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.
NASA's one-ton, six-wheel-drive, nuclear-powered science laboratory — aka Curiosity — touched down on the surface of Mars in early August, following an eight-month voyage across millions of miles of space. It is far and away the biggest and most scientifically capable rover ever sent to another planet. The landing sequence, alone, which required lowering the rover to the surface of the planet from a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane, was the most technically impressive ever attempted, and played out beautifully.
Today, just five months into Curiosity's two-year primary mission, the rover is still just stretching its legs, but has already made several intriguing discoveries. In the months to come, the rover will begin poring over the pages of Mars' history, as it scans the layers of sedimentary rock comprising Mount Sharp in search of signs of whether the planet can, or ever could, support life.
Synthetic biologists demonstrated that artificial nucleic acids known as "XNAs" can replicate and evolve just like DNA and RNA, and are even more resistant to degradation than the real thing. The implications of evolvable, artificial genetic information are vast, to put it lightly, and stand to affect everything from genetic research to the search for alien life, to the creation of an entirely synthetic, alternative life form.
Does anybody really have any doubt that the world's first AI will be born in a Google server farm? This dream came closer to reality this year when Google's secretive X Lab produced evidence that it had developed a neural network that could actually recognize what it was seeing in pictures. It did this by examining millions of images on YouTube for a few days, then offering the researchers some composite images of what it had learned to recognize. Two of those images were unmistakably human and cat faces. This is the first time computers have taught themselves to recognize the content of images, and is a major leap forward in the quest to find ourselves some artificially intelligent friends.
This year, an international group of scientists completed a highly detailed analysis of DNA from what is estimated to be a 50-80,000 year old finger bone from a group of early humans called Denisovans. And it offered a glimpse at the genes that may have given modern humans an edge over our extinct counterparts. What the researchers found is that Denisovans shared a lot of genetic material with our human cousins, the Neanderthals. What set modern humans apart from both groups was a small set of genes that are related to brain development and cognition. It's possible that Homo sapiens survived, while our human cousins did not, because of something to do with how our brains worked. From this Denisovan DNA, we also learned more about where Neanderthals and Denisovans lived, and how they migrated across Europe and Asia long before Homo sapiens ever got the idea to leave Africa. Thanks to this research, we have a more detailed picture than ever of what human life was like tens of thousands of years ago.
After more than 40 years, the subatomic particle that some feared would never be described without the word "elusive" attached to it was finally detected: on the 4th of July, physicists from two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider announced that the Higgs Boson had been found. The Higgs represents the last missing piece of The Standard Model of particle physics, and helps explain how other elementary particles get their mass.
The discovery lost Stephen Hawking a $100-bet, and placed the future of particle physics on uncertain terrain. "Is the particle a Higgs boson of maximum simplicity, as predicted by the 40-year-old standard model of particle physics," inquires Matthew Chalmers in this Nature News feature, "or is it something more complex and interesting that will point towards a deeper, more complete theory?" Only time — and new, powerful particle accelerators — will tell.
In what is arguably the biggest milestone for genetics since the publication of the human genome, researchers this year debuted The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project (aka The "ENCODE" Project), publishing 30 papers across three different scientific journals with the aim of cataloguing not just the genome's various component parts, but what those components actually do. Among the initiative's many findings was that so-called "junk DNA" - outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences - are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height.
For the first time in history, researchers at Kyoto University created a mouse by using eggs derived from stem cells alone. The achievement once again shows the remarkable possibilities presented by regenerative technologies like stem cells, while raising pressing ethical questions about the potential for human births in which parents might not be required.
The boundary that divides man from machine continues to dissolve — often in more literal ways than you might imagine. Scientists in September announced a new class of implantable electronics that can carry out a designated task for anywhere from a few hours to several weeks before disappearing completely, resorbing into the body after serving its purpose. The potential applications of this technology — dubbed "Transient Electronics" by its creator, bioengineer John Rogers — are many, and run the gamut from vanishing biological implants to environmentally friendly phones.
