Many more than 10 events took place during 2012 that reveal how science and technology play integral roles in our lives. As a broad topic, climate change took center stage, offering many possible choices, including efforts to combat it head-on with a rogue geoengineering experiment meant to suck carbon dioxide out of the air as well as efforts to develop clean energy, such as the creation of microbes that convert seaweed into ethanol.
The Internet and other communications technology still creates challenges for policymakers, companies and individuals. Among the most notable controversies was the one centered on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which led to a blackout protest by some well-trafficked sites, such as Wikipedia.
And research in basic science continues to assault conventional thinking, such as the reported discovery of ovarian stem cells. If confirmed, the finding would overturn the long-held notion that women are born with all the eggs they will ever have.
Alas, cultural norms and conventions dictate that we stick to 10 items; channeling Spinal Tap and dialing it up to 11 would hardly help. Feel free to discuss your own picks in the comments section below.
Daredevils Reach New Highs and Lows
Science and technology reached new heights and depths in 2012, thanks to human daredevils willing to risk life and limb to explore both the Earth’s stratosphere and its deepest undersea trench. The success of both feats hinged not only on the cutting-edge gear that protected the men from either thin air or crushing pressure, but also on clever thinking to reach their destinations.
On October 14 Austrian Felix Baumgartner broke the 50-year-old mark for highest-ever skydive after leaping from a balloon nearly 39 kilometers above Earth’s surface, traveling at supersonic speeds before landing in southeastern New Mexico. During his 20-minute descent Baumgartner’s top speed reached 1,342.8 kilometers per hour, making him the first skydiver to break the sound barrier, which is 1,236 kilometers per hour at sea level. Baumgartner’s mission also set the record for highest-ever manned balloon flight.
Baumgartner’s full-pressure suit included a control mechanism designed to adjust pressure at different altitudes, protecting him from symptoms of decompression sickness during his rapid descent. The balloon that took Baumgartner to the apex of his journey was made of a polyethylene film, only 0.02 millimeter thick, that could enclose a voume of nearly 850,000 cubic meters. Baumgartner’s equipment included main and emergency parachutes, along with a drogue stabilization chute to help him recover from an uncontrollable spin. The main and reserve chutes were designed to open at speeds of up to 280 kilometers per hour.
At the other extreme, filmmaker James Cameron in March became the first solo aquanaut to reach the deepest recess of the Mariana Trench, touching down at the Challenger Deep site about 11 kilometers below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Cameron, who directed the first two Terminator movies as well as Titanic and Avatar, piloted his DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible on the seven-hour round-trip, spending about three hours at the deepest spot on the planet’s crust to collect samples for marine biological, microbiological, astrobiological, marine geologic and geophysical research.
The DEEPSEA CHALLENGER included several features designed to aid Cameron on his expedition, including a sphere-shaped pressurized cockpit that collected moisture from Cameron’s exhaled breath and sweat into a plastic bag. Cameron could have consumed this concoction if he had run low on drinking water. About 70 percent of the CHALLENGER’s volume was taken up by syntactic foam made from millions of hollow glass microspheres suspended in an epoxy resin, making the vessel’s skin low in density but extremely strong. —Larry Greenemeier
Starvation Diet Fails to Boost Longevity
When making New Year’s resolutions to diet and stay fit, remember: what you eat may be more important than how much you eat.
Scientists have found that a significant reduction in caloric intake does not extend primates’ life spans. Rather, genetics and healthy eating appear to be elements with higher impact, according to a report published in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
Scientists funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) looked at the diets of rhesus monkeys over a 25-year period, feeding an experimental group 30 percent less than control animals. Whereas previous studies have indicated that other animals—including rats and roundworms—seem to age more slowly when consuming fewer calories, the monkeys were unaffected.
The Nature study refutes an earlier body of work by the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC), which found that rhesus monkeys did, indeed, benefit from a calorie-restricted diet. The previous findings likely resulted from a less healthy menu, however. WNPRC monkeys were given food containing 28.5 percent sucrose compared with 3.9 percent sucrose at the NIA. Consuming less unhealthy food could have been enough to alter results.
Although observational evidence indicates that reducing calories lengthens lives, the true implications for humans remain uncertain. The recipe for a longer life likely depends on a combination of factors, rather than hinging on how much you put on your plate. —Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
Bold, Private Efforts Step into Roles Vacated by NASA
Space shuttle Endeavour’s trip down West Manchester Boulevard past Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, Calif., in October was probably not quite what Pres. John F. Kennedy had in mind as “the other things” to accomplish during his famous moon speech made 50 years ago. The space plane was towed for the final leg of its journey to its final resting place at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, reminding us that NASA really has retired its shuttle program and that there isn’t much for astronauts to do these days in space.
Endeavour’s brethren had already found their permanent homes: Atlantis will remain at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Discovery now lives at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. And the Enterprise prototype now sits proudly atop the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan after making spectacular tours around New York City’s airspace and later enduring a beating from Superstorm Sandy.
