Closer to the truth
This has been a year of great importance for science. Even as we are one step closer to the God particle, new planets have come into the radar. Then, there is the other question of neutrinos. Was Einstein wrong? Scientists decoded the dreaded Black Death DNA, and brought us proof of natural antibiotic resistance...eventful, to say the least.
1. Quest for the God particle: Two teams of scientists sifting debris from high-energy proton collisions in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research outside Geneva, said that they had recorded tantalising hints – but only hints – of a long-sought subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson, whose existence is a key to explaining why there is mass in the universe. By next summer, the way the collider is operating, they said, they will have enough data to say finally whether the elusive particle really exists.
2. New planets: Early January, Kepler found an exoplanet, rocky, small and very hot. NASA’s Kepler satellite announced that the discovery was the smallest planet found outside our solar system and the first that was rocky, like the earth. The planet, known as Kepler 10b, is only 40 per cent larger than the earth and about 4.6 times as massive. In February, Kepler scientists had identified 1,235 possible planets orbiting other stars. In September, NASA detected a planet dancing with a pair of stars, officially called Kepler 16b. More recently, this month, NASA discovered Kepler 22b, an earth-like planet just outside the solar system. On December 20, NASA’s astronomers have announced the discovery of a pair of planets, one the size of the earth and the other slightly smaller than Venus.
3. Neutrinos & Einstein: The results of experiments at CERN, the giant particle accelerator near Geneva, seem to attack one of physics’ sacred cows: Albert Einstein’s postulate that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. In the experiment, physicists saw that streams of neutrinos were traveling just above the speed of light. But this is impossible if Einstein’s theory of relativity is correct. So was Einstein wrong? It is still being debated whether neutrinos indeed travel faster than light.
4. Space missions: In March, a spacecraft called Messenger, weighing a little more than a thousand pounds, slipped into an elliptical orbit around Mercury, becoming the only manmade object to orbit the planet closest to the sun. On March 29, NASA’s Mercury Messenger took the first photograph of the surface of Mercury. During the mission, expected to last at least a year, the Messenger is to take 75,000 more photographs, allowing scientists to map out the planet’s entire surface and study its geology and atmosphere in detail. This year also saw the end of space shuttles Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis and Spirit.
5. Exploring Mars: The world’s biggest extraterrestrial explorer, NASA’s Curiosity rover, rocketed toward Mars in November on a search for evidence that the planet might once have been home to microscopic life. The rover is officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory. High-resolution images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that the sand dunes around the edge of the planet’s North Pole are approximately the size of Texas and stand more than 100 feet high. They are now said to be among the most active landscapes on the planet. Shifting dark streaks on the surface of Mars are signs that water is flowing there. High-resolution photographs taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were proof, scientists said in August. The possible presence of liquid water is certain to revive speculation that Mars is teeming with microbial organisms.
6. Expanding universe: In January, a team of astronomers said it had detected what may be the most distant and earliest galaxy yet found. It is only a tiny fraction of the size of our own Milky Way, and it existed when the universe was only 480 million years old. Its light has been on its way to us for 13.2 billion years, making it the long-distance champion in an expanding universe.
7. Black holes: Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope over the years have shown that monster black holes seem to inhabit the centres of all galaxies — the bigger the galaxy, the bigger the black hole. But, astronomers are now reporting that they have taken the measure of the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe. One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation. The other black hole, a graveyard for the equivalent of 9.7 billion suns, more or less, lurks in the center of NGC 3842, a galaxy that anchors another cluster known as Abell 1367, about 331 million light-years away in Leo.
8. Black Death DNA decoded: After the Black Death reached London in 1348, some 2,400 people were buried in East Smithfield, near the Tower of London, in a cemetery that had been prepared for the plague’s arrival. From the teeth of four of those victims, researchers have now reconstructed the full DNA of a microbe that within five years felled one-third to one-half of the population of Western Europe. The bacterium that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, is still highly virulent today but has different symptoms, leading some historians to doubt that it was the agent of the Black Death. This is the first time the genome of an ancient pathogen has been reconstructed, opening the way to tracking other ancient epidemics and how their microbes adapted to human hosts.
9. Proof of antibiotic resistance: An analysis of 30,000-year-old bacteria whose DNA has been recovered from the Yukon permafrost shows that they were able to resist antibiotics. Antibiotics, before they became used as drugs, were natural products. The new finding is the first direct evidence that antibiotic resistance is a widespread natural phenomenon that preceded the modern medical use of antibiotics.
10. Flerovium & livermorium: In the International Year of Chemistry, two more names were added to the periodic table of elements, although you may want to write them in pencil for now. The proposed names for elements 114 and 116: are flerovium (atomic symbol Fl) and livermorium (atomic symbol Lv).