Inevitably, year-end lists invite plenty of debate and criticism, and Scientific American's is no exception. Certainly, we could have included the discovery of new worlds beyond our solar system, including Kepler 22 b, an exoplanet in the "Goldilocks" zone of habitability, as well as the first known Earth-size exoplanets. Or noted the accumulating evidence suggesting that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to retrieve natural gas is likely to contaminate water supplies. (Final New York State regulations, expected in mid-2012, could determine the future of fracking in the U.S.)
Other candidates included the report of a new target against HIV, in which a doorway to infection (the so-called CCR5 receptor on immune cells) is blocked; the demonstration (using diamonds) that quantum entanglement can occur in everyday objects; and the MESSENGER spacecraft's photos of the planet Mercury, the first ever taken from orbit.
Some of our top choices could very well have an immediate effect on our lives. The impact of others may not be felt for years. Some discoveries may vanish altogether. We'll just have to see how things turn out in the years ahead. But no matter what, 2011 held big surprises in science and technology.
IBM's Watson Computer Wins on Jeopardy!
In February IBM's Watson capitalized on its advanced natural language–processing, information retrieval and machine-learning capabilities to soundly defeat two highly accomplished Jeopardy! champions—Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter—at their own game.
Although some pundits have dismissed the event as a stunt, Watson's abilities should prove useful outside of game shows. In 2012 look for Watson to begin applying its advanced analytics skills in the health care industry to improve patient diagnosis and treatment. Health insurance provider WellPoint, Inc., is working with IBM to develop software for Watson that will let physicians coordinate medical data based on specific patient needs as well as help identify the most likely diagnosis and treatment options in complex cases.
As far as conversing with computers, most people will be able to relate to the Siri voice-activated navigator on Apple's iPhone 4S this year before they get a chance to interact with anything as sophisticated as Watson. At least the conversation has begun.—Larry Greenemeier
Image of the Watson computer courtesy of IBM
9. The Bankruptcy of Solar-Cell Maker Solyndra