Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.


9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.

antarctic_expedition

10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.

cloning

11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.


And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

News From Space: The Weird Atmospheres of Titan and Io

alien-worldStudying the known universe is always interesting, mainly because you never know what you’re going to find. And just when you think you’ve got something figured out – like a moon in orbit around one of the Solar Systems more distant planet’s – you learn that it can still find ways to surprise you. And interestingly enough, a few surprises have occurred back to back in recent weeks which are making scientists rethink their assumptions about these moons.

The first came from Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon and the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. All told, the surface has over 400 volcanic regions, roughly 100 mountains – some of which are taller than Mount Everest – and extensive lava flows and floodplains of liquid rock that pass between them. All of this has lead to the formation of Io’s atmosphere, which is basically a thin layer of toxic fumes.

Io_mapGiven its distance from Earth, it has been difficult to get a good reading on what the atmosphere is made up of. However, scientists believe that it is primarily composed of sulfur dioxide (SO2), with smaller concentrations of sulfur monoxide (SO), sodium chloride (NaCl), and atomic sulfur and oxygen. Various models predict other molecules as well, but which have not been observed yet.

However, recently a team of astronomers from institutions across the US, France, and Sweden, set out to better constrain Io’s atmosphere. Back in September they detected the second-most abundant isotope of sulfur (34-S) and tentatively detected potassium chloride (KCl). Expected, but undetected, were molecules like potassium chloride (KCl), silicone monoxide (SiO), disulfur monoxide (S2O), and other isotopes of sulfur.

Io_surfaceBut more impressive was the team’s tentative of potassium chloride (KCl), which is believed to be part of the plasma torus that Io projects around Jupiter. For some time now, astronomers and scientists have been postulating that Io’s volcanic eruptions produce this ring of plasma, which includes molecular potassium. By detecting this, the international team effectively found the “missing link” between Io and this feature of Saturn.

Another find was the team’s detection of the sulfur 34-S, an isotope which had previously never been observed.  Sulfur 32-S had been detected before, but the ratio between the 34-S and 32-S was twice that of what scientists believed was possible in the Solar System. A fraction this high has only been reported once before in a distant quasar – which was in fact an early galaxy consisting of an intensely luminous core powered by a huge black hole.

These observations were made using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) antenna – a radio telescope located in northern Chile. This dish is a prototype antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). And while Io is certainly an extreme example, it will likely help terrestrial scientists characterize volcanism in general – providing a better understanding of it here on Earth as well as outside the Solar System.

TitanThe second big discovery was announced just yesterday, and comes from NASA’s Cassini space probe. In its latest find investigating Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini made the first off-world detection of the molecule known as propelyne. This simple organic compound is a byproduct of oil refining and fossil fuel extraction, and is one of the most important starting molecules in the production of plastics.

The molecules were detected while Cassini used its infrared spectrometer to stare into the hydrocarbon haze that is Titan’s atmosphere. The discovery wasn’t too surprising, as Titan is full of many different types of hydrocarbons including methane and propane. But spotting propylene has thus far eluded scientists. What’s more, this is the first time that the molecule has been spotted anywhere outside of Earth.

titan_cassiniThese finding highlight the alien chemistry of Saturn’s giant moon. Titan has moisture and an atmosphere, much like our own, except that its rains are made of hydrocarbons and its seas composed of ethane. Scientists have long wanted to explore this world with a boat-like rover, but given the current budget environment, that’s a distant prospect. Still, sales of propylene on Earth are estimated at $90 billion annually.

While no one is going to be mounting a collection mission to Titan anytime soon, it does offer some possibilities for future missions. These include colonization, where atmospheric propylene could be used to compose settlements made of plastic. And when it comes to terraforming, knowing the exact chemical makeup of the atmosphere will go a long way towards finding a way to make it breathable and warm.

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video about Cassini’s latest discovery. With the government shutdown in effect, NASA’s resources remain offline. So we should consider ourselves lucky that the news broke before today and hope like hell they get things up and running again soon!


Sources: universetoday.com, wired.com

Bad News From Space!

