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Published on December 31st, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi

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2012: A Year of Technological Breakthroughs and Ecological Bad News (Mostly)

December 31st, 2012 by

It’s been an incredible year for scientific and technological ‘firsts’, advances and breakthroughs…and an entirely credible year (if one was paying attention) of environmental/ecological warnings and forebodings (but with a few encouraging signs).

Any year’s end review of such matters is bound to miss a few important events…but here is my personal compendium of the most notable achievements and developments…to wit:

Summer 2012 ended with the tentative discovery of the fabled “god particle” (a moniker physicists hate), i.e., the Higgs Boson…but with an additional signal (at a different energy level) also found, adding a bit more mystery — and more waiting — to the elusive, sub-atomic particle’s official confirmation (which was expected to have happened by now)…there can be only…two?

Speaking of the science of the very small…though not quite quantum small, physicists were actually able to image the “shadow of a single atom” for the very first time...’Just its shadow, but that’s still pretty darned amazing (if you have any idea of how small an atom is)…

And if you’re a follower of sci-fi predictions coming true, sci-fi tech got a little less fictional with a series of successful “tractor beam” experiments…known as Bessel beams, the once only theoretical laser-based beams were shown to be possible through a clever use of multiple lenses and the strobe effect…creating over-lapping and adjustable beams that could move a tiny silica sphere forward and back along a laser light track…the technology, if scalable, could be used one day to zoom a spacecraft to neighboring planets, maybe even to solar systems beyond our own…in the event that we might need to find a new planet…

In a (possibly) related ‘first’, a physics and engineering team succeeded in achieving “infinitely fast light speed” in a tiny nano device – called a wave guide — that has a “zero refraction index” (same thing you’d need for a “cloaking” effect) making the light waves behave as though they were everywhere at once

And, speaking of moving stuff in space…California-based SpaceX became the first privately-owned company to carry out a commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station…the October, 2012, successful resupply mission was the first of 12 planned under a contract with NASA…SpaceX has even bigger plans in the years to come: the building and settlement of the first Mars colony…(I hear Mars is “cold as hell” though)…

Speaking of Mars, the Mars rover, Curiosity, landed on target in spectacular fashion this summer, inspiring some über-exuberant NASA cheer-leading (including one of the funniest, geekiest, music videos ever)…and, with its super new sampling technology at hand, the rover could soon detect signs that life-promoting compounds may have once been plentiful on the ever-tantalizing red planet

artist rendering of a potentially habitable planet — the smallest such planet found — in the nearby Tau Ceti solar system (five planets have been discovered in the system to date)

Keeping with space-themed firsts, 2012 was a banner year for Goldilocks Zone, exoplanet discoveries (and for space telescopes, one of which detected light from a ‘super Earth’ for the first time!), ever-more-curious black hole discoveries…more “most distant” galaxy discoveries….and even a dark matter discovery in the form of ‘tendrils’ that stretch for hundreds of thousands of light years into space…

Meanwhile, back on Earth…in neuroscience news, neuroscientists figured out a way to “read” a sleeping person’s dreams (through neuronal pattern recognition and matching), and, even more amazing, doctors were able (it seems) to communicate with a man in a “vegetative coma” using fMRI scans of his brain — each scan taken following doctors’ questions (like “Are you in pain?”)…

2012 was also a big year for biomedicine and biotechnology with the development of artificial DNA — known as ‘XNA’ — which can replicate and evolve just like real DNA and RNA (and it’s stronger too, ’cause it’s got a different sugar ‘backbone’)…giving the science of Artificial Life (previously relegated to computer-generated cellular automata) a major push forward from virtual to actual…with no few predictions of artificial lifeforms populating the Earth in the not-so-distant future…

first in vitro made animals derived from ES cells

This litter of healthy mouse pups resulted from sperm and eggs derived from embryonic stem cells. Credit: Mitinori Saitou

Stem cell technology — the use of undifferentiated (often embryonic) or “reprogrammed” cells — has been making fairly regular advances in recent years, but 2012 saw the first ever in vitro creation of healthy (‘normal”) mammals (a litter of baby mice) from egg and sperm cells grown entirely from embryonic stem cells

On a more human but globally practical level, late 2012 saw the invention of a female condom made via a nano-fabrication technology called electrospinning…weaving ultra thin nano fibers into a material that not only blocks sperm movement and releases an anti-HIV medicine…but the whole thing dissolves (or evaporates) in a matter of hours or days…depending on the thickness of the material…and the needs of the woman using it..

Cancer treatment saw a promising advance with the development of a single anti-body drug that shrinks or halts every major type of tumor tested….in vitro, that is, in vivo trials are underway…stay tuned for more on this one, folks…

In yet another (recently reported) nano-tech/DNA breakthrough…combining a modified, “drag and drop”, CAD program with rapid prototyping tech, scientists can now “3D print” actual molecules (here, anti-cancer drugs) one atom at a time from something called self-assembled DNA…speeding up drug design and manufacturing by many factors…and totally “personalizing” the drugs according to one’s own DNA…

As for genetics research in general, a milestone of data analysis was achieved with the publication of The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project (aka the ENCODE project) the purpose of which is the complete cataloging of human genetic elements and their functions…one immediate discovery from this biological Big Data project was that so-called “junk DNA” (i.e., DNA sequences that do not code for specific proteins) have been mis-named; the sequences actually play a critical role in gene regulation and disease causation

power generating biomaterial made with a piezoelectric virus film

power generating biomaterial made with a piezoelectric virus film (credit: Berkeley Lab)

At the intersection of biotech and renewable energy, Berkeley Lab scientists brought us a power generating technology based upon a biomaterial composed of a special type of M13 viruses…The self-organizing viruses, harmless bacteriophages that only infect bacteria, pump out streams of electrons when pressure is applied to them, due to what’s known as the piezoelectric effect …developers anticipate a “spray on” (invisible) film of the viruses to power such things as laptops (every time you press a key, you provide juice to the battery) and even your home (by jumping up and down on your virus-covered floor)…here’s a link to a video of the new virus-powered biomaterial in action.

