Once again, it's time to close the book on science in 2011 and decide exactly how the year that was factors into humanity's attempt to understand how the cosmos works.
Imagine science as a lantern in a dark study full of bookshelves and curio cases. With each passing year, we manage to make the flame a bit brighter. Each time, we get a little better at cataloging the objects in the study, the relationships between them and the dimensions of the room itself. Of course, new puzzles emerge as well: strange shadows on the walls and misread titles on the spines of dusty tomes. Science never fully reveals the universe that envelops us, but it explains it a little better every year.
The scientists of 2011 didn't discover life on another planet. They didn't create a cure for death or craft a machine capable of human love. But they moved a little closer to each of these incredible realities. Here's how.
Every so often, a new scientific discovery utterly changes the way we think about the universe. These moments rewrite the rules, such as Galileo's 1610 discovery that other planets had moons -- and, subsequently, that Earth wasn't the center of all orbits. Such game-changing moments are rare, but you'd better believe they grab the headlines.
On Sept. 22, just such a story emerged from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). An international team of researchers on the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Racking Apparatus (OPERA) experiment claimed to have witnessed something impossible: neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light.
The OPERA team reported that the neutrinos were zipping along 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light (with a 10-nanosecond margin of error), but that's still enough to violate Einstein's special theory of relativity. If true, their measurements would overturn the so-called universal speed limit and alter the way we understand mass and energy in the universe.
For now, however, modern physics is safe. The scientific jury is still out on faster-than-light neutrinos as other experts in the field of particle physics take a close, skeptical look at the data and conduct their own independent experiments. Scientists from the United States, Japan and Europe plan to publish their own findings in the months ahead.
If the OPERA results prove false, then it was still one of the more memorable moments in science for 2011. If the results prove true, however, then it represents one of the biggest scientific moments in the past century.
Don't get too excited, because you'll still have to commute to work in the morning rather than pile into a handy telepod, but in 2011 Japanese and Australian researchers successfully demonstrated quantum teleportation on light waves.
Led by researchers at the University of Tokyo, the team took a nugget of quantum information, in the form of light, and manipulated it into a quantum superposition so that it existed in two states at the same time. Like Schrödinger's cat, which is simultaneously alive and dead in the famous thought experiment, the superpositioned light exists in two states at once. The scientists were able to exploit this to destroy the light in one location and recreate it in another.
The idea itself isn't new. Physicist Charles Bennett and a team of researchers at IBM confirmed the possibility back in 1993. Subsequent experiments proved quantum teleportation was possible, but now it exists firmly in the realm of science fact. As superposition underlies the power of quantum computing, scientists hope the technology will lead to even faster quantum computers.
The artificially intelligent among us have already proven themselves superior at everything from chess to simple spelling. So why should it matter that a supercomputer rules at playing the TV game show "Jeopardy!"?
Of course, that's just what happened in 2011. IBM's Watson supercomputer defeated human adversaries in one practice round and two televised matches of the popular quiz show. The machine even took down the legendary Ken Jennings, who seemed quite a trivia machine himself when he won a record 74 games in a row.
Far from a mere publicity stunt however, the Watson victory was a stunning exhibition of both question-answering AI and a machine navigating a human world. Computers that answer casually phrased human questions have existed in science fiction for ages, but the science is deceptively complex. Watson represents one of the first real technological landmarks in the field, and while its question-answering skills are imperfect, they point to a future full of verbal robot/human interaction.
As for navigating the human world, "Jeopardy!" is hardly a bustling city street, but it is a human environment -- and one that this robot managed to master just fine. For robots to change the way we live our lives, they have to emerge from the laboratories and factories. Watson has done just that.
You're familiar with Goldilocks and the three bears, right? One bowl of porridge was too hot to eat, one was too cold but a third bowl was just right. Astrobiologists and planetary scientists have a particular fondness for this tale, as it underlines the Goldilocks principle, which states that habitable planets must exist within a certain orbit in order to potentially sustain life.
For the most part, NASA's quest to chart observable exoplanets has played out like Goldilock's adventures in the house of the three bears. Only instead of encountering two bowls of unacceptable porridge, NASA has cataloged hundreds. The agency has found systems where Earth-like planets burn in the fires of a close orbit or drift frozen in distant exile. If liquid water can't exist there, it's a no-go for this thing called life. Some suns are too old and large, others too weak. Scientists have even discovered rogue planets that drift like masterless samurai through the Milky Way.