Kepler-telescope-580x448Between the Mars rovers, deep space probes, and long-term plans to mine asteroids and colonize Earth’s neighbors, there’s just no shortage of news from space these days. Unfortunately, not all of it is good. For instance, NASA recently announced that the Kepler space telescope, which was launched back in 2009 for the purpose of identifying Earth-like exoplanets, is suffering from malfunctions and may be broken down.

And in the course of its operational history, it did manage to identify a number of exoplanets that existed within the habitable zones of their parent stars. In fact, it had found a total of 2,740 candidate exoplanets spread across 2,046 stars systems, and a confirmed total of 132 that have the potential to support life. Unfortunately, during the early month of April during its weekly communication, NASA  found that the space observatory was in safe mode, a sign that something was amiss.

keplerAfter looking into the problem, they realized that it had lost its ability to precisely point toward stars because one of the reaction wheels – devices which enable the spacecraft to aim in different directions without firing thrusters – had failed. This was especially bad since last year an different wheel failed, meaning it only had two wheels remaining. The probe needs at least three working in order to properly aim itself, but now that seems impossible.

But the Kepler team said there are still possibilities of keeping the spacecraft in working order, or perhaps even finding other opportunities for different scientific pursuits. Either way, the team is not ready to throw in the towel on the telescope. And since NASA already approved to keep the mission going through 2016, a lot is still riding on it remaining functional.

Charles Sobeck, the Kepler deputy project manager, addressed the team’s efforts to get the telescope working again during their daily briefing earlier in May:

Initially, they did see some movement on the wheel but it quickly went back to zero speed, indicative of internal failure on the wheel. Our next step is to see what we can do to reduce the fuel consumption, as we would like to extend the fuel reserve as long as we can.

In terms of the malfunctioning wheel, he indicated that there are a few things they can still do to get it working again. One possibility is “jigging it” or running it in reverse.

We can try jiggling it, like you’d do with any wheel here on Earth, commanding it to move back and forth, so we can try to bring the wheel back in service. Or perhaps since wheel #2 hasn’t been turned on for eight months, it may come back if we turn it on. It will take us awhile to come up with a plan.

Sobeck also explained they are currently using thrusters to stabilize the spacecraft, and in its current mode, the onboard fuel will last for several months. But they hope to soon put the spacecraft into what is called a “Point Rest State” – a loosely-pointed, thruster-controlled state that minimizes fuels usage while providing a continuous X-band communication downlink. This ought to keep the fuel consumption down to the point where the telescope could keep going for several more years.

kepler47.jpgWhat’s more, the team also indicated that there is still terabytes of information gathered by the probe that has yet to be sifted through. They estimate that it will take at least two years for them to process it all and determine what other exoplanets exist nearby in our galaxy. And as Paul Hertz – NASA’s astrophysics director – put it, with the work it has already performed, Kepler has essentially carried out its task:

We’ll continue to analyze the data to get the science that Kepler was designed to do. Even though Kepler is in trouble, it has collected all the data necessary to answer its scientific objectives. Kepler is not the last exoplanet mission, but the first. It has been a great start to our path of exoplanet exploration.

In the end, its too soon to say if Kepler is deep in space (literally), or just experiencing a lull while her technicians get her back on track. And even if this does prove to be the end of her, the many thousands of planet she managed to identify during her years of service will certainly prove useful to humanity as we begin to set our sights on interstellar exploration and, God willing, colonization. And I imagine more than a few will bare the proud name of Kepler, in honor of her namesake and the telescope itself!

Sources: universetoday.com, Wired.com

News from Space: New Map of the Universe Confirms The Big Bang!

planckAfter 15 months of observing deep space, scientists with the European Space Agency Planck mission have generated a massive heat map of the entire universe.The “heat map”, as its called, looks at the oldest light in the universe and then uses the data to extrapolate the universe’s age, the amount of matter held within, and the rate of its expansion. And as usual, what they’ve found was simultaneously reassuring and startling.