In climate science/environmental news…the biggest happenings were in the ever-controversial geoengineering field…a “science” that only a few years ago was entirely speculative…In what may be the only bright spot in the year’s climate news, geoengineers from Germany’s Wegener Institute made a big advance with a successful ocean (iron) fertilization experiments in the Southern Atlantic Ocean…but a similar technique was also used — by a “rogue U.S. businessman” and an anonymous team of scientists — to conduct what may have been an illegal ocean fertilization experiment off of Canada’s west coast…ostensibly done to save the local salmon population…still, the first illegal one I’ve heard of…

Oh, one other ‘first’ that may portend a positive direction in climate change awareness, Unity College of Maine became the first such institution of higher education to divest all its financial holdings in fossil fuel based industries…now that’s leadership that Big Business-as-usual can understand…

Apocalypse Later…?

Of course, there was plenty of doom-saying this past year..starting off with the so-called “Doomsday virus”..a variety of H5N1 avian flu (experiments on which were conducted with ferrets in November of 2011) that was rapidly made air-borne transmissible by two separate scientists — provoking bioterror and global contagion fears and calls for redaction (blacking out) of key experimental details from the (at the time) yet-to-be-published papers…but after the World Health Organization weighed in, officials decided that (mostly) full publication of the experiments was “OK” (in the interest of science)…later, one of the researchers backed away from his original, provocative claims of lethality for the variant avian virus…

Meanwhile, 2012 was still pretty treacherous and lethal for a great many non-human lifeforms, like whales, as our planet’s 6th mass extinction continued...to make matters worse, scientists recently confirmed that polar ice loss is accelerating faster than we thought (bringing us ever closer to a certain tipping-point-of-no-return)…apart from raising sea levels, the melting of sea ice tends to dilute sea water which will impact ocean chemistry, food webs, and life…

Brief Tangent: A Few Surprising Animal Discoveries this year…

tiniest chameleon

tiny chameleon ever found (Brookesia micra)

As an amphibian fan, there was a really exciting, ‘biological gem’ of a discovery this year: the world’s tiniest chameleon was discovered in (on) Madagascar...it may be one of the world’s smallest vertebrates, certainly the smallest reptile (at less than a half inch in length, full grown)…and hopefully this translates into conserving more amphibian habitat, which is vanishing rapidly…

Speaking of vanishing, sometimes vanished species reappear…in this case, a most rare primate called Miller’s Grizzled Langur (Presbytis hosei canicrus) was photographed in a remote section of the Borneo rain forest…how often does that happen?

Finally, a rarely-glimpsed, pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) — described as being like a “living fossil” — was found, sadly, washed, ashore near New Zealand…bone and DNA analysis showed that it is a descendant of a family of ancient whales known as cetotheres believed to have gone extinct 2 million years ago…

And Now, Back to the Bad News…

And, as if things weren’t bad enough for the critters…October 2012 marked the first verified signs that our self-created “super bugs” (i.e., antibiotic resistant microbes) are finding their way into our fine feathered (and furred) friends

Xultan Mayan calendar painted on stone wall

Xultan, Guatemala – section of oldest Mayan calendar ever found (credit: Saturno et al)

Speaking of feathers…the “Mayan apocalypse” turned out to be a no show (as predicted)…but this shouldn’t over-shadow some intriguing archeological finds (of the Maya kind) including the oldest known recording of the Moon/Mars-based calendar yet found (with an end date a few thousand years in the future)…oh, yeah, ’twas climate change that did them in, don’t ya know…

As any one with cable TV knows, scientific predictions of doom are far more troubling (as they are based mostly in fact…and really cool-looking computer models)…thus come two dire scenarios of planet-wide doom and gloom from our ever-charming climatologists and ecologists: climate ‘flips’ and ‘global collapse’…either of which could happen, oh, any day now…

And if those scenarios are a little to iffy for you…one earth scientist recently decided to spell it out in more concrete (if a bit vulgar) terms with the presenting of a lecture entitled “Is Earth F**ked?”..according to which, we are…due mainly to our, as usual, short-term environmental management policies and ecologically unsustainable economic activity…but just maybe, the researcher suggests, the right amount of direct action could have a “dissipating” effect…like I said: “mostly” bad news…

Well folks, I think I’ll end things there…but feel free to add your own suggestions (in the comments) for the biggest breakthroughs and most notable sci/tech/climate news of 2012…I’m sure there’s a few I’ve left out…I can’t read everything, you know.

So, at the risk of sounding ironic…I wish you all a…Happy New Year!!!

Top Image: (CMS detector; simulated Higgs Event); CERN

 

 

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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). He is also the author of the ebook 'Zombies, E.T's, and The Super Entity - A Selection of Most Stimulating Articles' and for Kindle: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times



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