Science advances at an astonishing rate. In the past year, there have been a number of scientific advances that have turned science fiction into science fact. For most of us, these discoveries flutter by as little more than curiosities. They’re fascinating headlines on a website or in a newspaper, but each of these has significant implications that have the potential to reshape our world over the next decade or so.
Here’s some of the highlights from 2012.
15: Voyager leaves the solar system
In 1977, the original Star Wars was produced using miniature models for special effects. Star Wars contains a few embarrassingly archaic shots of computer graphics from that era; chunky yellow/green lines plastered on a black screen highlight just how far computing has come in the last thirty five years.
At the same time Star Wars hit the silver screen, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft on a grand tour of the solar system, providing humanity with its first fleeting glimpse of the gas giants up close. Voyager represents the most audacious expedition in the history of exploration, pushing the then known-technology to its very limits.
Over the next decade, the two Voyager spacecraft flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus and Pluto. In 2012, some thirty five years after it left Earth, Voyager I finally reached the heliosheath, the boundary where particles streaming out from the sun are pushed back by interstellar space.
If we equated interstellar space to the sea, then Voyager just crossed the river mouth, crossing the bar as it were into open ocean.
In the same way as a running tap pushes back water in the bottom of your sink, forming a pressure boundary against the rest of the water, the heliosheath represents the boundary between particles moving out from the sun and the general miasma of particles bouncing around in interstellar space.
Voyager has left the neighbourhood for good.
When you consider that for the past thirty-five years Voyager has been moving at 38,500 mph (over 60,000 kph or more than 16 kilometers a second) you get a sense of just how vast our solar system is, and we orbit just one star among an estimated two hundred billion in the Milky Way galaxy.
14: Curiosity lands on Mars
Early this year, NASA described the landing of Curiosity as seven minutes of terror, and they weren’t kidding.
If Voyager is the most audacious exploration ever undertaken, Curiosity is the most audacious and complex planetary landing ever attempted.
Make no mistake about it, hurtling almost four tons of scientific equipment at Mars is like hitting a golfball from Los Angeles to New York and hitting a specific, predefined window on the Empire State building.
Slowing that golfball from over 13,000 mph (or 20,000 kph) to a walking pace in just seven minutes is extraordinary. It’s akin to ensuring that golfball lands gently on the window ledge rather than the breaking glass.
Mars Curiosity is a scientific laboratory on another planet. If life has ever existed on the red planet, Curiosity will reveal its presence.
13: Artificial leaf generates hydrogen
Problems like climate change aren’t going to be solved by conventional means. With the rapid urbanisation of China and India, we need to curb emissions globally, but even that’s just treating the symptoms.
Cutting emissions may contain the problem and yet it fails to address the cause. There has to be a paradigm shift in how we gather and use energy, and that’s where Daniel Nocera enters the discussion.
Using relatively inexpensive materials, Nocera has developed the world’s first practical artificial leaf. It’s early days, but drop his “leaf” in a jar of water, leave it in the sunlight, and you’ll gather hydrogen and oxygen as byproducts.
12: Flexible, inexpensive solar-panels challenge fossil fuels
Using an ion-cannon to produce cheap solar-panels definitely sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but that’s exactly what a US start-up has done.
With wafers as thin as 3mm, there’s an astounding array of possibilities for innovation with these new solar panels. There’s also the chance for solar power to make significant in-roads as an alternative to fossil fuels.
What’s more, even with the cheap manufacturing costs of current solar panels in China, these cells are half the price of anything on the market. Watch this space! This is a technology that will grow over the next few years.
11: Ultra-flexible “willow” glass allows for curved electronics
US manufacturing company Corning, who developed the super-tough, lightweight Gorilla Glass found in smartphones, have developed Willow Glass, a flexible glass 0.05mm in thickness that, along with advances in batteries and the use of graphene in electronics, could trigger yet another transformation in computing.
Several years ago, Sony showcased a purely theoretical concept called the wearable personal computer. Imagine your smartphone as a bracelet and you’ll get what they were proposing.
With the ubiquity of Android phones and iPhones, along with their escalating processing power year on year, the Information Age is set to transform society in the same way as the Industrial Revolution. It might take a few years, but computers will literally be at your fingertips day and night.
10: Planet with four suns
As fascinating as this discovery is, you’re probably wondering why it’s rated as high as it is, and it’s not because of the discovery itself, as remarkable as that is, it is how this astonishing planet was discovered that’s really important. This surprising discovery was made by some average Joes participating in citizen science.
One of the spinoffs of the Information Age is that there’s soooo much information available most research centres need an army of scientists to review and process that information before they can make sense of it.
Enter citizen science. In a carefully controlled manner, scientists can enlist the help of regular citizens to crunch through mountains of data, and the results are as sensational as, well, a planet orbiting four stars.
