1. Large Hadron Collider
Good news! The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the massive particle accelerator straddling the Swiss-French border – didn’t destroy the world! The bad news: The contraption didn’t really work either. In September, the 17-mile collider was switched on for the first time, putting to rest the febrile webchatter that the machine would create an artificial black hole capable of swallowing the planet or at least a sizeable piece of Europe – a bad day no matter what. No lucid observer ever thought that would really happen, but what they did expect was that the LHC would operate as advertised, recreating conditions not seen since instants after the Big Bang and giving physicists a peek into those long-vanished moments. Things looked good at first, until a helium leak caused the collider to shut down after less than two weeks. Repairs are underway and the particles should begin spinning again sometime in June.
2. The North Pole – of Mars
For all the times robot probes have orbited or landed on Mars, none had ever visited its polar region – where the greatest concentrations of ice and water (and arguably the most evidence of life) are to be found. That changed in May when NASA’s Phoenix lander touched down in Mars’s far north and began scraping, sampling and sniffing its surroundings. Phoenix found nothing that yet changes the picture of Mars as a dead world, but it reinforced the planet’s image as a once-wet place that could have teemed with organisms. The ship was not expected to survive the punishing climate for long and in November, the encroaching darkness and cold of the Martian winter silenced it for good.
3. Creating Life
Living things don’t get a whole lot humbler than a bacterium, with its few hundred thousand genetic base pairs and its stripped-down physical design. Still, you try inventing one. That’s what geneticist J. Craig Venter – one of the two men credited with mapping the human genome – managed to do. Venter stitched together the 582,000 base pairs necessary to invent the genetic information for a whole new bacterium. Step two is to boot up that DNA programming in a living bacterium to see if it takes charge of the organism. That’s next on Venter’s agenda – and he has little doubt it will work. As any software designer will tell you, once you know how to write the code, you can make it do almost anything.
4. China Soars into Space
China put astronauts in orbit. So what, right? The U.S. has been doing it since 1962. Here’s what: The Chinese launched their first manned mission in 2003, their second in 2005 and their third this year. They began with a one-person ship, then a two-seater, then a three-man version, and during that last mission they completed a successful spacewalk. By all spacefaring measures, that’s impressive – going from a standing start to a sprint in five years. What’s more, China’s unmanned Chang’e spacecraft is currently orbiting the moon and Beijing wants to have humans on the lunar surface by 2020. Think it can’t pull off something that big? Then you didn’t see the Olympics.
5. More Gorillas in the Mist
A rare bit of good news for the beloved – and beleaguered – western lowland gorilla: New surveys this summer by the Wildlife Conservation Society put the species’ numbers far higher than scientists had thought. The forests and swamps of the northern Republic of Congo are now thought to be home to 125,000 gorillas, or up to twice the previous estimates. But the good news was, as so often happens, followed by bad. War in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has spilled into the Virunga National Park there, threatening the tiny and far more fragile population of 350 or so mountain gorillas – half of the world’s total.
6. Brave New Worlds
It’s getting crowded out there. Scientists have always been certain that the universe was aswarm with planets orbiting stars other than our own little sun, but it wasn’t until 1995 that they started to find these so-called exoplanets. Most of them were huge worlds lying too close to their parent stars to harbor life. In June, Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor found 45 much smaller worlds, one only 4.2 times as big as Earth. All of them inscribe small, scorchingly hot orbits too, but Mayor’s instruments – which detect planets by the gravitational wobbles they cause their suns – should be sensitive enough to find ones with larger orbits that place them out in cooler, arguably habitable regions. In November, two teams of astronomers from the U.S. and Canada got four exoplanets to sit still for their photographs, producing the first ever images of alien worlds in visible and ultraviolet light.
7. The Power of Invisibility
Berkeley, Calif., did nothing to change its rep as one of America’s flakier places when scientists on the local campus of the University of California announced they’d invented an invisibility cloak. But it was hard physics and complex optics at work, not something illegal or brain-altering. Using nanowires grown inside a porous aluminum tube to create a sheeting 10 times thinner than a piece of paper, they proved that they could wrap an object in the material and bend light waves around it, making it effectively invisible. All of the usual caveats apply: the process is experimental, the cloaking is fantastically fragile, the costs would be prohibitive for anything remotely approaching practical use. Still, we now live in a world in which invisibility is a possibility. That’s a good thing, right?
8. Cenozoic Park?
It’s not often that a hairball makes headlines. But that’s what happened this November, when Penn State biochemistry professor Stevan Schuster announced that he had reconstructed 80% of the genome of the long extinct woolly mammoth, using clumps of hair from the remains of several of the giant critters. The job involved not just piecing together more than 3 billion DNA sequences, but making sure none of the material that was used came from bacteria or other organisms clinging to the fur. The work raises the inevitable Jurassic Park question and the answer is, no, we won’t see wooly mammoth-populated theme parks any time soon. But the key word is soon. Stephan doesn’t rule out the possibility forever.
9. Can You Spell Science?
Think Americans haven’t gotten smarter? Think again. Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of scientifically literate adults doubled – to 17%. This year, a survey by a professor of political science at the University of Michigan found that that dismal showing may have improved, but only a little. Currently, 25% of the population of the U.S. – the country that invented the airplane and the light bulb and landed men on the moon, remember – qualify as “civic scientifically literate.” In practical terms says the investigator, that means that only one in four adults can read and understand the stories in the weekly science section of The New York Times. And this comes at a time when the U.S. electorate is being asked to grapple with – and reach informed consensus about – such complex questions as global warming and stem cell research. Meantime, in November, Beijing announced a new high in scientific literacy scores for the Chinese. So let’s at least raise a glass to China. It’s somewhere in Europe, right?
10. First Family
Americans may boast of family values, but they’ve got nothing on the folks of Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany. That’s the home region of what might be the most traditional – or at least the oldest – nuclear family ever uncovered. Researchers there excavated 4,600-year-old graves of a group of Stone-Agers who appeared to have been killed together in a raid – judging from the defensive wounds many of them bore and the projectile point embedded in the vertebra of one female. Among the remains was a foursome interred together – an adult male and female and two boys, one of them 8 to 9 years old, the other 4 to 5. Analyzing molecular DNA evidence, the investigators confirmed what the tableau suggested: This was a family. Certainly this is not the oldest one that ever existed, but merely the oldest ever unearthed. Still, for now it is, to scientists at least, the true First Family.