Dreams of human spaceflight found other outlets this year: California-based SpaceX became the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The company’s Dragon capsule is slated to carry humans to orbit by 2015, onboard a reusable rocket also designed and built by SpaceX. Other contenders in the busy and risky private human spaceflight arena include ATK, Blue Origins, DreamChaser and Stratolaunch.
The commercialization of spaceflight could extend to smaller scales, too: talks are underway to allow government-built instruments to hitch rides onboard private satellites.
Meanwhile if a trip “to the moon, Alice” sounds quite appealing these days, sign up for Golden Spike’s recent offer—a flight to the moon. It’s only $750 million. The fee includes return trip to Earth, however, so true escapists will have to wait for Bigelow Aerospace’s private space hotels or a trip to colonize Mars. —Robin Lloyd
Pandemic Avian Flu Genes Made Public
A lab-made virus that could spread global death is the stuff of science-fiction thrillers. But this year researchers published the ingredients for just such a contagion—a culmination of widespread debate about whether the recipe should be made public or locked away.
For decades scientists have warned of a potential repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic, which claimed tens of millions of lives. The avian (H5N1) influenza virus drew the most attention. A decade ago, it killed tens of millions of birds, and any person who contracted the virus faced grim odds—the mortality rate is about 60 percent. Fortunately, the H5N1 virus did not spread in the air and thus could not infect humans easily, and outbreaks remained confined to small areas.
In 2011 two research groups independently discovered the genetic mutations necessary to make the H5N1 virus airborne and therefore more easily transmissible. They showed that ferrets infected with the mutant strains could transmit the virus to healthy ferrets caged nearby.
Concerns that bioterrorists could use the data to weaponize the virus led government officials, scientists and journal editors to hold off publishing the mutation information. Proponents argued that the data would help epidemiologists know what to watch out for if H5N1 mutated in the wild and better enable them to prepare countermeasures. That argument, plus the fact that many scientists had already obtained access to the information, led the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to green-light the publications of the papers. The first appeared in the June 21 issue of Nature. —Philip Yam
Record Meltdown of Arctic Sea Ice
On September 16, 2012, the extent of ice covering the Arctic Ocean reached an all-time low of 3.4 million square kilometers (since satellite records began in 1979). The minimum ice cover each summer had begun to shrink annually in 2000 and declined much more rapidly each year beginning in 2007.
Whereas happy shipping moguls marveled at how less ice might allow them to send freighters across the Arctic, scientists began to demonstrate and speak out about several serious effects. First, the dramatic disappearance of summer sea ice, which was not predicted by many climate models, exposes darker ocean water that absorbs more heat, thereby melting even more ice—setting up a feedback loop that may be increasing the rate of global warming.
Second, scientists maintained that the lack of ice caused the weird weather experienced in the U.S. Northeast and Europe during the past three winters. In essence, the lack of ice allows the jet stream to either dip farther south or remain farther north than usual during winter, and to get stuck in those positions for long periods, causing many consecutive days of extreme cold or exceptional warmth on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Some scientists ventured to say that the loss of sea ice helped Hurricane Sandy “turn left” from the Atlantic Ocean into New Jersey and New York City. Such a shift in direction had never been recorded before. A “blocking high pressure system” in the North Atlantic—a likely result of the lack of ice—prevented Sandy from heading northeast out to sea, as hurricanes would typically do. —Mark Fischetti
"Obamacare" (Mostly) Upheld by Supreme Court
The sweeping health care reforms passed in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) represented the largest systemic changes to the U.S. national health care system in nearly a half century. Intact, the law would extend access to affordable health care to 32 million otherwise uninsured Americans, helping more people obtain consistent and preventive care. Encouraging health care information technologies and integrated systems, such as electronic health records, will likely reduce medical errors and provide reams of new data for medical research. Additionally, the law contains provisions to boost comparative- and cost-effectiveness research (via the newly established Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute). Such research could lead to medical and public health advances that will help the largest number of people. In addition to improving health in the U.S., all of these changes should help reign in runaway health care costs, which topped $2.6 trillion in 2010 and are projected to keep climbing.
But all of that hard-won reform was up for major revision—or full repeal—as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the case in March 2012. The Court's decision, announced on June 28, upheld most of the ACA.
The only provision that the Court undercut was the mandatory expansion of state-run Medicaid programs. Under the original ACA, Medicaid eligibility was to be expanded to include 16 million more people nationwide who would otherwise have trouble paying for health insurance. The federal government would foot the whole bill for states until 2016, then gradually step back to paying 90 percent in 2022 and beyond. So far at least nine states have said they will forgo the expansion, citing a reluctance to spend more of their own pinched pennies.
With Pres. Barack Obama's reelection in November, the law looks likely to continue rolling out the rest of its provisions through 2020. Starting in 2014, for example, insurers will no longer be allowed to make coverage or rate decisions based on a person's preexisting conditions; state or federally controlled insurance exchanges will have to be operational; and Medicare eligibility expansions—in participating states—will take effect.—Katherine Harmon
» Health Care Reform on Trial: What's at Stake in the Supreme Court Arguments
» Health Act Intact: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Affordable Care
» Could Medicaid Benefits Get Pushed off the Fiscal Cliff?