For the first time in history, a group of researchers did a longitudinal study of what happens to women who seek out abortions, but are denied them under restrictive legal frameworks. The UC San Francisco research team followed nearly 1,000 women from diverse backgrounds across the U.S. over several years, after they were unable to have their abortions. What they discovered was that these women were more likely to slip below the poverty line, be unemployed, remain in abusive relationships with the fathers of their children, and feel stressed out from having too many responsibilities. Only a tiny percentage of them put their babies up for adoption, and most already had children before seeking an abortion. What this ongoing study demonstrates is that abortion is an economic issue for women, with dire consequences for those denied them.
The future of space exploration belongs not to government agencies, but private companies, and California-based SpaceX is leading the way. This year, while NASA's various Space Shuttles were busy hanging up their space boots, SpaceX became the first private company in history to complete a commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station, the first of 12 contracted resupply missions in a $1.6-billion delivery deal with NASA.
Also on SpaceX's docket: 20 commercial and non-U.S. government satellites and payloads; a $260-million contract with the U.S. Air Force; and plans for Martian settlement. With objectives like that, is it any wonder the company's founder, Elon Musk, helped inspire Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark?
Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low in September; covering a mere 3.4 million square kilometers of Arctic Ocean, this year's minimum was 800,000 square miles smaller than the previous record. Every month seemed to bring news of unprecedented heat. The record for "hottest 12-month period" was shattered no fewer than four times, and July was the hottest month in recorded U.S. history.
Meanwhile, record-setting droughts, wildfires and hurricanes rocked the planet; new research indicates parts of Antarctica are warming three times faster than previously believed; Bloomberg Businessweek called climate deniers stupid; and even idiots started believing in global warming.
Every year we learn more about the many mechanisms that can trigger autism, a complicated spectrum disorder that is still poorly understood. One incredible study this year offered hope for researchers seeking a way to understand how autism develops in some people, and perhaps one day craft a targeted gene therapy. Using mice with autism-like symptoms caused by a genetic mutation, the researchers figured out how to administer a protein that reversed the symptoms. No, it will not lead to a cure any time soon. It will lead to something better: An understanding of the many ways autism can start.
An experiment revealed that tractor beams are within our reach. For the first time, researchers demonstrated in the lab that a Bessel beam could be used to move a tiny silica sphere back and forth, drawing it toward and away from the source of the laser light. Though it had been theorized that Bessel beams worked like this, nobody had been able to do it. The team did this by essentially creating a strobe effect, using multiple lenses to create overlapping beams and adjusting the beams' relative phases. This provided the required energy to move the object toward the beam.
At last, a rubber-meets-the-road moment for materials science. Using a nano-fabrication technique called electrospinning, a team of researchers created a female condom that is woven out of fibers that block sperm and also release a medicine that prevents HIV infections. The material can also be designed to harmlessly evaporate in a matter of hours or days, depending on what the woman wants. Sure, the Mars Rover could change the future. But this simple technology could change women's lives all over the world right now.
Yes, there have been face transplants before, but this was the first full-face transplant — and it worked marvelously well. The recipient had lost most of his face in a gun accident, and now has a full face that he was able to move within days of his surgery. This will lead to many more people gaining a new lease on life with a face that functions almost as well as the one they were born with — and possibly, better.
This was the year of water in our solar system. We already had strong evidence of plentiful water on the Moon, and this year we found it for Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Mercury — plus we got more detailed images of Saturn moon Titan's river systems, which probably flow with liquid methane and ethane. Water on other planets isn't exactly like water on Earth — usually it's packed with hydrocarbons, or is extremely brackish. But now at least we have evidence that water isn't as usual as we thought out there. Future space colonists may be able to mine for water on other words, using refineries to purify it into something potable.
One day you could power your laptop just by typing. And you'll do it by using a virus called M13. The secret of M13 lies in something called the "piezoelectric effect," which happens when certain materials like crystals (or viruses) emit a small amount of power when squeezed. M13 exhibits this effect, and also has the handy ability to organize itself into tidy, invisible sheets of film. Imagine painting a layer of this film onto the casing for your laptop. Every time you tap the keyboard, these viruses convert the pressure from your fingers into electricity that constantly powers up your battery. Any kind of motion can power up M13, so you could conceivably power your house by jumping up and down on a virus-coated floor, or power your iPod by jiggling it in your pocket. Also, don't worry about a scary M13 pandemic where people start squeezing each other for energy. M13 only infects bacteria, so it is harmless to humans.