You can get involved in everything from cancer research to space exploration, from analysing whale calls to tracking climate change over the past fifty years. You can catalog wildlife on the African Serengeti and assist in transcribing ancient manuscripts. It takes a little learning and some attention to detail, but you can participate in some of the most exciting scientific research being undertaken today. You could discover intelligent extraterrestrial life in space, you really could.
Getting back to our planet orbiting four suns, this remarkable planet is about the size of Neptune and has a stable orbit around a binary star system (two stars that closely orbit each other), only these stars in turn orbit another binary star system. Why this planet has not been torn apart, sucked into one of the stars or spun off into space is something scientists are now examining.
9: DARPA “terminator” traverses obstacle course with ease
Arnold said he’d be back, and he wasn’t kidding. Thanks to US military research, Skynet is a live and well and getting ready to come to a battlefield near you.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has developed a robot that can negotiate obstacles such as a low wall and holes in the ground, using autonomous navigation. Teaching robots to independently navigate a battlefield brings up visions of Terminator-style robots replacing front-line troops. In practice, any such innovation is at least a decade away, but it’s coming.
Clearly, this kind of robotic innovation could never have any horrible side effects.
8: 3-D printer builds a two-story house in a single run
OK, so the house looks like something from the fictional planet Tatooine, with load-bearing arcs and curves, but it takes a quarter of the time needed to build an equivalent-sized home. And being made from sand and a chemical binder it has the durability of cement. Give it a polish and this printed house comes up looking like marble. It’s cheaper and quicker to build than a conventional home.
Construction includes a second floor, stairs, internal walls, support columns, domes and wall cavities for piping and electrical wiring.
Once this technology comes of age, it could provide significant assistance in disaster relief as well as in Third World countries, not to mention all the Trekkies wanting a space-age, futuristic home with great ventilation.
7: Human robotics/bionics
In England, two men have been fitted with light-sensitive microchips that replicate the neural signals for sight, giving them the ability to distinguish black from white as well as to make out the shape of various objects.
Doctors are hopeful their minds can be trained to detect more and more detail over time with their new sight. With twenty thousand people in the UK affected by blinding effects of retinitis pigmentosa, this is a significant medical advance.
Although there have been similar advances over the past decade, Jan has achieved a level of speed and dexterity that approaches that of an able-bodied person.
For those with spinal cord injuries or motor neuron disease this represents the possibility of renewed independence and mobility that was once solely in the realm of science fiction, and what better way to start this bright, new future than with a bar of chocolate.
It took 17 days, but paraplegic Claire Lomas completed the 2012 London Marathon using robotic-assisted walking suit.
NASA is developing a more robust version of the robotic walker to assist astronauts, but the spin-offs here on Earth are plain to see. For those affected by Cerebral Palsy or those paralyzed in accidents, there’s the very real prospect they’ll walk again, if not through advancements in medical science to treat spinal defects and injuries then through the use of robotics. These robotic legs are an Iron Man suit without the rocket-propelled boots.
NASA’s X1 robotic exoskeleton could also be used to assist astronauts with muscular exercise in space, to help soldiers on the battlefield or to give Ripley something with which she can wrestle giant acid-dripping aliens.
Weighing in at 57 lbs or 25 kilos and supporting its own weight, the exoskeleton uses ten joints, four of which are powered, six of which are passive.
Another innovation, building upon research conducted over the past five years, is the ability of carbon nanotubes to repair damaged neural tissue. With strokes killing millions of people each year and paralysing millions more, the ability to repair damaged brain-tissue is an exciting development that has the potential to change countless lives for the better.
6: Self-driving cars are made legal in Nevada, Florida, and California
Take a good look at your kids. Depending on their age, they may never learn to drive. Earlier this year, Google began testing driverless cars and three US states have past laws to let these cars roam free on their roads.
With over 300,000 hours of autonomous driving under their belt, there’s been no accidents, at least, no robotic accidents. Ironically, the only time these driverless cars have been involved in an accident has been when humans have been at the wheel.
With an average of 90 deaths per day in the US attributed to motor vehicle accidents, and over 30,000 deaths per year, self-driving cars will make a significant impact on public health. Here in Australia, the annual road-toll has dropped from three thousand to just over a thousand deaths per year, but that’s still too much. Driverless cars will avoid a lot of heartache in the future.
Driverless cars are still several years away from production, but they’re on their way. Go Google!
5: Genetically-modified silk is stronger than steel
The phrase “genetically-modified” often evokes visions of a mutant monster and the prospect of food supplies being irrevocably damaged or destroyed. The truth, however, is rather different. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for tens of thousands of years using artificial selection. Simply by breeding desirable traits we’ve developed dairy cows that radically overproduce upwards of 10,000 kg of milk per year, we’ve domesticated wolves and, over several thousand years, created Chiwawas and Great Danes, we’ve taken wild horses and bred them to be faster and lighter, to the point where their bones become so brittle they break easily under stress. None of these animals are in a natural state, they’ve all been modified by humans. And don’t get me started on chickens.
Think of a natural food. What’s the most tasty “natural” food you can think of? Grapes? Bananas? Apples? They’re all clones, having been selectively bred to produce the best quality we’ve then cloned them to ensure the flavour is consistent from one apple to another, from one year to the next.
