs is indeed hiding in the low mass range, "a malicious deity has carefully chosen the Higgs mass to make it as hard as possible for physicists to study it", said Peter Woit of Columbia University on his blog, Not Even Wrong.
The best helium-3 supply in the solar system is from the "Gas Mines" of Uranus.That the planet which is the butt of so many poor jokes should be relatively rich in methane as well is purely coincidental, but as a mining site it has several advantages. The surface gravity, which is defined from the 1 bar pressure level in a gas giant's atmosphere, is 90 percent that of Earth's and the speed needed to reach low orbit is lowest of all the gas planets. Uranus's rings are also high, thin and not showering the atmosphere below with a hail of meteors, unlike Saturn's.
If physicists weren't jumping up and down with excitement in April at the announcement that an unknown particle had been glimpsed at Fermilab, they are now.The news of a possible particle sighting in the debris of proton-antiproton collisions at the Illinois accelerator had been met with a mix of curiosity and scepticism. It was based on an analysis of eight years of data collected by Fermilab's CDF experiment that looked at collisions that produced a W boson, carrier of the weak nuclear force, along with two jets of quarks.