2011: A Scientific Odyssey

Does this remind anyone else of 2008's Wall-E?... Guardian caption: An artist’s impression of Curiosity, Nasa’s Mars-bound science lab, as it analyses Martian rock. Photograph: Reuters

Well hello again, news junkies… the Guardian’s top ten list of science news stories for the year seems like the perfect compendium of already-synthesized-information to put up for your lazy Saturday afternoon perusal.

Here’s a quick rundown of the top ten, but be sure to click over to read the concise summaries under each bullet point:

  • Graphene is going to be the ‘it’ material of the 21st century

  • Flying faster than the speed of light just might be possible after all

  • Modern humans have been hanging around Europe for thousands of years longer than we had thought

  • The female brain lights up in a very special way after an orgasm

  • The best candidate for finding life on another world has been pinpointed by astronomers

  • You can win the Nobel prize even though you are dead

  • Stem cells may not be the great white hope for medicine in the 21st century after all

  • Mars continues to be a tricky place to reach

  • Archaeopteryx may not have been the world’s first bird

  • And finally, we learned that the Higgs boson really does exist

The Higgs boson news that’s been in the headlines this past week (see Sci Am’s Tantalizing Hints of Elusive Higgs Particle Announced) has been fascinating to follow…in a nutshell, researchers MAY have found the so-called “God particle”… or they may not have! In another year or so, we’ll know. I guess those particle reactors have their work cut out for them in 2012.

Re: the likelihood that We are Not Alone…

Here’s a direct link to the NASA briefing on the Kepler mission finding its first planet in the habitable zone:

NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the “habitable zone,” the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.

Very neat!

I personally find the thought that humans are the most intelligent life in this universe to be extremely depressing. I hope to the sun, moon, and stars we are not alone and there is a species smarter than us out there than can help us save us from ourselves! (I’m only half-snarking!)

In other astronomy news from this year, I remember this Reuters story from August on scientists discovering what I very inaccurately am going to call the Bling-Bling planet.

I’d like to add a note on stem cell research…while the Guardian science-year-in-review points to the not-so-encouraging stem cell research developments in 2011, I remember doing a roundup back in June where I covered some exciting news about stell cells on the heart research front (the relevant portion is probably somewhere mid-post at that link). I’ll excerpt it here:

Stem Cell & Heart Research

Next up… Encouraging news, via Reuters… Scientists show heart can repair itself, with help. The BBC has some good coverage as well:

You can read James Gallagher’s report on the breakthrough here, but the research raises the astonishing prospect that we might, one day, teach the human heart to repair itself. A new golden age of regenerative medicine now seems tantalisingly close.

From the British Heart Foundation, which is responsible for the research:

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, said:

“To repair a damaged heart is one of the holy grails of heart research. This groundbreaking study shows that adult hearts contain cells that, given the right stimulus, can mobilise and turn into new heart cells that might repair a damaged heart. The team have identified the crucial signals needed to make this happen.”

Also in related stem cell heart research news: Cytori Reports Sustained Benefits at 18 Months in Cardiac Cell Therapy Heart Attack Trial (press release, via Reuters).

One more blast from the Wonk-the-Vote 2011 posting vault… remember all those dying bird and fish ringing in the new year? I’ll just quote from my closing paragraphs:

All of these strange events feel like a creepy ass movie script, except there’s no M. Night Shyamalan directing the nightmare we’re living. What struck me while trying to get to the bottom of things is that our zombie press really is not in the business of trying to investigate or get to the bottom of anything anymore.

And, just the other day Bostonboomer reported on the bird crashes out of Utah in her morning reads…as Minkoff Minx noted downthread in the comments of BB’s roundup, this isn’t the first time bird crashes have happened in that exact same spot. What in the world is going on in that Walmart parking lot?

And, is anyone else freaked out a bit by the fact that we have mass animal deaths as bookends for the beginning and end of 2011? Is mother nature trying to tell us something?

Looking toward the future…this special report to CNN by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku is worth the read this weekend when you get a chance:

Space elevators and smart machines: Life in the year 2100

Kaku talks about telomeres and reversing the aging process somewhere in there, and if your interest is piqued by that topic, please be sure to set aside some time to read Sci Am’s October 2011 “Actuary of the Cell: A Q&A with Nobelist Elizabeth Blackburn on Telomeres and Aging Cells”. Unfortunately, only a preview version of the interview and extended web exclusives are available online, but I can make anyone a xerox if they’re really interested!

