2012 in Science

The ‘God Particle’ & More 2012 Scientific Breakthroughs (PHOTOS)

From the Higgs Boson to a drug that may help prevent HIV, see 2012’s most exciting scientific discoveries.

The discovery of the long-sought Higgs Boson in early July was a fitting halftime show for an incredibly promising year of scientific breakthroughs. From a drug that may help prevent HIV to a bionic woman, see 2012’s most exciting discoveries.

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Higgs Boson, The ‘God Particle’

When word spread in early July that scientists at CERN had discovered the Higgs Boson, many Americans we’re left scratching their heads, asking, what is it? The answer, we soon learned, is—metaphorically speaking—the rain-maker of the physics world. First hypothesized in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs, the so-called god particle is a way of explaining why particles have mass. Without mass, there would be no gravity, and, in turn, no universe. It’s simultaneously the most profound and most perplexing discovery of the year.

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Humans Interbred With Other Creatures

In news that may either disturb or fascinate you, a study by international scientists this year proved it likely that there was a significant amount of “hanky panky” between humans and other creatures. Through the study of one one particular fossil, a finger of a Stone Age girl, scientists were able to determine her origin as that of a Denosivan—an archaic human related, in distant ways, to Neanderthals. Although they do not have enough data to prove that another species entirely existed—that there was interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals seems more clear than ever.

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15-year-old Discovers Simple Test for Pancreatic Cancer

Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old from Maryland, lives, eats, and breathes science. Skeptical? Watch this video of him winning the top prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the “youth olympics of science,” and you won’t be. Jack’s discovery, an idea that began in his biology class at North County High School, was to use a simple strip of paper to detect pancreatic cancer. Faster, cheaper, and non-invasive, the paper test strip—which detects minute changes in conductivity—also proved significantly more accurate. Whiz kid is an understatement.

NASA

NASA’s Curiosity 10 Tweets From Mars

This year science met Twitter, and neither were ever the same. When NASA’s rover Curiosity 10 successfully landed on Mars on Aug. 6, the media hailed it as a “triumphant technological tour de force.” The NASA team of engineers’ euphoric response is proof enough of the feat’s revolutionary nature. But the fun didn’t stop there. In the days following the landing, Curiosity 10 began livestreaming Mars from its very own Twitter account. The rover’s photographic robotic arm can combine its 50 angles to create a high-resolution, full color portrait of life on the Red Planet. The only question that remains: did they find the men?

Mopic/Corbis

Nerve Cells Notice Mistakes

2012 was a big year for the decade-long hypothesis of the “Social Brain”—namely, that our brains may have evolved to help shape our social behavior. In early 2012, Japanese researchers located a group of nerve cells that fire when a macaque witnesses another monkey making a mistake. When a monkey made its own mistake, those nerve cells remained silent, but when it watched another committing an error, the nerves howled. Since humans likely possess the same nerves, it’s seems incredibly probable that our brains “learn” to adapt using the behaviors of others as a guide.

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Bionic Women (and Men) Get Closer to Reality

In a new study that’s likely to lend hope to the estimated 6 million people suffering from paralysis in America, the concept of bionic humans became a reality. Controlling a robotic arm with her thoughts, a paralyzed woman named Cathy was able to pick up a cup of coffee with her left arm and sip it—a task she’s been incapable of doing alone for over 15 years. The experiment worked using a revolutionary chip, implanted in the brain, which detects the pattern of nerve cells firing and then—using a computer—translates them into movement.

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You Learn When You Sleep

Sleepyheads, this one’s for you. A new study by the Weizmann Institute, published in the August 2012 edition of Nature Neuroscience, provides the most convincing evidence to date that we do learn when we sleep. In the study, scientists presented sleeping subjects with a certain odor, after they had sounded a distinct tone. When the scientists sounded the tone again, this time without introducing an odor, the sleeper sniffed anyway. (Can we say Pavlov?) The implications of the study are huge—proving that our brain can take in information and modify behavior, all while asleep. So go forth, sleep-lovers: beds are the new classroom.

Jason Hosking

A New (Inexpensive) Way to Desalinate Sea Water

A new study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could mean the answer to the lack of clean water that kills at least one person every 20 seconds. Using a new filtration material, made out of sheets of graphene, a one-atom-thick form of the element carbon, the MIT researchers were able to “control the properties of the material down to the atomic level,” thus removing the salt. The method, more efficient and less expensive than existing desalination systems, could mean clean water for the more than 780 million people living without it.

Dermot Conlan/Corbis

Obesity Rates Declining in Several States

In an unusually bit of good news on the obesity front, researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported decreases in childhood obesity in cities and states that have implemented nutritional improvements. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the change has taken a concerted effort: “They’re not just crossing their fingers and hoping the problem goes away.” Among the cities and states included are Philadelphia, New York City, Mississippi, and California. Way to go, you four places.

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Truvada Could Prevent HIV

Since the AIDS epidemic began, an estimated 21.8 million people have succombed to the disease. In one of the most exciting breakthroughs of the year, researchers published a study in The New England Journal of Medicine proving that the popular drug Truvada, approved by the FDA in 2004 for the treatment of HIV, is also a “promising strategy” for preventing HIV. It’s the first time the government has approved giving antiviral medicine to healthy people who may come in contact with HIV. One of the 22 panelists on the FDA board who voted called the drug “an amazing opportunity to turn the tide on this epidemic.”

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Geoengineering That Can Save Sea Ice

In the December 2012 edition of Scientific American, time is well spent discussing the impending disaster that is global warming. In a particularly alarming report, Mark Fischetti reveals an unfortunate truth: Arctic Sea ice is the lowest it's ever been. A problem this huge needs a radical solution, and quick. In 2012, researchers and scientists are pointing to “geoengineering,” employing artificial techniques to virtually block the sun and thus decrease surface temperatures. The methods can be as sophisticated as “whitening” low-level clouds or as simple as painting pavement white. Whether the methods solve the problem remains to be seen, but in the words of Peter Wadhams, “they might buy us time.”