It’s been quite the year, ladies and gentlemen – many discoveries, many studies and inventions; from the tiniest of particles to the biggest galaxies, from climate change to medicine and from computers to animals – science spared nothing in 2012. It was a great year for us, and we were really happy to share all these wonderful scientific achievements with you, and dare I say, we were lucky enough to receive your support; we have many things prepared for you in 2013, many things I’m sure you’ll love, but until we move on to the new year, here’s a summary of the past one.
2012 kicked off in style, with one of the most loved sci-fi themes: cloaking! Cornell researchers managed, albeit for a trillionth of a second, to create a wrinkle in time, one in which any objects that passed through it became invisible and events went unrecorded – basically, they made a portion of reality “skip a frame”. It may not seem like much, but it’s the first step to Star Trek cloaking devices. Also, more was done for cloaking in January 2012: scientists showed it is also possible to thermally cloak objects, hide their thermal signature. So far they only focused on small, particle sized objects, but they were pretty successful. These may be just the first steps, but sci-fi cloaking is definitely moving from the science fiction books to the laboratories.
Cosmology and particle physics are surprisingly entwined, and understanding what dark matter is and how it works is important for both fields; this is exactly why it was important for astronomers to create a great map of universal dark matter. This is just the first step, as in the next 3 years, the amplitude of the map is expected to extend threefold.
But this was just the start of a great month for space: Hubble went to work again, snapping a photo of the oldest galaxy cluster formed in the universe – more research was done on this cluster later on in the year. But astronomers pushed things even further, accomplishing something thought impossible even a few years ago: they took a picture of a black hole – something remarkable considering how black holes are the least understood celestial bodies in the universe (that we know of at least). Meanwhile, a little closer to home, the most high-res picture of Earth (another view) was also taken.
If I’d have to give February a nickname – it’d be the “immortal month” – and not because 2012 was a leap year. In February, scientists showed that some worms can be immortal, endlessly regenerating their cells. To push things even further, they managed to show that sirtuin, a class of proteins, can be linked to longevity. But we still have to remember that from a geologic and biologic point of view, humans have been around for a really short while – compare it to the oldest animal species ever found – they’ve been on Earth for 760 million years.
Meanwhile, IBM and many more companies were working on the future of computing: quantum computers. Instead of using bits for calculations, quantum computers rely on quantum mechanics phenomena to perform operations on data. Quantum computers are different from digital computers based on transistors, and they are incredibly more performant than their counter parts – which is why the IBM development in scalable quantum computers is absolutely remarkable.
Finally, after decades of waiting, russian researchers finally drilled the ice and reached the liquid water of the Vostok lake; the lake has been encased in ice for over 1 million years, and it is unknown what species of life evolved and differentiated in this period, but scientists are expecting significant findings – especially important for exobiology – the search of life on other planets, specifically ice covered ones. More samples will be extracted in the Spring.
But it wasn’t all good in February – it was actually a very sad month for us, as well as most of the scientific community. The great injustice of the Italian seismology trial started lurking its head; basically, the seismologists were charged for not being able to predict something… they couldn’t scientifically predict. They were actually found guilty, which is absurd, and should never have happened.
Ocean acidification seemed to be the main topic in March; another effect of mankind activities, ocean acidification will probably cause a mass extinction if this trend continues. It was also shown that American coastlines are much more vulnerable to this phenomenon than previously thought. This is especially dangerous as computer models showed a likely global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) until 2050.
Meanwhile, astronauts on the ISS had their own scare as well: with the space debris problems lurking around, they were forced to take precautions and head for the escape pods; thankfully, the problems didn’t escalate and there was no real need to use them. Also, as it turns out, there’s not only a lot of nomad planets in our galaxy, but also a lot of Earth-like planets – literally billions of Earth-like planets are believed to exist in the Milky way, according to astronomers. As for oddities, astrophysicists spotted the first rectancle-shaped galaxy (or almost rectangle) that we know of – definitely not something you see every day.
Futuristic technology was in the highlight once again, with 3D printing being the main culprit here. You know how you regularly print documents and whatnot? Well, as it turns out, researchers have figured out way to print objects – 3D. Basically, with a 3D printer, you can create objects and give them the exact shape you want. 3D printing could be extremely useful for astronauts, medicine, and in many other fields – it’s just the next big thing. Also, in other news, Japanese researchers managed to bring another science fiction fantasy to reality – holograms. They created actual holograms, and the results were just stunning.
Meanwhile, a huge company was founded by numerous rich and influential people, including Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as well as film director James Cameron; the company, called Planetary Resources has the purpose of mining asteroids – something which, as far fetched as it sounds, could bring them trillions.
However, Mother Nature stepped in once more to show us just how powerful she can be – a massive 8.6 earthquake struck Indonesia, but thankfully, not significant tsunami followed – which limited the casualties.
…something we really need to work on, apparently: humans need another planet to survive as a species. We are consuming our planet’s resources way beyond the rate of replenishment, and if we don’t learn to adjust, something which seems all but impossible at the moment, the only thing to do is colonize another planet. However, a simple leaf may provide some help – researchers developed an artificial leaf that mimics photosynthesis, all made from simple, cheap materials – something which could be very useful in the near future, as a way of developing renewable energy.