But 2011 was the year NASA finally found a bowl of reasonable planetary porridge. On Dec. 5, NASA announced that its Kepler mission had discovered Kepler-22b, the first discovered planet in the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. At 2.4 times the radius of Earth, this small exoplanet resides 600 light-years away from us. Keppler-22b's actual contents remain a mystery for the time being, but the exoplanet puts NASA one step closer to finding another world that feels like home.
The Kepler mission hunts for exoplanets by analyzing the brightness dip in stars when planets cross their path. In 2011, the mission also unearthed Kepler-16b, which orbits two stars, and Kepler-10b, the smallest planet ever discovered outside our own solar neighborhood.
When it comes to the history of space exploration, 2011 will forever be remembered as the year NASA's space shuttle program ended after three decades. What began on April 12, 1981, with the launch of Columbia, ended on July 21 as Atlantis touched down at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
The final space shuttle mission stirred a great deal of nostalgia among both space enthusiasts and the mainstream public, but it also raised concerns about the future of manned space exploration. Amid tightening budgets, NASA scrapped plans to return to the moon and canceled the Constellation Program to develop the space shuttle's successor.
The Space Launch System is in the works, but don't expect to see any actual manned U.S. spacecraft until at least 2019 [source: Boyle]. Until then, NASA's human space exploration will have to depend on chartered flights from the Russian Federal Space Agency and private spaceflight companies such as Virgin Galactic.
Remember that time you nearly killed your sibling, friend or loved one during an exceptionally long car ride? You may blame cramped conditions, gridlocked traffic or hunger-driven crankiness, but we all know what was up: space madness, pure and simple. You've seen it in science fiction, and it's a very real concern for proponents of manned space travel.
Recall that outer space is big and that it takes quite a while to get anywhere with current or even near-future technology. That's why the European Space Agency loaded six male volunteers inside a cramped, wood-paneled mock spaceship and kept the door shut for 520 days. The hatch closed on June 3, 2010, and didn't open until Nov. 4, 2011.
During that time, the Mars500 crew members conducted experiments to gauge their psychological state during the isolation, enduring bland food and what few amenities fit in their 19,400-cubic-foot (550-cubic-meter) chambers.
The experiment was a landmark in humanity's continued ramp-up to a manned visit to the red planet. Researchers thoroughly examined the crew members upon their emergence to gauge exactly how well their bodies and minds held up during the isolation.
Imagine a future in which doctors develop replacement body parts by growing the patient's own stem cells over a polymer scaffolding. Amazingly enough, that future is now. In fact, Stockholm-based surgeon Paolo Macchiarini performed the feat twice in 2011.
Macchiarini had previously made the headlines by performing a similar procedure in 2008, except in that case he grew the transplant recipient's cells over a ghost trachea, a donor trachea chemically stripped of its cells. This time around, however, he used a synthetic polymer scaffold -- a windpipe-shaped framework for the patient's stem cells to grow over. Macchiarini implanted the first of these artificial tracheas in a 12-hour procedure in June and a second one in November. Both surgeries were successful.
Not only does this tissue-engineering technology remove the necessity for donor tissues, but it also saves the recipient a lifetime's worth of medications to suppress the immune system and prevent transplant rejection. After all, the organ consists of the patient's own cells. In the future, scientists hope to grow even more complex organs, ushering in a new age of regenerative medicine.
Some of the more amazing possibilities in medical science hinge on the use of human stem cells. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of cell in the human body -- bone, brain, you name it -- while adult stem cells are more limited. Both types provide us with the means to regenerate damaged tissue and even grow custom donor organs.
Our abilities to harness this technology advanced significantly in 2011 when researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory reprogrammed an adult human egg cell to an embryonic state, which then created a self-reproducing line of embryonic stem cells.
The researchers used a cloning technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer to achieve their goal, taking the nucleus and its genetic material from an adult skin cell and transferring it into the egg. The resulting stem cells weren't true clones (they contained chromosomes from both the egg and the skin cells), so the technology isn't ready for therapeutic use. However, researchers hope that these findings will pave the way to an alternative source for embryonic stem cells.
