2012: Not Quite the End of the World

Many predicted that 2012 would mark the end of the world. Yet, not only is the Earth still spinning, but the world of science has also blossomed into fuller view. Tremendous advances in particle physics, genetics, and pharmacology have been made. Thanks to 2012, scientists are now well on their way to addressing key questions about the universe.

A proton-proton collision produces four high-energy muons (in red). This CERN experiment simulates characteristics similar to those of the decay of a Higgs boson. Courtesy of Los Angeles Times.

Higgs Boson Unlocked

The human body is made up of organs, a skeletal system, and around 40 liters of water. But on the subatomic level, what determines one’s mass? Nearly half a century following Dr. Peter Higgs’s prediction, a new subatomic particle consistent with the Higgs boson has been discovered by the CMS and ATLAS teams at Europe’s particle-physics lab CERN. When a particle moves through the field generated by the Higgs boson, it creates a distortion in the universe’s electromagnetic field, thereby giving mass to the particle. With the Higgs boson, physicists can now construct a theory that unifies all the fundamental forces of nature.

NASA’s Curiosity rover uses a spectrometer and lens-imager camera to investigate a rock named “Jake Matijevic” on Mars’s surface. Courtesy of Scientific American.

Getting Curious with Curiosity

NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully landed inside Gale Crater in August. This $2.5 billion project seeks to determine whether the Red Planet can support microbial life. So far, no methane or organic molecules have been uncovered, casting doubt on the possibility of life on Mars. The rover consists of 17 cameras ranging in imaging capabilities. Other instruments on the rover include a spectrometer, dust removal tool, and radiation detector. Since its landing, Curiosity has sent back many pictures revealing new information about Mars’s rock composition and atmosphere.

ENCODE-ing the Code

With the blueprint of the human genome in their hands, scientists next had to understand what it all meant. The first reports, written by some 440 scientists involved in more than 1600 experiments examining the building blocks of DNA, were published in September as a culmination of the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) project. These papers offer new insight into the function of non-coding sequences and the mechanisms behind common diseases.

Teleportation at New Lengths

Teams of researchers from China and Austria set a world record by teleporting quantum particles over a distance equivalent to that between New York City and Philadelphia. Teleportation relies on a principle known as quantum entanglement, in which two or more particles are correlated with one another so that measurements performed on one particle influence those entangled with it. Scientists are hoping to one day teleport particles to space in order to beam them back to specific locations on Earth.

Going to the Extreme

Whether or not it is human-induced, global warming is happening. In 2012, five countries observed record highs while none experienced record lows. The repercussions are serious. The Arctic’s summer sea ice shrank 18 percent below its previous record low, and 97 percent of Greenland’s surface ice sheet experienced melting. Hurricane Sandy arrived late in the hurricane season, bringing with it one of the largest storm surges on record and causing $50 billion in damage. A cold snap took the lives of more than 800 people in Europe, and post-Thanksgiving torrential rain killed hundreds in the Philippines. Only time will tell how extreme the global climate will become.

Truvada is approved for use in healthy, uninfected individuals at risk of acquiring HIV through sex. Courtesy of Time Magazine.

Drug Triumph

For the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug that would reduce the rate of HIV infection by up to 90 percent in healthy people. The drug, known as Truvada, is a combination of two antiviral drugs and had already been used in infected patients to lower the amount of virus circulating in the bloodstream. Truvada must be taken daily in order to be effective.

Scientists looking for bacteria in Lake Vida, Antarctica used a clean room environment to avoid contamination of their samples. Courtesy of Discovery News.

In Darkness, Let there be Life

Think nothing can survive below a 60-foot-thick chunk of ice? Well, Antarctic microbes can. A team of NASA scientists discovered a thriving colony of bacteria in an environment with the highest-ever-measured concentration of supersaturated nitrous oxide. Isolated for over 2,800 years, these ancient microbes rely on chemical reactions between brine and rock to obtain energy. This discovery has given scientists new insight into geochemical and microbial processes in environments lacking oxygen.