Top Science Stories of 2012
December 27, 2012

2012 Was No Ordinary Year For Science

John P. Millis, Ph.D. for — Your Universe Online

Every December the online world is replete with Top 10 lists, reminding us of the year´s best sports plays, TV moments, and blockbuster movies. These articles have become so popular, in fact, that many outlets publish their Best of the Year pieces months before the end of the year. Which is awfully presumptive.

Most troubling, though, is that many of these types of articles lack any real content — nothing truly amazing, noteworthy, unusual, or unexpected. For this reason Top 10 lists, for the most part, have become almost cliché.

At this point you may be wondering why you should even bother reading further. Surely, this article will follow the same rote formula that makes the rest unworthy. Only, 2012 was no ordinary year for science.

Where in previous years a list such as this would be filled with obscure revelations and inconsequential discoveries, 2012 saw science reach new heights, shatter barriers and captivate us in a way that it hasn´t in decades.

So let´s look back at the best of 2012 and, since I am a fan of bucking the trend, I will eschew the traditional enumeration and instead present my Top Nine Science Stories of 2012.

9. 3-D Printing Becomes Mainstream: The technology is not fundamentally new; the ability to print 3-dimensionally has existed for some time, but had been confined to high-end labs that could support the cost. But all that has changed. The ability to print a plastic object is now in the reach of many consumers; and as the cost comes down, more people will have these printers in their homes. Crafty engineers have already printed full-scale race cars, pharmaceuticals and even, controversially, crafted fully operational weapons. This technology may bring a whole new level of capability to the “backyard engineer”, and may even have significant implications in manufacturing industries moving forward.

8. Driver-less Cars Hit The Road: The promise of cars that drive themselves has permeated the techno-sphere for a generation. But it was not until recently that this dream became reality. Powered by Google´s latest technology, self-guided cars are now allowed on the road in three states. Research suggests that these vehicles, with laser and GPS guidance technology, are potentially 3,000 times less likely to cause an accident than a car driven by humans. The future, it seems, is here.

7. First Man-made Object Leaves The Solar System: This item has been a long time coming. Voyager 1, launched more than 30 years ago, has finally entered the Heliosphere, the region of space where the particle wind from our Sun becomes stagnate under pressure from the interstellar medium. It is the boundary of our solar system, more than 120 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. The amazingly long-lived mission is beginning to beam back the first bits of information about what the space between stars is really like. And lest you think that the space beyond the boundary is boring, the data is already baffling scientists.

6. Man Survives Fall From 24 Miles Above The Earth: Thankfully the fall was planned, but the heroics of Felix Baumgartner are still mindboggling. While the concept of extremely-high-altitude jumps is by no means novel, with similar jumps dating back to the 1950s, this latest effort displayed a new vision for parachute technology. Specifically, as the space tourism industry takes off, one concern is the lack of an emergency bailout mechanism, whereby passengers could get safely back on the ground following the failure of a spacecraft approaching Low Earth Orbit. At 24 miles, the highest such jump ever attempted, Felix´s jump opens the door to discussion about what is possible, and will certainly lead to new safety systems for spacecraft.

5. Planet Discovered Orbiting Around The Nearest Star To Our Solar System: Less than a decade ago there were few confirmed planets outside of our solar system. But recent efforts, such as NASA´s Kepler mission, reveal that we are surrounded by alien worlds. In fact, the data suggest that the Milky Way Galaxy alone may contain billions of planets. While we have yet to find a planet that could support life, we are getting closer. Our ability to find increasingly smaller planets — those even less than the size of Earth — is advancing, and most scientists believe that it is only a matter of time before one of these worlds is found orbiting at just the right distance from its star that it could support life. Though, when such a planet is found, a whole new round of questions will arise, starting with “if the conditions are right for life to arise, will it?” And during this year, when more than a hundred more planets were added to the cosmic census, none was more surprising than the detection of a small rocky world orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, the closest star system beyond our Sun. Though, the debutantes among you may be more interested in 55 Cancri e which, despite the hideous name, is quite precious; scientists describe it as, essentially, a planet-sized diamond.

4. The Dark Universe Comes To Light: Despite searching the heavens for thousands of years, the cosmos continues to give us more questions than answers. Of the open questions plaguing astronomy, the origin, composition and location of the Universe´s dark elements — Dark Matter and Dark Energy — have been the most frustrating. Mostly, because of the challenge of even measuring them, we have often wondered if they even exist. But 2012 saw scientists make great strides in understanding these mysterious forces. Researchers with the BOSS experiment mapped the motions of some of the oldest galaxies in the Universe, revealing, for the first time, what the expansion of the Universe really looked like more than 10 billion years ago. At the same time, researchers made the largest and most advanced dark matter maps yet achieved. And, not to be outdone, data from NASA´s Fermi LAT found evidence of dark matter annihilations at the center of the Milky Way (though these conclusions are not without their challengers). For the first time, scientists are “seeing” dark matter and dark energy across large sections of time and space.

3. Lift-off For The Future Of Space Exploration: Since the late 1960s the United States has led the way forward for manned space exploration. But when the space shuttle fleet was recently retired, the US had no replacement ready. The reign of space superiority, it seemed, was coming to an end. However, as NASA prepares the new Orion Crew Module that will eventually take astronauts to Mars, the space exploration landscape is changing and private firms are filling a gap once occupied by the largest governments of the world. In October, 2012 SpaceX´s Dragon capsule docked with the ISS, delivering almost 900 pounds of food and supplies. The future of space exploration is at hand, and soon resupply missions, manned missions and space tourism will become mainstream, and we will look back at 2012 as the year it all began.

2. The Martian Marvel: For decades science-fiction films have presented, often humorous, tales of intelligent beings from Mars coming to Earth to enslave us. Of course, we now know unequivocally that no intelligent life exists on the Martian surface. But the question of whether life has — or, at least could have — existed in the past has motivated scientists for decades. Tasked with seeking answers on the question of life, the Mars Curiosity rover made its way to the surface of the red planet this year. And did so with considerable fanfare. More than just a scientific mission, the latest rover required a new level of engineering and planning. The 7-minutes of terror showed what NASA is still capable of, and laid the groundwork for future heavy-payload missions to Mars. 2012 may be remembered as the year that NASA became cool again.

1. Tis The Season For Higgs And Kisses All Around: This was a year of celebration in the physics and broader scientific communities. One of the weightiest mysteries in science sought to explain what gave matter its mass. Some particles — like photons of light — have no mass, while others — such as electrons and quarks — have very well defined masses. The proposed solution was an invisible field, named for one of the theory´s authors, Peter Higgs. The idea is that every particle in the universe has a property that allows it to interact — or not interact — with the Higgs field, and that this interaction would manifest itself as particle mass. Measuring such a field directly is difficult, but luckily the same theory predicts that the field would give rise to a particle — the Higgs Boson — under conditions similar to those during the hot, dense moments of the early Universe. And, after years of frustration, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) reported that the Higgs has been found. This announcement ushered in one of the greatest confirmations of fundamental physics theory of the last century.