Publication of the ENCODE Encyclopedia: A Milestone in Genome Research
Twelve years after the publication of the human genome sequence, a large consortium published the next step: the ENCODE Project: ENCyclopedia of DNA Elements. Whereas the genome project provided the sequence of all the nucleotides in the human DNA (how all the A’s, C’s, T’s and G’s are put in order), ENCODE goes a step further and catalogues which of those sequences can be transcribed into RNA and in which types of cells.
Just as biologists understood that the Human Genome Project is a useful tool (albeit not the "holy grail" or "blueprint of life" as touted in some media), so too did they welcome ENCODE as another useful research tool. The laboratory techniques developed by the Human Genome Project have enabled scientists to sequence—ever more inexpensively—the complete genomes of many individual humans as well as many other species. In the same vein, scientists expect that ENCODE is just a beginning, enabling them to perform the same kind of work on numerous individuals as well as on numerous species. The knowledge gained will help answer important questions about evolution, ecology, conservation, physiology, development and medicine.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion surrounding the publication of ENCODE failed to focus on the usefulness of the catalogue and the techniques that built it. Instead, much of the debate centered on the failure to understand that transcription does not necessarily imply meaningful biological function. Cells are messy biological entities, with lots of gunk and goo floating around, so mistakes happen all the time. Many DNA sequences get translated into RNA, only to have the cell degrade that RNA. Much, perhaps most, of the DNA in our genomes—despite being occasionally transcribed, and thus recorded in ENCODE—is still functionless “junk DNA.” That is actually not surprising; it is in fact expected from evolutionary theory. Thanks to ENCODE, though, we should eventually learn which sequences are the junk and which are the gems of cell activity. —Bora Zivkovic
Image illustration by Don Foley
NASA’s Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars
In 2012 Mars received a new six-wheeled visitor. NASA’s Curiosity rover—the biggest, most sophisticated explorer of its kind—landed safely on the Red Planet in August. The successful touchdown capped an elaborate landing sequence that had been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” and made mini-celebrities out of mission engineers (notably flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, aka the “Mohawk guy”).
Curiosity’s roughly two-year mission on Mars has only just begun—the rover is still trying out some of its instruments for the first time. But already the rover has found evidence of an ancient riverbed and has detected tantalizing but unconfirmed hints of Martian carbon (the stuff of life on Earth) in the soil. Soon Curiosity will begin to explore Mount Sharp, a towering stack of sedimentary layers that should provide clues to the conditions that prevailed on ancient Mars, when water flowed more freely. —John Matson
» In-Depth Report: NASA’s Curiosity Rover Touches Down on Mars
The Higgs Boson Is Detected
This year the best Fourth of July fireworks took place in Europe. On that warm summer’s day, in a conference room not far from the shores of Lake Geneva, physicists representing two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider celebrated the news four decades in the making: The Higgs boson had been found.
The next day’s front-page headline of The New York Times read “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe,” but the Higgs discovery is about much more than enhancing our understanding of the subatomic world. The Higgs represents the final chapter in the story of 21st-century particle physics. It completes the Standard Model, the theoretical description of all the known particles and forces (and by some metrics the most successful theory in the history of science). From here, hopes are that scientists at the LHC will make discoveries that illuminate the universe beyond the Standard Model, providing fireworks for years to come. —Michael Moyer
Image courtesy of NASA
Sandy Devastates the U.S. Northeastern Coast
Like a bad horror movie sequel, Hurricane Sandy churned up the U.S. east coast this fall, making landfall on the New Jersey shore just before Halloween and a little more than a year after Hurricane Irene took a similar path. Unlike Hurricane Irene, which devastated inland communities with torrential rains, Sandy's wrath came in the form of hurricane-force winds and a storm surge exceeding four meters—enough to reshape the New Jersey and Long Island shorelines as well as inundate critical New York City infrastructure, such as subway tunnels and power stations, among other ill effects.
Meteorologists dubbed Sandy a “frankenstorm” for its meteorologic mash-up of a hurricane moving up from the south, a winter storm moving in from the west and a ridge of high pressure forcing the systems to merge and move inland. Add in the fact that the tropical cyclone alone stretched more than 1,500 kilometers across and boasted the lowest pressure of any storm ever recorded north of North Carolina—943 millibars—and Sandy certainly merited the designation “superstorm.”
Climate change seems to have intensified the event. A record summer sea ice melt in the Arctic likely helped create the weather conditions that forced Hurricane Sandy along its ill-fated track. The storm also gained "a little bit of extra kick from the slightly warmer than normal waters it will be tracking over," noted James Franklin, the branch chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center.
The disaster, which inflicted at least $50-billion worth of damage and claimed at least 250 lives, 131 in the U.S. alone, showed the vulnerability of our cities and coastal communities. Sandy's legacy demands new thinking as to how best to prepare for future punishing storms, likely to be even stronger in our ever-warmer world. —David Biello