There have been several posts relating to scientific discoveries in 2012 (see Related Posts at the end). The following article, however, presents a month-by-month detailed account of the significant scientific discoveries and events that occurred in 2012.
The year in science: breakthrough moments of 2012
By Tibi Puiu, ZME Science, 4 January 2013.
By Tibi Puiu, ZME Science, 4 January 2013.
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 three-fold.
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.
But it wasn’t all about space - Giant galapagos tortoise might still be alive, and the tiniest vertebrate was discovered, a frog much smaller than a coin, which was probably around for a long time, but just wasn’t spotted. Meanwhile, physicists developed the most powerful X-Ray laser, able to heat matter to 2.000.000 degrees.
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 counterparts - which is why the IBM development in scalable quantum computers is absolutely remarkable.
Meanwhile, astronomers and astrophysicists were getting busy as well: as it turns out, the Milky Way galaxy is literally teeming with nomad planets - 100.000 times more than previously believed. Despite numerous budget cuts and other issues, it was actually a good year for NASA, who released great images of the dark side of the Moon and made plans for a deep space base near the Moon. Astronomers also found the most bright galaxy ever, using a technique called gravitational lensing.
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 rectangle-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 what not? 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.
March also laid a deep blow on the controversial experiments which claimed to observe neutrino particles move faster than light. The matter was settled later, in June: the neutrinos didn’t move faster than light.
Also in March, biologists found the earliest (fossilized) forest, the earliest animal to develop a skeleton (earlier than the Cambrian), and some fossils that suggest the existence of another hominid species - however, more evidence is needed on that one. The deciphering of the gorilla genome also provided insight into human evolution.
April started out full of hope - with the LHC finally reaching maximum potential energy, the discoveries were set to roll - which they did, as we will see later in the year.
Astronomers showed how dark energy practically expanded and helped shape the Universe, while engineers developed a quantum computer comprising of only 300 atoms, but which is theoretically so powerful it would take a conventional computer about as big as the known universe to match it - however, reaching the “theoretical” level is still something researchers are working on.
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, no significant tsunami followed - which limited the casualties.
The main player of May was SpaceX - the first private company to successfully carry cargo to the outer space and became a key figure in space exploration, aiming to make things much easier and cheaper. The Dragon capsule set the course for ISS, and successfully docked on-board - a true milestone for space exploration…
…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.
It was a good month for Chinese space exploration as well, as they managed their first manned space docking with Tiangong-1, after sending their first female into outer space. However, the main attraction here was the Voyager shuttle leaving the solar system, thus becoming the first object created by mankind to ever leave the solar system; the shuttle provided lots and lots of valuable data, and could be useful in the future as well.
However, June also brought to light some enemies of both science and the environment; perhaps partially due to the fact that just 10% of research is published in open access magazines, unscientific climate change deniers have managed to creep deep in our society, with several major oil companies spreading false scientific claims (with the occasional bribe) to eliminate environmental laws. Just as worrying, several anarchic terrorist groups have targeted scientists, to “protect” humanity.
In other news, palaeontologists showed dinosaurs were much lighter than previously though, the oldest cave art was found (thought to be created by Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens), and biologists managed to grow a liver in a petri dish.
Astronomers made a fascinating discovery in July, finding a solar system which is very similar to our own, something which sparked the imagination of many. However, much closer to home, things painted a darker picture.
The heat waves were striking all across the world, with scientists showing that a summer such as this one has 1 in 1.6 million chances of occurring without the impact of global warming; life on Earth is nearing a tipping point, a point after which the damage done will be irreparable, and the consequences will be catastrophic. Renewable energy is the direction we should be heading towards, and guess what - a thorough report showed that solar energy actually has the most potential - at least using what technology we have at the moment.
Remarkable inventions were done in July as well: the first computer model of a living organism (bacteria) was created, Chinese engineers created a laser so small you can’t even see it with your naked eye, and graphene was shown to heal itself by absorbing nearby Carbon atoms.