Here’s the introductory blurb on the web exclusive bits:

The little tips of chromosomes get shorter every time a cell divides, and this shortening is a mark of cellular aging. If they get short enough, the cell dies or stops dividing. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her studies on telomeres with colleagues Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, has spent the better part of her career trying to figure out why. In recent years, Blackburn has expanded on that initial work to show that these gauges of cellular health serve as barometers of environmental and emotional stress and predictors of various diseases. In this expansion of an interview in the October issue of Scientific American, Blackburn talks about additional ways that this research has started to branch out.

If I remember any more geeky goodies from the year, I’ll post them in the comments, but for now I’m going to turn this discussion over to all you inquisitive and informed Sky Dancers out there!

What science stories have caught your eye during this last trip around the sun?

14 Comments on “2011: A Scientific Odyssey”

  1. Yale’s Dr. Ainissa Ramirez on Graphene (the proposed “it” material of the 21st century):

  2. ralphb says:

    IBM’s Graphene, Racetrack, Carbon Nanotube Technologies

    The company announced that it was able to manufacture racetrack memory, graphene-based circuits as well as carbon nanotube transistors on 200 mm wafers for the first time. Racetrack memory combines the capacity of hard drives and the durability and speed of solid state memory and was shown with read and write functionality. IBM said that racetrack memory could enable users to access massive amounts of data within a billionth of a second.

    Also on display was the first graphene integrated circuit for wireless communications which can run up at speeds up to 5 GHz and an environment temperature of 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees F). IBM said that it uses a new architecture that “flips the current graphene transistor structure on its head” and delivers a “high yield” on 200 mm wafers.

    Someone’s gonna make a buck off of this.

  3. Branjor says:

    graphene is the strongest material ever measured, some 200 times stronger than structural steel. “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of cling film

    And you think packages are hard to open now – just wait!

  4. Branjor says:

    Large masses of plastic are floating in oceans, choking off life. I wonder what graphene will do once it gets into the environment. Based on its strength, it doesn’t sound readily degradable.

    • ralphb says:

      At least it’s based on something natural in carbon. I would anticipate a lot less problems than with plastic packaging. Wonder if it would be worse than the carbon lead in old pencils?

      A positive is that racetrack memory has the potential to make disk drives obsolete, at a very time fraction of the energy required for use. The savings in electricity alone could be enormous over time. Not to mention “no moving parts” and the cost savings in manufacturing in large quantities.

      • Branjor says:

        Ralph, plastic itself is an organic compound made of monomers of carbon and hydrogen, alone or with other elements, such as chlorine, nitrogen, sulfur, hanging off its backbone.


      • ralphb says:

        Sure it is but the fundamental properties change when they are synthesized and polymerized. They bear no resemblance to a pure carbon compound like graphene.

        Chemically speaking any compound containing carbon, in any form, is organic. From an environmental standpoint, it’s a useless term.

      • quixote says:

        Wonk, thanks for a fascinating series of links! I’ve been clambering over them instead of getting work done.

        Graphene really is an incredible substance. I hadn’t heard the elephant-on-pencil-not-breaking-graphene-sheet before. Amazing. As Branjor says, we’ll never get a bag of potato chips open again.

        About that: physical strength of materials has nothing to do with biodegradability. Graphene is carbon, so *chemically* it’s as dangerous as diamonds or the lead in pencils, as ralphb says. Fabrication can use toxins. The real problem for us is that some nanoparticles, not just graphene, can be the right size to interact with cell membranes, even though the cells have no use for them. That’s never good, so the biological effects of nanoparticles may turn out to be a big problem in some cases. That’s the thing to keep an eye on.

      • Branjor says:

        Thanks for that link. Hope the study is right, as science’s manmade substances don’t have a very good history of being environmentally friendly, lol. Plastic is also eventually degraded in the environment, as is BP’s almighty oil.

        Gotta go now, sorry.

  5. jawbone says:

    Thanks for the great links and info!