Even produce like wheat and corn have been methodically and selectively bred over hundreds to thousands of years, transforming them from their “natural” state to one that is ideal for our nutrition.
With the advent of direct genetic modification, we can finally be deliberate and precise in the changes we desire within animals and plants. And the University of Wyoming has developed silkworms that produce (cross-species) spider-silk that is proportionately stronger than steel. This super-silk has a tremendous range of applications that could have a significant impact on our lives. Imagine the environmental impact of a biodegradable alternative to plastic that was stronger than steel. From surgical sutures, to lightweight body armour, there’s a whole host of possibilities.
There is a need to regulate genetically-modified plants and animals, but GM is not Pandora’s box, no more so than artificial selection ever was. When used in a scientifically robust and ethical manner, GM has tremendous potential to improve the quality of our lives.
4: Stem cells could extend life
Normally, mice live to about two years of age. Scientists at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, studied mice with a genetic defect that caused them to ageing rapidly and die after 21 days. Using muscle stem cells from young, healthy mice, they were able to extend the life of these defective mice for over 70 days.
At first, researchers thought there was a mistake. Perhaps the samples had been mixed up and some healthy mice had been put in with the degenerative mice, but carefully controlled analysis showed they really had extended the lives of these genetically defective mice by a factor of three. If the same results were replicated with humans an eighty year old could reach two hundred years of age.
As with so much scientific research, there were unexpected points of learning along the way. At first, the assumption was that the new, healthy stem cells had repaired internal organs, but scientists introduce a genetic marker into the healthy stem cells and were surprised to find very few of these stem cells made their way into the internal organs of the defective mice. If the healthy stem cells hadn’t extended the lives of these mice then what had?
Curious, scientists divided a flask in two with a membrane designed to keep cells apart. They introduced healthy stem cells in one half of the flask, and defective, rapidly ageing stem cells into the other. To their surprise, within days, the older, ageing cells began behaving “younger,” dividing more often. From this, scientists concluded that the younger stem cells were secreting a protein the older ageing cells could use to become renewed.
Stem cell therapy is still in its infancy, and this research was only conducted on muscle stem cells. There’s a long way to go before this could become a medical treatment, but the possibility of using proteins to tease the body’s own stem cells into regenerative behaviour is no longer science fiction.
3: Chimera monkeys created from multiple embryos
Like something from a Frankenstein movie, scientists have combined cells from six distinctly different different embryos into three baby monkeys, such a hybrid creature is known as a chimera.
According to researchers, “The cells never fuse, but they stay together and work together to form tissues and organs… Assumptions about the way human embryos develop have always been based on the (chimera) mouse, but that’s a dangerous assumption (because humans are so different).”
Animals formed as chimeras are used to better understand the role of genes in embryonic development, but previously this study had been limited to mice. Having primate models will increase the possibility of applying any learning about their genetic development to humans.
2: DNA was photographed for the first time
In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick first identified DNA as a complex, helical molecule, recognizing its role in carrying the genetic blueprint for life. Although x-ray diffraction revealed the now familiar double-helix shape, it would be almost sixty years before a single strand of DNA could be photographed.
Since 1953, our knowledge has grown in how DNA works with proteins and other molecules like RNA to provide the foundation for all of life on Earth, but this knowledge has been based on theoretical models and carefully controlled experiments. Now, for the first time, we have the opportunity to actually watch as proteins interact with DNA, and that will reveal the inner workings of the biological cell in even greater detail.
In science, knowledge is power. Accurate, precise knowledge gives us the power to harness the natural biological processes to our advantage. There’s still more work to be done, but this level of visibility into the working of DNA has significant implications for areas like cancer research, disease prevention, treating genetic defects, etc.
1: The Higgs-Boson particle was discovered
The Standard Model of particle physics is an oddity. It’s not widely loved, but since its inception in the 1960s the Standard Model has been highly successful at combining and explaining the fundamental forces of nature. With the exception of gravity, the Standard Model has provided a robust explanation of the quantum world upon which the universe is founded.
In the jigsaw puzzle that is particle physics, the Higgs field provides all other particles with their mass, so finding the Higgs and confirming its role in particle physics is an outstanding achievement.
Although this discovery may seem somewhat esoteric, this new knowledge will have an impact on our world. A hundred years ago, cars looked like jalopies, biplanes struggled to get into the air, the average life expectancy for a man was around 47 and the leading cause of death was tuberculous. A hundred years ago, we thought there was just one galaxy, ours, now we know there are hundreds of billions of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies spread throughout the universe. A hundred years ago, the prospect of standing on the Moon or flying by Jupiter and Saturn would have seemed fanciful, like wishing on fairies, but advances in scientific knowledge have made all this possible and have radically changed our world. Imagine where humanity will be a hundred years from now.
It’s been a big year in science, you can see more highlights on other scientific topics at io9
Happy New Year