2011 was truly a breathtaking year. From the Arab Spring to the Eurozone crisis, each day had the potential to bring earth-shattering change-- for better or for worse.
Just as in politics and world affairs, this same intrigue held true for science. We were awed by many events in 2011-- some wonderful, some catastrophic. So, before charging on to 2012, we pause to count down the top 10 science stories of 2011.
#10. Posthumous Nobel Prize.
Ralph Steinman became the first posthumous recipient of the Nobel Prize, winning the award in medicine for his 1973 discovery of the dendritic cell, a vital part of our immune systems. In many ways, a Nobel Prize immortalizes its recipient. But this year, Steinman was confronted with his own mortality before being given the prestigious award. Steinman had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he extended his life by using a therapy he designed. Sadly, he passed away three days before his prize was announced, which technically disqualified him from being considered. However, the Nobel Assembly was not aware of his death during their deliberations. This conundrum left them in a sticky situation: honor the rules or stand by their decision? The assembly wisely stuck with Steinman.
#9. Resurrecting the woolly mammoth is possible.
Scientists announced the possibility of cloning a woolly mammoth within 5 years. Just like Dolly the Sheep, the new mammoth would be cloned by a process called "nuclear transplantation." Using a preserved femur recovered from the Siberian permafrost, scientists plan to extract the nucleus of a bone marrow cell and transplant it into an elephant egg cell. Following a 22-month gestation period in a surrogate elephant mother, a woolly mammoth could be born. However, because the DNA inside the bone marrow may be severely degraded, resurrecting the woolly mammoth is still a long shot-- but well within the realm of scientific possibility.
#8. Climategate 2.0 & BEST Study.
The son of Climategate returned as Climategate 2.0. Yet another batch of unflattering emails -- around 5,000 -- were leaked onto the Internet in mid-November. The emails showed an apparent attempt by prominent climate researchers to be less than transparent about the scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming. In stark contrast to the scandal redux, a leading team of scientists released the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study in October. Analyzing temperature data from over 39,000 temperature stations worldwide, BEST found that global warming is indeed real, reporting, "reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1 degree Celsius since the mid-1950s."
#7. Faster-than-light neutrinos are fun, but probably not real.
Physicists went absolutely bonkers when it was revealed that neutrinos may be capable of traveling faster than the speed of light. The story generated so much buzz that even political pundits felt the need to weigh in. The reason for the excitement is that the discovery, if true, would violate Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity which holds (among many other things) that objects with mass cannot travel at the speed of light. However, many researchers pointed out flaws with the results, including a potential systematic measurement error (ironically) caused by Einstein's theory of general relativity. Ultimately, faster-than-light neutrinos may end up being like unicorns: Fun to talk about, but probably not real.
#6. Fixing bad science is hard work.
Science and politics make very awkward bedfellows. Both Republicans and Democrats use science as a weapon to bash each other, and then they brazenly ignore it when it violates their worldviews. This year was no different. During the congressional budget battles, the James Webb Space Telescope was considered for cancellation (but ultimately saved). Concerns over a link between cell phones and cancer still linger, even though it violates basic physics. Fear over BPA also persists, mostly because the media likes to scare people. And Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann opined (incorrectly) that vaccines cause mental retardation. The fight for good science will continue to be a long, uphill battle.
#5. A new anti-viral drug could kill many different viruses.
Antibiotics have been a weapon in our medical arsenal for a long time. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, antibiotics have been used to target every bacterial infection from strep throat to anthrax. Many "broad-spectrum" antibiotics can kill numerous different kinds of bacteria. However, this is not the case with antivirals. These drugs pose unique difficulties, not the least of which is that they tend to target specific viruses. However, that might change with the recent discovery of a drug called DRACO which has been shown to kill at least 15 different viruses, including influenza, Ebola, polio, and even the common cold. If the drug works in humans, it could be truly revolutionary, indeed.
#4. Earth 2.0: A plethora of habitable planets.
The search for "Earth's Twin" holds a unique fascination for astronomers worldwide, and this year, their efforts in this endeavor moved closer to fruition. In May, scientists from the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace published a study concluding that the previously discovered planet, Gliese 581d, has a climate that "is not only stable against collapse, but warm enough to have oceans, clouds and rainfall." Revelations about Gliese 581d's potential habitability were followed in December with NASA's discovery of Kepler-22b, the first planet confirmed in the "Goldilocks zone." At about 2.4 times the size of Earth, Kepler-22b is thought to primarily contain water or a lot of gas. Estimates put the planet's average temperature at around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Not too hot, not too cold. Yes, just about right.
#3. End of an era: NASA's final space shuttle.
What goes up must come down. For over thirty years, the NASA space shuttle program flew in the face of this reality. But on July 8th, it finally succumbed to it. Amidst the normal pageantry of a NASA launch, a slightly somber tone accompanied Atlantis' blast-off from Cape Canaveral as it embarked on STS-135, the final mission of the 30-year space shuttle program. Costing approximately $209 billion over its lifetime, the space shuttle program was at times a source of intense controversy, incredible excitement, and universal sorrow. Polls showed that most of us were "disappointed" to see it go.
#2. The Meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi.
On March 11, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering tsunami waves at heights of up to 133 feet. The towering waves overwhelmed the beleaguered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, cutting off the vital electricity powering the reactor's cooling systems. In the days that followed, three of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi would experience total meltdown, giving rise to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The long-term implications of the disaster remain to be determined, but the near-term implications have ranged from minimal to drastic. Here in the United States, Fukushima has been used more as a teaching tool, while in Germany, the disaster was used as a rationale to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022.
#1. The Higgs boson is probably real.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC)-- an enormous particle accelerator built under the border between France and Switzerland-- may have finally struck (metaphorical) gold. Particle physicists have long sought after the elusive Higgs boson, the particle which is thought to confer mass upon other particles. Confirming its existence would bolster the widely-accepted Standard Model of particle physics, while failing to find the particle would cause headaches (but perhaps much excitement) for physicists as they headed back to the drawing boards. A final verdict may come as soon as 2012.