Monday, December 31, 2012

The best of science in 2012

2012 was a very interesting year for science, but actually this can be said for pretty much every other year. The rate at which scientists discover new things about the universe, life and everything that surrounds it, is astonishing. This article will sum up some of the most interesting pieces of new knowledge and technology that has expanded our understanding of nature and life.

Growing our own organs
Being able to create organs ourselves would solve the lack of donors needed for transplantation. Due to the complexity of nature, it is not that easy to grow organs in a laboratory setting, but scientists are making improvements. One peculiar way of growing organs is implanting them in the head of a mouse. By doing that, it appears to be possible to grow a human liver. Naturally, to get it full sized, it is necessary to find 'accommodation' elsewhere. The most spectacular research on this topic this year is perhaps a successful attempt of getting a lab-grown kidney to function properly in an animal model. We are getting closer and closer to fully-functioning lab-grown organs ready for transplantation.
The 'god' particle
If you break everything down, you end up in the realm of particle physics. 'Things' consist of molecules, and molecules are built by connecting atoms to each other. We have long thought that the atom is the smallest thing that exists, but it appears that there is a whole world of smaller particles with different characteristics governed by the weird rules of quantum physics. In 2012, scientists have found several previously unknown particles, but the most famous one is undoubtedly the Higgs boson. This particle, according to physicists, basically completes the Standard Model of particle physics. It explains why other particles, such as neutrons or protons, have mass. For the first time, we appear to have found a particle that explains why there is mass, by hypothesizing that empty space is actually filled with Higgs bosons. This also helps us to explain gravity on a quantum level, which up till know remained an unknown and mysterious force, even though we feel the effects every day when our feet remain firmly on the ground. This is something that even Einstein himself did not manage to reconcile.
All of the life on earth is most likely developed from evolutionary processes that lasted billions of years. Due to the sheer amount of evidence uncovered in the last couple of decades, we can now pretty much establish this as a fact. We have come a long way since Darwin in 1859 published his ground-breaking On the Origin of Species. Despite all these years of research, there is still plenty we can discover about where we came from and how evolution works its wonders. For example, a group of scientists recently revealed that human beings are still evolving. Other discoveries have elaborated on our knowledge of the origin of life, or how photosynthesis, one of the driving forces of life, has came to be. Researchers have even shown how evolution can result in development of 'half an eye' and we even found an entirely new human species in China.
Extraterrestrial life
In 2012, we have found no clues on the existence of extraterrestrial life whatsoever. But we did gain a lot of knowledge about planets that could potentially harbour it. We have found several planets that are not in our solar system, so-called exoplanets, that have similar characteristics to earth. Examples include the planets HD 40307, Kepler 22-b, or the planets that orbit a star called GJ 667C. It is hypothesized that there are actually billions of such planets in our galaxy. Considering the fact that there are billions and billions of galaxies, there is no doubt that there must be live elsewhere in our universe. The question then becomes, when will we find it?
Peculiar research
Some studies are not really useful, but are nevertheless quite interesting. Apparently, we can identify each other's age by smell and we find that women who are ovulating dance more attractively. Or what to think of bacteria that sacrifice themselves for the good of others? And despite the fact that it is quite useless information, we do know now that foetuses yawn in the womb. In 2012, someone also jumped from a height that can basically be considered outer space; not really a scientific discovery, but still an amazing achievement.

Nobel prizes
This year, the Nobel prize for physics was awarded to scientists that pioneered research in quantum physics. Serge Haroche and David Wineland both developed methods allowing us to study quantum systems, meaning sub-atomic particles, without actually disturbing them. Because of their delicate nature, it often happens that the measurement disturbs the quantum system. But with the technology developed by Haroche and Wineland, we have been able to greatly expand our knowledge on what happens on a sub-atomic level.

The Nobel prize for medicine was also awarded to two scientists. John Gurden and Shinya Yamanaka contributed to stem cell research, the latter being the most famous. Yamanaka developed a simple way to turn ordinary cells into stem cells, which means it is no longer necessary to use stem cells derived from embryos. Gurden was responsible for the technology that eventually gave us cloning, leading to the world-famous sheep Dolly.

It is clear that we are continuously expanding our knowledge about natural phenomena, either on the level of incredibly small quantum mechanics, or the unimaginable vastness of the universe. Therefore, I am looking forward to the year to come, as many existing scientific discoveries are awaiting.

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