There was still some good news though, for paralyzed people: a fully functional robotic arm was developed, specifically for them; what makes it so special? You can control it (get ready for it) with your mind!
It all heated up in June – the brick at the very base of modern physics, the Rosetta stone of our time, the Higgs boson was found. It took a lot of time and effort, it was clouded in controversy, the dust still hasn’t settled yet, but it does seem that physicists found the Higgs boson – and intend to go even further. Why is this important? Well, modern particle physics relies on the Standard Model, a theory concerning the electromagnetic, weak, and strong nuclear interactions, which mediate the dynamics of the known subatomic particles. Without the Higgs boson, the entire Standard Model fails like a house of cards, and we have to rethink it all over again – thankfully though, the people working at CERN managed to save us from that potential problem.
August is all about one thing: Curiosity – and I’m not talking about the attribute, I’m talking about the rover! The moment the entire world was expecting finally happened in August, as astronomers and engineers cheered like little children – and for good reason. The landing itself was a great achievement, with the final moments of descent being caught on camera and the Mars orbiter snapping a picture of the landing; people working at NASA were really afraid of this land – nicnaming it the “seven minutes of terror“. The first picture Curiosity sent back was just great, and the 3D views that followed were even nicer, but those aren’t the most important aspects of its mission. Its objectives are varied and important, with the big prize represented by finding life, or finding out if life ever existed on the surface of Mars.
But it wasn’t all Curiosity – the largest 3D map of the known Universe was released, and the hottest temperature on Earth (that we know of) was reached at CERN, after creating the quark-gluon soup. But the quark-gluon soup isn’t responsible for global warming, which is ultimately leading to some extremely dangerous results: the demand for water is higher than the available resource; let me put this another way: mankind is consuming more water than our planet can support, and sooner or later, if we continue using the resource at this pace, we will run out of water – simple as that.
With global warming kicking in more and more, September was the 330th consecutive month in which it was warmer than the 20th century average. It became absolutely certain that we’re living in a really warm century, with Arctic ice barely hanging in; research actually showed that it will probably collapse sometime during the next four years.
Speaking of ice, the Dawn spacecraft spotted some great info about Vesta; Vesta is the second largest asteroid in the solar system, and with a mean diameter of 525 km, you can almost consider it a small planet. This is why Dawn spent almost a year studying it, and it wasn’t wasted time. Hints of water were found on the asteroid, but don’t get your hopes up about this – it’s extremely unlikely that life exists on Vesta.
Back on Earth, self driving cars were legalized in California; what, don’t tell me you haven’t heard about Google’s self-driving cars? Well, a couple of years ago, this seemed like a “maybe someday” idea, but it quickly moved from the sci-fi books to the labs and then to the road – and what better place to pioneer this kind of idea than California? Speaking of sci-fi technology, how do you feel about teleportation? Because European physicists managed to achieve teleportation at a distance of 143 km – they teleported photons, that is, which makes it an entirely different story. The more and more you “zoom in”, like say when you’re dealing with photon-sized particles, the laws of nature starts to change; in order to teleport the photons, they relied on quantum mechanics phenomena, which means the technique won’t work with macroscopic objects.
Hey, and guess what? The prices of diamonds will drop, and Russians are deceiving. How do I know this, and what do these things have to do with each other? Well… Russians found a trillion carat diamond deposit, enough to last 3000 years at today’s rate of consumption – they found it in the 70s. However, they didn’t want to tell the world about it to keep the price up; go figure…
The most remarkable event in October was the Felix Baumgartner jump from the stratosphere; in case you’ve been hiding in the woods and still don’t know about it, here’s what happened: he jumped from the stratosphere, free falling 24 miles – 39,035 meters or 119,846ft – breaking numerous records in the process, providing valuable information in the process as well.
Hurricane Sandy was another big thing in October – but one not fortunate at all. It was big, it was bad, it hurt a lot of people. It may or may not be related to global warming, but it was definitely one of the most tragic events of the year.
Speaking of nature solving problems: coral threatened by toxic seaweeds emit a chemical signal which draws fish to eat away the danger. This is a perfect example of non-verbal communication, in one of the places where you’d least expect it, and kind of makes scientists want to redefine communication alltogether; but until they do that, they were actually forced to redefine intelligence: biologists found that a brainless slime can think, memorize and actually solve problems – definitely not what you’d expect. Other biologists stumbled across new species, the most remarkable one being Illacme plenipes – the world’s leggiest creatures, with 750 legs.
Astronomers definitely didn’t take a vacation in December, and the month kicked up with a fantastic discovery: they found a possible Earth-like planet just 12 light years away! It may be impossible to travel that distance for now, but judging by a cosmic scale, the distance is just very small. Hubble showed its incredible value once more, snapping pictures of the oldest galaxy that we know of, possibly appearing just 300 million years after the birth of the universe. A little closer to Earth, two NASA satellites, Ebb and Flow provided extremely valuable information about the Moon, culminating with a very detailed gravity map. However, after their work was done, NASA decided it was best just to crash them on the Moon.
Fascinating advancements were made on Earth as well: doctors in Pittsburg were stunned by the ability of a patient who reached a never seen before mental control level of a robotic arm – again, just with the power of her mind. Georgia Tech scientists focused on something else, creating a device that lets you learn the piano without even concentrating on it; the device could also prove extremely important in recovering after hand injury – while also learning a great skill.