Archaeologists may have just pushed back in time the development of human culture another 20.000 years, while Spanish researchers showed that pop music is just too loud and repetitive - not the biggest surprise there either. Another extremely important study showed that a huge number of animals, including mammals, birds and even some octopuses have consciousness.
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 - nicknaming 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.
Thankfully, some communities are setting a great example: the Pacific island-nation Tokelau is the first nation to be entirely powered by renewable energy.
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.
Meanwhile, after stretching its legs and checking the instruments, Curiosity went to work on Mars. The first contact with Martian rocks was carefully planned, and when it finally took place, everything went as expected. Results were shocking or ground-breaking, but more and more data on Mars starts stacking up - something which is definitely good to have.
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.
But no matter how bad some people have it, coral reefs have it even worse: only in the past 30 years, half of the Great Barrier Reef corals vanished - and things are only getting worse. Furthermore, the reefs are collapsing at the hands of farmers, as well as due to ocean acidification and water temperature rising.
SpaceX filled in some big NASA shoes, successfully docking on-board the ISS, transporting valuable shipment with relative ease and no major problems. The Universe expansion rate was also calculated - with remarkable accuracy.
November was an extremely interesting month - so many things happened, it would take a novel to talk about all of them in depth. Researchers showed just how exercise helps you live longer, greatly improving both health and longevity, while reading, writing and playing games improve your brain health. When it comes to spontaneous creativity, few people can nail it like rappers - an MRI study on freestyle rappers gave remarkable insight into creativity. Remember how I was telling you about genetics playing a key role in longevity? Well, a big breakthrough took place in November, allowing researchers to pinpoint a gene which seems to be directly linked to longevity - they did this by studying hydras.
But if you’re a coffee drinker, you may want to sit down for this: if current trends continue, Arabica coffee will be extinct in the wild in 70 years; care to take a guess at who the culprit is? It’s our old friend - climate change! The same cause for most of the world’s forests are threatened with extinction, as one study showed. Nature does have a way to solve its own problems, but this is a problem we have created, one that we have to solve before it’s too late.
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 altogether; 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.
In other news, a surprisingly simple study showed that your belly button fauna is much like a ‘tropical rainforest’ - definitely something you want to give a read. Bulgarian archaeologists unearthed a stunning golden treasure after finding the oldest European prehistoric town, the US created the fastest supercomputer so far and geologists found that an island appearing on virtually every map wasn’t actually real.
In December, animals were in the spotlight once again. A magnificent spider stunned biologists - it creates larger decoys of itself to scare away predators, then jiggles the web to make it apparently move. A new innovative technique of gold prospecting could occur - researchers showed that termites could be used to detect gold deposits, and scientists also explained why Rudolph’s nose is red. They even showed their cooky side, creating a coconut flavoured pineapple.
But it wasn’t all fun and games; as a matter of fact, some of the worst guesses were confirmed. 1990 climate change estimates turned out to be correct 20 years after they were made, and CO2 emissions are growing up to the point of no return. The human role in climate change is practically certain now, yet politicians are trying hard to stop climate change action - as Wikileaks showed us in December.
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 Pittsburgh 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.
Ah…but the end of the world was also set for December. At first I didn’t give it much attention, especially as NASA jumped in to try and calm people, but when fatalists started flocking to “mythical areas”, it was pretty disturbing to see all the media hype and receive so many emails from people worried about the “2012 end of the world”, the Maya calendar, and all that. So we gave in to our whimsical nature, and made a satirical series of posts, debunking all the preposterous ideas (The Maya Calendar, Planet X, Magnetic Poles Shift, Solar Flare, Planetary Alignment, Asteroid Strike).
So, there you have it, this is 2012 in science! It was quite an amazing year, and hopefully, 2013 will get even better! What do you think this year will bring in science?
[Source: ZME Science. Edited. Top image added.]
See also: ZME Science's breakthrough moments of 2011.
1. Top Scientific Discoveries of 2012
2. Top 10 Discoveries of 2012
3. 10 Scientists Who Mattered In 2012
4. 15 Science's Hidden Gems of 2012