Monday, December 31, 2012

Yearly Science Roundup: 2012

A lot of neat stuff has happened this year in the world of science, and it wasn't easy narrowing things down. My weekly roundups include three cool things per week, but since this is for the entire year, I've decided to go with my personal favorite top five science stories for 2012. Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!

5. The Transit of Venus

With the next transit over 100 years away, this was our generation's last chance to get to see our neighboring planet Venus in full daylight.

Really full daylight.

In fact, you couldn't even view it without safety equipment, because Venus was crossing the path of our Sun. The transit occurred on June 5th, 2012 and I was extremely lucky to get to see it happen. I live in Boston, which was completely cloudy that day, but happened to be on vacation in California at the time, where it was nice and sunny! With the help of some eclipse glasses, I had no problem seeing our sister planet passing in front of our Sun, silhouetting it brilliantly in the sky.

And I wasn't alone. Around the world, scientists were recording this event and using it to mimic our search for exoplanets. One of the ways to find planets around other stars is to watch for their own transits, and record the dips in sunlight and even the light filtering through the exoplanet atmospheres to determine their composition. The transit of Venus allowed for scientists to refine this technique in our own solar system. What a cool opportunity. I just couldn't resist including this awesome event in my Top 5.

4. Light Remains Reigning Speed Champion of the Universe

Sometimes, major news in science doesn't come from new discoveries, but in the defense of old ones.

In 2011, an experiment appeared to show that neutrinos were traveling faster than light. This obviously caused a huge amount of uproar, confusion, and excitement. But to make a long story short: they were wrong. Neutrinos did not travel faster than light.

In the original experiment, neutrinos (small subatomic particles) were measured to travel in a particle accelerator 60.7 nanoseconds faster than light could travel. However, this year it was reported that there were two major sources of error in the experiments of 2011: a faulty GPS link, and a clock that ticked slightly faster than it should. Combined, these two errors created the faster-than-light anomaly.

I include this in my Top 5, because it's always important to acknowledge how much of science is about explaining bizarre observations. If something seems unlikely, it probably isn't real. Mounds of evidence need to exist in favor of the unlikely scenario before it can be accepted as fact. This particular science story is a wonderful example of why that rarely happens. Human error is prevalent in experiments, and thus scientific studies are always about repetition. If you can repeat your results, you might be onto something. If not, look closer and you'll eventually find what went wrong.

Science-y advice for 2013: remember this concept the next time someone tells you something that seems unbelievable. (Hint: you probably shouldn't believe it.)

3. Space Shuttle Program Ends and SpaceX Takes Up the Challenge

With the space shuttle program going into retirement and the various shuttles being delivered to museums around the country, SpaceX launched the first commercial craft to dock with the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft delivered a load of cargo to the ISS on May 25, 2012. This pushes the potential of commercially designed spacecraft beyond just the realm of wealthy and imaginative corporations and fully into reality. While some are still concerned about privatizing space travel, I see it as the next logical step in technology.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule was successfully recovered after landing in the Pacific Ocean on May 31st. It is now approved to re-supply the ISS as needed, and has already been back to the ISS as of October of this year.

With this successful year of missions behind it, a variant of the Dragon is likely to be developed to deliver supplies to Mars in advance of a proposed (and once again, privatized) human visit down the line. I'm keeping a watchful eye on all of this, because I wouldn't be surprised at all if they succeed in this next step.

2. Higgs Boson Found!

No 2012 Top Science Stories list is complete without a nod of the head to CERN and their long-awaited discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

Announced on July 4th, 2012, CERN revealed that two different studies both identified a particle that matches what the Higgs boson should be. However, for the time being, CERN is careful not to say that it's definitively the Higgs boson, just in case something odd pops up. Once again, a great example of science testing and retesting itself to be as sure as possible.

This discovery is a huge deal, because the Higgs boson is responsible for the existence of mass as we know it. It's a particle of the standard model of physics that had yet to ever be observed, but has been predicted to exist for 50 years. This thing needs to exist for modern physics to make any sense.

Because of its extreme importance to physics, the Higgs boson discovery ranks high on my Top 5 list. However, to me personally, it still can't beat out my number one:

1. Curiosity Lands on Mars in a TOTALLY AWESOME WAY

As should be no surprise to my readers, Curiosity's successful landing on Mars tops my list of awesome science stories of 2012. Not only was this landing the most badass way to land a robot on Mars, it also happened on my birthday (in my timezone) and was the very first time I watched something this spectacularly epic happen. My generation missed all the moon landings, so for me, this is it. The coolest thing I've ever got to watch NASA do.

Since her landing, she's found amazing new evidence of water on Mars and even hints of organics. Curiosity is there to look for signs of life, and so far, is beautifully doing exactly what she was built to do. She's a technological achievement like none we've had before, and NASA has already announced that its next rover will be based off of Curiosity's design. This resounding success is not only providing us with amazing science, but has once again sparked the interest and adoration of adults and children in regards to space exploration.

As a science educator, I can't NOT love everything about Curiosity. And with Curiosity already reporting some pretty interesting and surprising discoveries in her first few months, I can't wait to see what she teaches us in 2013.

Happy New Year! And here's to a 2013 filled with even more amazing science!

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