2012 in Science

A sampling of scientific successes this year

Science in the Public Eye

As 2012 draws to a close, it’s been an incredible year in the world of science.  In this column, we’ve discussed the Curiosity mission, how life can evolve from chemical processes, new statistical methods being used in both baseball and politics, new methods to generate energy from microbes, and Native American contributions to science and education.  This makes a small dent in the vast surface of science and engineering discoveries made this year.  In total this year, more than 800,000 science and engineering journal articles are projected to be published, and patent applications are projected to surpass 2.5 million (both the publishing and the patent systems are fraught with problems, but they are a decent metric for total innovation).  While the Curiosity mission and the progress towards discovering the Higgs Boson have received the most publicity of any scientific missions this year, I’d like to give a brief recap of a few less public but incredibly significant contributions to the scientific community.

In early January, IBM achieved an incredible advancement in information storage by reliably storing a single bit in only twelve iron atoms.  For reference, portable terabyte hard drives weigh around .25 kg.  In the same mass, you could fit about two trillion trillion dozen iron atoms, or approximately two trillion times the storage capacity.  They were able to achieve this efficiency by aligning neighboring atoms with opposite magnetic fields, allowing them to be controlled precisely and packed in tightly. Presently this technology requires a scanning tunneling microscope to encode and read data and a temperature near to absolute zero, but it shows promise for future research.  In a completely different area of information storage, Harvard Medical School Professor George M. Church was able to encode an entire book by arranging DNA nucleotides and can now claim to be the author with the most copies (albeit microscopic and self-replicating) of his works in history.

In April, just a few months before the widely-publicized discovery of the Higgs Boson, scientists made another major particle physics discovery by finding a Majorana fermion.  As a vast oversimplification, bosons carry force. The most notable bosons are photons, which carry electromagnetic force, and gluons, which hold nuclei together.  Fermions, on the other hand, include quarks, leptons, and their combinations, notably protons, neutrons, and electrons.  Most bosons and fermions have antiparticles (which make antimatter) that have identical mass but opposite charge to the particle in question.  A Majorana fermion is a special fermion that is an antiparticle to itself, which had been predicted theoretically, but never found experimentally.  A team at Delft University was able to generate a pair of Majorana fermions using a composite structure of indium antimonide, gold, and niobium titanium nitride.  This discovery is significant because Majorana fermions have been predicted to play a role in dark matter, which makes up 84 percent of the universe but is still largely uncharacterized, and could also lead to significant contributions to quantum computing.  While we may never find Ettore Majorana, an Italian Jew who tragically went missing in 1938, the experimental verification of the particle he predicted  may significantly impact the world of physics for years to come.

In August, doctors announced the success of a groundbreaking medical treatment involving two of the most pernicious diseases in modern America, HIV and cancer.  By leveraging the ability of HIV to target T cells, one of the major types of immune cells, the researchers were able to use genes from an attenuated version of HIV cells to reprogram T cells to specifically fight off leukemia.  Since then, more stories of the success of the treatment have come out, and it appears that the treatment is both incredibly effective and has few side effects. I hope to see HIV eradicated within the next decade or two, and it would be a poignant epilogue that what was once a great medical tragedy is now a useful tool to aid us in the fight against other diseases.

Finally, just this Monday, another successful NASA mission reached its conclusion as two satellites, Ebb and Flow, crashed into the moon with a bang. Two years after NASA Ames conclusively demonstrated the existence of water on the moon with another lunar impactor, the team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT launched this mission, called Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL. It has already achieved its mission to completely survey the moon to determine composition, geological evolution, and its gravitational field. The impact was designed as a final experiment to aid in future predictions of fuel requirements and to allow the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to get a better understanding of what lies beneath the lunar surface. The impact craters were dedicated to the late Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, who also led a portion of the mission.

There are many other groundbreaking discoveries each day in the world of science, and the number will continue to rise as more and more of the world gains access to science and technology education. From the tiniest boson to the far reaches of space, our understanding of the universe has made tremendous progress this year, and I can’t wait to see what 2013 has in store for us.

Jack M. Cackler is a Ph.D. candidate in biostatistics.