The human mind remains a bundle of mysteries, but science continues to unravel it at a startling pace. The Blue Brain Project, for instance, aims to create a virtual model of a working human brain by 2020. We're not quite there yet, but in 2011 researchers at the University of Pittsburgh did manage to create an artificial microbrain, derived from rat brain cells. Composed of a scant 40 to 60 neurons, it was capable of 12 seconds of short-term memory.
The researchers pulled off this amazing feat by adding brain cells from embryonic rats to a silicon disk coated in proteins. The cells clung to the proteins and grew together into a solid ring. When stimulated with electricity, the neurons in the microbrain carried the pulse for 12 seconds -- essentially "remembering" the stimulus.
The next stop, however, isn't to place the microbrain in an artificial rat. The researchers plan to use their creation to study the transmission of electrical signals in the brain and better understand the inner workings of human memory.
What if someone could peek inside your mind and see what you're thinking? We've all thought about it before: the wonders of telepathic communication and the horrors of watching the last bastion of human privacy being eroded. Neuroscientists have forecast the realization of this dream/nightmare for decades, and now we're closer than ever to breaching the fortress of the human mind.
On Sept. 22, 2011, the journal "Current Biology" published a University of California, Berkeley, study in which scientists analyzed brain activity to gain a blurry but accurate insight into the human visual experience. They showed test subjects YouTube clips as they scanned the subjects' brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. These devices measure the flow of blood in the brain, which corresponds with neural activity. The scientists were able to take the resulting fMRI data, decode it in a computer model and assemble a visual interpretation of the random movies the subjects next watched.
The researchers hope to use this development to improve our understanding of how the brain works, as well as the link between reality and the mind.
Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about what happened in 2011.
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More Great Links
- Boyle, Alan. "NASA revises its spaceship plans." MSNBC. Dec. 15, 2011. (Dec. 16, 2011) http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/15/9471717-nasa-revises-its-spaceship-plans
- Boyle, Rebecca. "Researchers Succeed in Quantum Teleportation of Light Waves." Popular Science. April 15, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-04/quantum-teleportation-breakthrough-could-lead-instantanous-computing
- Cyranoski, David. "Cloned human embryo makes working stem cells." Nature. Oct. 5, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111005/full/news.2011.578.html
- Danigelis, Alyssa. "Now Showing: Movie Clips From Your Mind." Discovery News. Sept 22, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/tech/mind-reading-movie-clips-110922.html
- Darma, Stanley. "World's First Artificial Trachea Transplant Patient Gets Successor." MedGadget. Nov. 30, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://medgadget.com/2011/11/world%E2%80%99s-first-artificial-trachea-transplant-patient-gets-successor.html
- European Space Agency (ESA). "Mars 500." (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Mars500/
- Gallagher, James."Human 'cloning' makes embryonic stem cells." BBC News. Oct. 5, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15181015
- Halverson, Nic. "Petri Dish Brain Has 'Short-term Memory.'" Discovery News. Jun. 2, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/tech/petri-dish-brain-has-short-term-memory-110602.html
- Holm, Karl. "Scientists Teleport Light." Discovery News. April 18, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/tech/teleport-light-experiment-110418.html
- "Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking." Discovery Channel. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/stephen-hawking/
- Johnson, Michele and Trent J. Perrotto. "NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone of Sun-like Star." NASA. Dec. 5, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/releases/2011/11-99AR.html
- Knox, Richard. "Cancer Patient Gets First Totally Artificial Windpipe." NPR. July 20, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/07/20/137701848/cancer-patient-gets-first-totally-artificial-windpipe
- Markoff, John. "Computer Wins on 'Jeopardy!': Trivial, It's Not." The New York Times. Feb 16, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/science/17jeopardy-watson.html?pagewanted=all
- Mulroy, James. "Mars500 Crew 'Lands' After 520-Day Simulated Mission To Mars." PC World. Nov. 4, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.pcworld.com/article/243244/mars500_crew_lands_after_520day_simulated_mission_to_mars.html
- Palmer, Jason. "Faster-than-light neutrino result queried." BBC News. Nov. 21, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15830844
- Polo, Susan. "Your Prescribed Dose of Neil DeGrasse Tyson." May 1, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.geekosystem.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-hostile-aliens/
- Reuters. "Particles recorded moving faster than light - CERN." Sept. 22, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/22/science-light-idUSL5E7KM3UU20110922