Thursday, December 23, 2010

Steph’s Science Corner: My Favorite Scientific Advancements of 2010

When I don’t get suggestions, I do wrap-ups. Change that by emailing

A colorful map of the universeThe other day, a friend of mine said casually to me, “2010 has been a big year for science in the news. You must be excited.”

It was such an odd thing to observe. I suppose that, yes, I have had an increased number of excuses to avoid a dreary work-day now that I’m subscribed to a fair number of science-magazine RSS feeds, but I thought that just meant I was paying closer attention. Inspired, I started doing some reflective research. While I have a slightly snooty, elitist opinion on cheap, cliché lists recounting the best-whatevers-of-some-amount-of-time, I found that I sort of needed a cheap, cliché excuse for this week’s post, due to the proximity of the holidays. Besides, when you talk about the best science stories of the year, you get to look at some of the most stunning science pictures of the year, like the one above.

Having made peace with my concession, I present you with some of the more interesting stories (and images) of the last twelve months’ worth of discovery. I make no claims about their relative significance, nor do I suggest there weren’t other valuable innovations. These were just the few that I remembered, and felt might be important to revisit.

Water on the moon...or, more of it anyway

The moon water patchWhat popped up in headlines were phrases like, “Water Found On The Moon.” Those who read more closely learned that there have always been trace amounts of molecular water and permafrost on the moon, so it wasn’t exactly found. NASA sent a data-collecting satellite to hover over the moon, and from orbit it dropped one of its expended rocket-boosters onto the surface where it crash-landed. The satellite then analyzed the chemical content of the plume that was sent up from impact, and discovered about 50% more water vapor than astronomers had anticipated. That indicated the presence of a patch of rock that was about twice as wet as the Sahara desert. Bring on the moon condos!

More planets, some of which might have life

Gliese 581...maybeIn just this year, the NASA spacecraft known as Kepler discovered over 750 candidates for possible extrasolar planets – planets outside our solar system -- during the first 43 days of observation. That’s more planets than the total number discovered over the last 15 years.While it is estimated that only around 50% of these will actually turn out to be planets when studied more carefully, that’s still rather significant. What’s more exciting, NASA believes that around 700 of these are possible earth-like planets.

In oversimplified terms, astronomers typically identify to presence of planets by measuring the frequency of light that stars emit when one of their planets passes between the star and our observation point here on earth. In order to be an earth-like planet, it must meet certain guidelines on size and mass (if its too big its probably a gas giant, like Jupiter), distance from their star (a planet must orbit in the “habitable zone,” where it’s not too hot and not too cold), and the presence of a solid rock-and-dust crust. All of these qualities can be observed by light-measuring techniques. On the tails on this initial announcement, NASA also boldly declared that it had confirmed the existence of an earth-like planet that they named Gliese 581g. Unfortunately, no one else has been able to confirm it, and further studies conducted by other countries are casting serious doubt on its existence, which is hard to stomach for an organization already struggling to maintain funding, interest, and credibility.

The LHC gets up and running, and particle physics research surges forward

The large hadron collider. It's really freaking huge, you guys.

Remember 2008? It was the year that the world nervously followed the countdown ticker as we approached the launch date for the largest particle accelerator ever built: The Large Hadron Collider. The LHC was constructed by CERN, the European Organization for nuclear particle research, and was possibly the most highly anticipated experiment of the last decade. But what the layperson didn’t realize is that, like every piece of research equipment, it was destined to breakdown several times before it actually worked. Now, two years later, experiments finally began, and while no one has been swallowed up in a black hole yet, great strides have been made in the field of particle physics. In march they achieved the largest-energy proton collision ever recorded, and the data collected from just that brief moment will be enough to keep them occupied for years to come.

Other groups including America’s own Fermilab are also charging forward. One of the top goals for the LHC is to measure the Higgs Boson, a hypothetical elementary particle that has never been observed, but is said to be responsible for all mass in the universe. It is the missing link for all cosmologic and particle theory, colloquially nicknamed “The God Particle.” Theoretical researchers at Fermilab have recently presented evidence that suggests that there might be five Higgs Bosons, making a case for particle polytheism.

CERN traps antimatter

A diagram for the anti-hydrogenOne of CERN’s major research goals has been the sustained capture of antimatter. Many of the major theories that describe our universe hinge on the existence of mirror opposites for all matter. When a particle and its corresponding antiparticle meet, they annihilate. We exist because we live in a matter-heavy universe. It has been speculated that, due to symmetry, there is an opposite-matter universe that mirrors ours somewhere out there. Antimatter is readily observable – we have measured the electron’s opposite, the positron, for some time now. CERN managed to create a complete anti-element – an anti-hydrogen – as early as 1995. However, because of the abundance of matter in our universe, it winked out of existence too quickly to be studied. Just this year, CERN announced that they had contained 38 anti-hydrogen atoms for 170 milliseconds – ages in the field of particle physics – which was more than long enough to study their properties.

