LifestyleTop 5

2012 Top fives – biggest moments in science

by Tim Cashmere and Upulie Divisekera

1. The Higgs Boson

The discovery of a ‘Higgs-like boson’ was undoubtedly the biggest story in science during 2012 as it captured the imagination of the public AND completed the standard model of particle physics. The standard model is our most complete testable theory of the universe and the Higgs has given us the final piece of that particular puzzle.

While String Theory looks like it will be a complete model of the universe, it is a long way off being experimentally verified. The Standard Model isn’t just an accurate theory, it is the most accurate theory we have that can be backed up by experimental verification (meaning it’s not just theoretically correct). The discovery was particularly interesting as it was one of the main goals of the Large Hadron Collider – a $10 billion machine designed to smash protons (and other types of hadrons) into each other and analyse the resulting bits and pieces.

The discovery has left physicists with a few questions. There are many different Higgs models, so which one has been discovered? If this is the so-called ‘standard’ Higgs, as predicted by the standard model, where do we look next for a unifying theory that marries gravity and the quantum world? If this is not the standard Higgs, then what Higgs is it? These discoveries are yet to come, but for now we can be pretty confident about what we think we know about the universe and, since we are a part of the universe, this is a pretty huge addition to our knowledge of ourselves.

2. Total Eclipse of the HeartSun

Okay to be fair there was some debate as to whether this deserved to be included in this list. The science itself wasn’t really cutting-edge, but we decided to include it because it focussed people about the solar system we live in.

Humans have associated many myths with eclipses throughout the ages, including that the sun was shot by an arrow from a little boy, a polar bear got into a fight with the sun and wolves ate the sun (the remedy of which was to make as much noise as possible to scare away the wolves). But on November 14, 2012, people were once again reminded we are sitting on a giant rock, hurtling around a giant nuclear fusion reactor with all sorts of other rocks whizzing around as well.

As for the science; a solar eclipse provides solar physicists with a chance to study the sun’s corona. This is a mysterious region of the sun that reaches an unfathomable million degrees celcius. It has one trillionth the density of the surface and extends several hundred thousand kilometres into space. This is a useful thing to study because, like the atmosphere on Earth, it is where the sun’s weather occurs. And we care because when a solar flare goes off, it can send a huge chunk of charged particles our way, potentially putting our communication satellites, the crew on the International Space Station and even electrical systems here on Earth in serious risk.

3. Dinosaurs have feathers yo

Dinosaurs ain’t what they used to be when you were a kid. They’ve changed, or rather, our understanding of them has changed. Kids science books always have a dinosaur scene with a Triceratops, a Tyrannosaurus, a Brontosaurus and a Stegosaurus in a sylvan field, always one of each with the gentle eruptions of a volcano in the background. However, now we know of up to 500 species of dinosaurs that lived on most continents and in all kinds of climates and conditions. We’ve come to realise they weren’t solitary cold-blooded herbivores hunted by coldblooded carnivores. We now know they took care of their young and lived in groups. But while Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park fame, may have changed your view of dinosaur behavior and lent credence to the old idea that the descendants of dinosaurs are birds, the most startling discovery in recent times is that many dinosaurs had feathers; not just the branch of them we thought were clearly related to birds.

The idea that dinosaurs were related to birds is an old one, but it was only in 1996, some time after this idea had been revived, that the first feathered dinosaur fossil was discovered. Sinosauropteryx was the first species to be found with the clear imprints of feathers in the fossils. The feathers are not like those of modern birds, more a primitive feather, a filament, fuzz to keep them warm. This could be one way that dinosaurs survived in cold climates.

Until April 2012, we only knew of smallish dinosaurs having these primitive feathers. But this year, rock star Chinese paleontologist Xing Xu found a fossil of a large dinosaur, clearly related to Tyrannosaurs rex, with the distinctive imprint of feathers. The feathers are visible as a layer of fuzz around the well-preserved skull, on what appear to be fragments of skin. Xu found three fossils that clearly showed feathers, including some long 15 cm feather shafts. The dinosaur, named Yutyrannus huali, an elision of the Mandarin and Latin for “beautiful feathered tyrant” stands 7-8 m, making it the largest known feathered anima. This discovery forces us to reconsider our understanding and view of how dinosaurs looked, how they behaved and how they evolved on a much broader scale.

But the most important question this raises is this: did the great monster, the best and most favored horror of all children under ten, Tyrannosaurus rex, have downy fuzz like its relative, Yutyrannus? We have to change our thinking from dinosaurs as the closest things to dragons which actually lived on earth to motherfucking fuzzy dinobirdazoids. Up-ending your preconceived notions every few years: science.

4. Build me an organ printer worthy of Mordor

We’ve all seen the hideous frankenmouse with a human-ear shaped growth on its back, we’ve heard about how cows and pigs have been modified to produce blood vessels and bits and pieces that will allow transplants of vital tissue or parts of organs to help humans survive. What we haven’t succeeded in producing yet is a fully operational organ that has been grown outside of an animal body.

Many scientists are working on trying to create scaffolds for cells to grown on with the view to create an artificial organ. This means sourcing materials which cells can grow on that is not toxic to cells or to the ultimate recipient. Late this year, scientists reported they were able to physically print cells in two dimensions and the cells survived. This means they determined where to print the cells and how many they could print. If we can print cells in 2D, then it follows that we can print cells in 3D. We have 3D printers. So we might, some day soon, with an emphasis on soon, actually be able to print cells using a 3D printer into some devices or as actual replacement organs or devices, using the patient’s own cells. We could generate these on demand, without having to wait for donors, or worry about organ rejection. The dream of organ generation is closer than ever.

5. Self-replicating molecules confirm life evolved from a bunch of chemicals, like seriously

How did life begin? Can you create living things from a ‘primordial soup’, just by adding lightning? Did life on earth come from outer space? Did a benevolent being create the First Cell and command it to go forth and replicate?

If you’re inclined towards a scientific explanation, life began in some form of chemical soup under unfriendly conditions – low oxygen, an atmosphere high in what are to us now, poisonous gases like sulfur and ammonia, and lots of ultraviolet radiation. Somehow, under these conditions, molecules which could replicate themselves eventually ended up in an enclosed space – creating early, primitive cells. Cells are the basic unit of life: the smallest organisms, bacteria, are single cells. Humans are vast, complex multicellular organisms; made of proteins, fats, DNA, RNA and carbohydrates, most of which are long chains of carbon molecules which somehow ended up encased in a fatty bilayer of molecules, reproducing themselves and forming complex life. DNA and RNA are critical – they store information in cell and must be copied by enzymes for the cell to replicate.

But how did they end up replicating themselves? Is such a thing possible? In the 1950s, Stanely Miller and Harold Urey succeeded in creating amino acids, the building blcks of proteins, in the lab using electrical discharge and a mix of chemicals supposed to replicate conditions on primitive earth. This year, Gerald Joyce and Tracey Lincoln tried a different approach.

They designed and generated their own RNA molecule to see if they could induce it to replicated itself. And it did. They then redesigned the molecule a few times to work out what kind of sequence would work best and watched to see which sequences worked best. What they saw happening was a kind of natural selection in the lab – the molecules that could replicate the RNA fastest worked best and ‘survived’. The molecules basically began to evolve in the lab themselves. It’s a long way to go before we can replicate cell formation, but this is an amazing starting block. Life is chemical, life is organic, life is spontaneous. Life is amazing.

 

Photo: Image Editor

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