When we look at the universe through a thermal imaging system, what we see is a mottled light show caused by cosmic background radiation. This radiation is essentially the afterglow of the Universe’s birth, and is generally seen to be smooth and uniform. This new map, however, provides a glimpse of the tiny temperature fluctuations that were imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 370,000 years old.

big_bangSince it takes light so long to travel from one end of the universe to the other, scientists can tell – using red shift and other methods – how old the light is, and hence get a glimpse at what the universe looked like when the light was first emitted. For example, if a galaxy several billion light years away appears to be dwarfish and misshapen by our standards, it’s an indication that this is what galaxies looked like several billion years ago, when they were in the process of formation.

Hence, like archaeologists sifting through sand to find fossil records of what happened in the past, scientists believe this map reveals a sort of fossil imprint left by the state of the universe just 10 nano-nano-nano-nano seconds after the Big Bang. The splotches in the Planck map represent the seeds from which the stars and galaxies formed. As is heat-map tradition, the reds and oranges signify warmer temperatures of the universe, while light and dark blues signify cooler temperatures.universe

The cooler temperatures came about because those were spots where matter was once concentrated, but with the help of gravity, collapsed to form galaxies and stars. Using the map, astronomers discovered that there is more matter clogging up the universe than we previously thought, at around 31.7%, while there’s less dark energy floating around, at around 68.3%. This shift in matter to energy ratio also indicates that the universe is expanding slower than previously though, which requires an update on its estimated age.

All told, the universe is now believed to be a healthy 13.82 billion years old. That wrinkles my brain! And also of interest is the fact that this would appear to confirm the Big Bang Theory. Though widely considered to be scientific canon, there are those who dispute this creation model of the universe and argue more complex ideas, such as the “Steady State Theory” (otherwise known as the “Theory of Continuous Creation”).

24499main_MM_Image_Feature_49_rs4In this scenario, the majority of matter in the universe was not created in a single event, but gradually by several smaller ones. What’s more, the universe will not inevitable contract back in on itself, leading to a “Big Crunch”, but will instead continue to expand until all the stars have either died out or become black holes. As Krzysztof Gorski, a member of the Planck team with JPL, put it:

This is a treasury of scientific data. We are very excited with the results. We find an early universe that is considerably less rigged and more random than other, more complex models. We think they’ll be facing a dead-end.

Martin White, a Planck project scientist with the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explained further. According to White, the map shows how matter scattered throughout the universe with its associated gravity subtly bends and absorbs light, “making it wiggle to and fro.” As he went on to say:

The Planck map shows the impact of all matter back to the edge of the Universe. It’s not just a pretty picture. Our theories on how matter forms and how the Universe formed match spectacularly to this new data.

planck_satThe Planck space probe, which launched in 2009 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, is a European Space Agency mission with significant contribution from NASA. The two-ton spacecraft gathers the ancient glow of the Universe’s beginning from a vantage more than a million and a half kilometers from Earth. This is not the first map produced by Planck; in 2010, it created an all-sky radiation map which scientists, using supercomputers, removed all interfering background light from to get a clear view at the deep background of the stars.

However, this is the first time any satellite has been able to picture the background radiation of the universe with such high resolution. The variation in light captured by Planck’s instruments was less than 1/100 millionth of a degree, requiring the most sensitive equipment and the contrast. So whereas cosmic radiation has appeared uniform or with only slight variations in the past, scientists are now able to see even the slightest changes, which is intrinsic to their work.planck-attnotated-580x372

So in summary, we have learned that the universe is a little older than previously expected, and that it most certainly was created in a single, chaotic event known as the Big Bang. Far from dispelling the greater mysteries, confirming these theories is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still the grandiose mystery of how all the fundamental laws such as gravity, nuclear forces and electromagnetism work together.

Ah, and let’s not forget the question of what transpires beneath the veil of an even horizon (aka. a Black Hole), and whether or not there is such a thing as a gateway in space and time. Finally, there’s the age old question of whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere out there, or life of any kind. But given the infinite number of stars, planets and possibilities that the universe provides, it almost surely does!

And I suppose there’s also that persistent nagging question we all wonder when we look up at the stars. Will we ever be able to get out there and take a closer look? I for one like to think so, and that it’s just a matter of time!

To boldly go!
To boldly go!

Sources: universetoday.com, (2), extremetech.com, bbc.co.uk