New life forms, both synthetic and only sort of synthetic

Synthetic bacteria, which looks an awful lot like rat poop on a rug

Remember when we talked about arsenic-based life a couple of weeks ago? That actually wasn’t the first bacteria-based excitement of the year, though it still gets a shout-out on this list. But preceding that discovery, a team of genetic engineers lead by Craig Venter announced in May that they had created the first ever synthetic life. Just last year, this same team used a technique of transplanting genetic information from one bacterium to the hollowed-out cell of another species and found that it replicated. This year, Venter constructed a completely synthetic genome, chemically, copying the genetic code of a known bacterium and adding a few “watermarks” to identify it. This fabricated genome was transferred to a hollow cell once again, and the group reported that it replicated exactly as predicted. The synthetic strain was nicknamed Synthia. Some scientists feel that this work is a bit overblown – Venter didn’t exactly create life, he just copied it, and in typical fashion, critics questioned the reliability his methods. Nevertheless, copy or original, its still a major achievement to construct a working genetic building block from scratch.

Advances in HIV treatment and prevention

Apparently this is a picture of HIV, though it looks like it's been granted superpowers when it was exposed to that nuclear waste plant While it’s sort of old news, it was officially confirmed once again that a man was cured of the immune-system-attacking retrovirus, HIV.

In 2007 doctors in Berlin carried out a bone marrow transplant on an HIV-infected man -- a United States citizen -- with leukemia. The tissue came from a donor who had a natural resistance to HIV infection, which was due to a genetic mutation that caused the absence of a specific receptor in his cells, which is essentially the “HIV docking station.” This mutation is present in less than one percent of Caucasians in northern and western Europe. Stem cells from the donor were implanted in the infected patient who was both receiving immune-suppressing drugs to prevent the rejection of transplanted tissue, and undergoing chemotherapy treatment, which destroys most of the body’s immune system anyway. In 2008 it was reported that infection had completely disappeared from the patient. In late 2009, funding for researching techniques like this one started appearing in the US. This year, doctors in Berlin published an extensive follow-up report, publishing it in major journals. This story comes tumbling in with other success stories about the progression of trials testing an HIV vaccine which seems to be having some preliminary success, as well as other proposed methods that might aid in the fight for prevention.

On a slightly ironic note, as we gain momentum with all this exciting news of a cure, we have also uncovered information that SIC, the primate virus that spawned HIV, has actually been present for over 32,000 years, unlike the mere hundred years that we previously predicted.

A massive marine-life census

Undersea crab babies! Not only was this the year our country had its population census, but it was also the year that a coalition of research organizations from over 80 countries unveiled the results of their 10-year long cataloging of all marine life on the planet, from the darkest, hottest depths of the ocean to the nutrient-rich surface. The project was called the Census of Marine Life (CoML), and the results were unveiled at a major conference in London that took place during the first week in October. Over 6,000 new species were discovered and filed in the newly created database called the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). It is now the world’s largest open-access, online repository of marine life data. While the remote vehicles were an impressive feat of technology, and while the project was a brilliant show of unity and cooperation between the world’s top leading marine science organizations, possibly the most impressive products of this 10-year long study are the pictures. Browse Google for a while and check some of them out. They’re absolutely phenomenal.

Magnets can disrupt the brain’s moral judgment

The location of the moral judgement center of the brain. Protect your right lobe! In April, researchers at MIT and Harvard, lead by Liane Young, showed that they could alter the moral and ethical judgments made by an individual by using something called “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” In other words, they disrupted neural processing signals with a strong, quick magnetic field induced by an electric current.

Young studied a group of 20 volunteers that were asked to judge 24 scenarios involving morally questionable behavior. She then repeated the tests while stimulating the subjects’ brains at the area near the right ear called the temporoparietal junction, a region that has been theorized to play a role in our ability to figure out other peoples’ intentions. You can take away a few things from this study – either you can be thrilled that we’ve uncovered more details about the brain’s functionality, or you can escalate your irrational fear that magnets make you crazy.

Neanderthals and early humans probably did it

A sexy neanderthal female According to a new study, the genetic makeup of the modern human contains about one to four percent Neanderthal parts, indicating that Homo sapiens bred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died off about 30,000 years ago.

Previous DNA evidence showed that we were genetically different from this breed of humanoid, and that they were not in fact our ancestors. Instead, Neanderthals co-existed with our true predecessors – the Cro-Magnons, who migrated to the European continent from Africa, eventually displacing Neanderthals. But some scientists that studied bone structure already believed that the similarities were just a little too close for outright dismissal, arguing that the evidence showed a strong likelihood of cross-breeding. So to many experts, this discovery was a long time coming, and the genetic study was simply validation. Besides, if you really think about what we know about modern humankind’s ingrained blueprint for reproduction and genetic diversification, can you truly be that surprised? They were probably close enough.

That’s it for my wrap-up, and I’ll be off next week along with everyone else, so I’ll see you again in 2011! In the meantime, you can still always email me at I’m hoping that the new year brings with it a whole new set of exciting discoveries for me to read about during work, so that I can then write about them for your reading pleasure. Enjoy the holidays!