With the squirming and posturing in Washington dominating the headlines, science faded to the background for much of 1998. Even the annual ritual of the Nobel Prizes didn't seem to get much notice; the Presidential announcement of the winners of the National Science and Technology Medals dropped with barely a ripple. Yet 1998 was far from a lackluster year for science. True, there were no astonishing breakthroughs but researchers continued to rack up a steady stream of fascinating and important gains. When science did manage to squeeze its way onto the front pages, cloning and the cosmos got top billing.
The ethical debate over creating exact copies of living organisms has done little to slow the rapid pace of genetic research. And a string of new discoveries is adding fuel to the fire. The year began with the somewhat bizarre announcement that Jonathan Slack, a developmental biologist at the University of Bath in England had created a headless frog. But soon other genetic wizards took cloning to a new level, copying some 50 mice and quickly thereafter a few calves. When Korean researchers said in December that they had cloned a human embryo, the development had a ring of inevitability. Whether their results are duplicated or not, many scientists agree it is only a matter of time.
As significant as the ability to clone organisms may be, the attention in the press obscured other key developments in genetics. Teams of scientists decoding the genes that form living organisms produced the first complete "recipe" for a higher animal--a lowly worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans. Although it contains a mere 97 million DNA base pairs, compared to more than three billion for Homo sapiens, around 40 percent of its genes are closely related to ours.
Meanwhile, researchers found ways to culture stem cells, the all important embryonic cells that differentiate into tissues and organs, opening the way to repairing damaged or aging organs. Another group of investigators dispelled the long-held belief that nerves do not grow in adulthood when they discovered that humans do in fact form new neurons, even in old age. And, for those with an eye for immortality, scientists discovered how to rewind the clock on aging when they deciphered the role of the telomere, the major factor that controls whether a cell dies or thrives.
Discovering a way to make certain cells not thrive made Judah Folkman of Children's Hospital in Boston an instant sensation in May when the New York Times trumpeted results by his group. That data indicated that naturally derived angiogenesis inhibitors cured cancer in mice by preventing the growing tumors from attaining a blood supply. By year end, though, other researchers were reporting trouble duplicating those results. Even so, another cancer drug, tamoxifen, was found useful for preventing breast cancer in high risk individuals and was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. And clinicians battling AIDS reported results of a major test showing that the "cocktail" treatment consisting of a triple therapy, including two nucleoside analogues and a protease inhibitor, is effective.
Throughout the year, the heavens held our attention. For amateur and professional astronomers alike, 1998 got off to a grand start as a total solar eclipse swept across the Caribbean on February 26. Astronomers and physicists aimed telescopes and other high-technology instruments at the sun's corona during the eclipse, hoping to find new clues to the engine that drives our solar system.
The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope continued to return gripping images of the distant cosmos. In July, Hubble astronomers sent cosmologists back to the drawing boards when they released images of very distant galaxies swarming with newborn stars. Then in October they followed with images of the oldest galaxies yet observed; they may have formed some 12 billion years ago, when the universe was still in its infancy. Closer to home, the Hubble located a new planet orbiting a star called Gliese 876, located a mere 15 light years from earth.
In another astronomical landmark, the world's most advanced ground-based observatory captured its "first light" from the barren high plains of Cerro Paranal, Chile. When it is completed in 2003, the four-telescope array at the European Southern Observatory, known as the VLT (for Very Large Telescope), will comprise the world's most powerful ground based optical and infrared observatory. Its ability to resolve distant objects will rival--and sometimes exceed--telescopes in space, such as the Hubble. Not to be outdone, archaeologists revealed what might be the world's oldest astronomical observatory in the southern Sahara Desert.
The Moon rose into the newscasts when the Lunar Prospector spacecraft confirmed earlier indications that ice exists in potentially extractable quantities in the dark, cold regions at both of the moon's poles. The discovery of water is speeding plans to build permanent lunar bases and colonies that could be stepping stones to Mars and other planets. The discovery also heightened the >debate over the commercial uses of space.
Other National Aeronautics and Space Administration spacecraft also continued their lonely journeys of exploration. NEAR spun past Earth to pick up speed on its way to a rendezvous with a distant asteroid named Eros and on December 23, 1998 it sailed past Eros in preparation of achieving a close orbit in May 2000. And last October, Deep Space I, the first probe powered by an advanced ion drive, set out for a July 1999 encounter with another asteroid. Meanwhile, the Mars Global Surveyor achieved its final orbit and began a year of making the most detailed maps ever of the Red Planet.
Indeed, it turned out to be a stellar year for the once-beleaguered National Aeronautics and Space Administration as it marked its 40th anniversary. The dream of man-in-space was reaffirmed by astronaut John Glenn--the first American to orbit the earth--who made a historic comeback aboard the space shuttle Discovery--and by the first two components of the huge International Space Station, which were lofted, then successfully joined together by shuttle astronauts in the last days of the year.
Physicists, of course, continued to grapple with the nature of matter, space, and time and their efforts, as usual, turned up a few answers--and many more questions. In June, the 120 Japanese and American physicists of the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration presented strong evidence that at least one of the tiny particles called neutrinos has a small mass. That is no small matter; it could help explain how our sun shines, how other stars explode into brilliant supernovae and why galaxies cluster in the patterns that they do and that the truth is something beyond the Standard Model. Another group offered proof of the Lense-Thirring effect, a theory derived from Einstein's equations of general relativity that an object that spins also twists the fabric of space-time around it.
While Hollywood seems to have relegated dinosaurs back to the Cretaceous for now and turned instead for thrills to asteroid impacts and tidal waves, the fossil hunters are still unearthing remains from prehistory that upset conventional wisdom. A team in Australia dug up a tiny jawbone that is evidence that the first placental mammals arrived there far before anyone believed and a group digging in Madagascar found a fossil they assert leaves little doubt that birds took off from the dinosaur family tree.
As for biology, it seems nature still hasn't revealed her last surprise. Robert S. Ridgely, Director of the Center for Neotrpical Ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and fellow birder John Moore discovered a bird that barks like a dog high in the Andes of Southern Ecuador.
And, of course, there is always the weather. When things got strange in 1997, a warm Pacific Ocean current called El Nio got the blame. This year, his cold female counterpart, La Nia, is being held responsible for an unusually warm winter in the Northeast and a protracted hurricane season in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the Galileo spacecraft reported that the thunderstorms were even worse on Jupiter.
So, if 1998 proves anything at all, it's that while politicians may come and go, science marches on. Let's see what next year brings.