A series of giant science leaps

MICHAEL DALY
Last updated 08:35 21/12/2012
Felix Baumgartner
Red Bull
HIGH ACHIEVEMENT: Felix Baumgartner moments before he leaps from the edge of space, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier in a skydive.
Peter Higgs
DAVID MOIR/ Reuters
PIONEER: Professor Peter Higgs first hypothesised the 'God particle' in the 1970s, it was discovered this year.
Large Hadron Collider LHC
Reuters
OF THIS WORLD: The Super Proton Synchrotron at the Cern particle research centre in Geneva was the machine used to smash particles together to discover the Higgs boson.

Nasa Mars Curiosity Landing

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A buggy is lowered on to an alien world from a kind of flying crane, scientists announce they think they have found a long-sought fundamental particle, an Austrian adventurer freefalls for 39km, and hopes are raised that a cure for baldness may not be too far off.

These were some of the scientific developments of 2012, as researchers continued to push the boundaries of human knowledge and capabilities.

While some achievements were accompanied by worldwide fanfare, most were just business as usual advances across the range of human endeavours.

More planets were discovered outside our solar system, the push to keep people healthier longer continued, the hunt went on for faster and smaller computers, more stunning electronics, and longer lasting batteries, while 3D printing was fast gaining traction.

Along with the capacity to amaze, many scientists also published research about the impact humans are having on the climate in the year when Arctic sea ice reached the lowest extent recorded by satellite.

Who knows which of the discoveries and developments of 2012 will turn out to have the biggest impact? But here is a list of achievements that pass a kind of perk up and take notice test.

IN THE BEGINNING

In early July scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva told the world what they found when they crashed together two opposing beams of protons moving at almost the speed of light in the 27km circumference large hadron collider.

They had seen results consistent with a subatomic particle known as a Higgs boson, famously called the "God particle".

The particle is essential to the standard model of physics, the generally accepted theory about how the universe works, and its apparent discovery was widely considered to have made 2012 a landmark year for science. It can explain why some particles have mass, but why others, such as photons of light, do not.

The theory is that Higgs particles permeate the universe, creating an invisible energy field that causes other particles of matter to have mass, allowing matter to coalesce into larger objects such as molecules, stars and planets.

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INTER-PLANETARY PRECISION

While the scientists at Cern were working on the incredibly tiny, their counterparts at Nasa had minutes of excruciating tension as they took humanity's next step into the vastness of the universe.

In early August the spacecraft carrying the agency's new mobile laboratory reached Mars.

The $US2.5 billion car-sized Curiosity rover was sent to determine if the red planet could ever have hosted microbial life.

During the critical seven-minute landing period,  the spacecraft carrying Curiosity had to decelerate from about 5900 metres per second to three-fourths of a metre per second in what one official called "the hardest Nasa mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration".

For the landing to succeed hundreds of things had to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft.

Previously Mars rovers were landed cushioned inside airbags, but Curiosity was too big for that and would have shredded the bags.

Instead, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity was slowed by a combination of atmospheric friction, parachute, and retrorockets.

A "sky crane" descent stage used thrusters to hover as it lowered the rover to the surface in a bridle of nylon tethers.

Once landed, the rover with its 10 science instruments started a two year investigation which involves using a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out those samples into analytical laboratory instruments.

FASTER ON ALL FOURS

Another robot to attract attention during the year was the four-legged bot called Cheetah, which can now run faster than the speediest man.

Being developed by company Boston Dynamics for the US military's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Cheetah is being designed for speed and agility, able to "chase and evade".

In September, Boston Dynamics released a video showing the bot running on a treadmill at 45.5kmh. That is a land speed record for legged robots and  quicker than the fastest person ever, Usain Bolt, who has managed 44.7kmh.

Designers hope Cheetah will reach speeds of 113kmh, about the same or slightly faster than a real cheetah's top speed. In 2013 they plan to unveil WildCat, a "free running outdoor Cheetah robot".

Explaining the theory behind Cheetah, Darpa said that while most rough-terrain robots used wheels or tracks to ride over bumps, the most difficult terrain needed the use of legs, which could step over both high obstacles and deep ditches.

HOT STUFF

Another record set in 2012 was that of the hottest temperature ever created by humans, a mind blowing five trillion degrees Celsius.

The honours went to Cern's  large hadron collider, again,  when a team created an almost frictionless quark-gluon plasma of the type that existed in the first instant after the Big Bang that created the universe.

The Cern team reported in August the temperature was reached when lead ions were smashed together, as part of research into what caused the primordial soup of the early universe to evolve into the protons and neutrons that make up matter now.

Quarks are elementary particles from which all other particles are made. They normally bind together tightly and are virtually never observed in isolation. The binding force that holds them together is provided by massless particles called gluons.

The Cern research took the temperature record away from the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US where gold ions had been smashed together to form a quark-gluon plasma in a 3.9km long ring called the relativistic heavy ion collider.

A team at Brookhaven had announced in June its experiment reached a temperature of 4 trillion degrees Celsius.

BREAKING BARRIERS

An extreme of another sort was reached in October when Austrian Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old former military parachutist,  became the first skydiver to go faster than the speed of sound in the skies above New Mexico.

In a jump that was planned over seven years, Beaumgartner was  lifted to the leaping off point 39km above sea level in a purpose-built capsule towed by an enormous helium balloon.

For the descent he wore a full pressure suit made by the same company that prepares the flight suits of astronauts.

The jump took nine minutes and three seconds, including freefall time of four minutes and 20 seconds, with a freefall distance of 36.5km. Beaumgartner broke the record for the highest ever freefall and reached a maximum velocity of 1342kmh, or Mach 1.24.

Early in the dive there had been concern that Beaumgartner was in trouble as he tumbled over and over, rather than getting into the delta position - head down, arms swept back - as he was supposed to. But using the experience gained in more than 2500 career dives he was able to correct his fall and get into a stable configuration.

ONCE, OR MAYBE TWICE, IN A LIFETIME

Much higher in the sky, Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun in June, the last such transit until 2117.

Transits of Venus have an unusual pattern, happening in pairs eight years apart, followed by a gap of more than 100 years.

There was one in 2004, but it was not visible from New Zealand, with the transit before that in 1882.

It was cloudy over much of the country for this year's transit, but breaks in the cover enabled many enthusiasts to see the spectacle - eyes suitably protected - during the 10.15am to 4.43pm period when Venus moved across the face of the Sun.

Scientists have studied transits for centuries. Among dozens of explorers  sent across the world for the 1769 event was James Cook who noted the transit in Tahiti before pushing further south to visit New Zealand for the first time.

This year's transit was used as an opportunity for around 250 New Zealanders, many leaders in their fields, to get together for a forum in Gisborne and Tolaga Bay. They talked about how this country could better use science to advance economically, environmentally and socially.

IN MACHINES WE TRUST

Coming back to Earth, the somewhat scary idea that cars will be able to operate without drivers took a big step forward in 2012.

In May, a European Commission-funded project announced that for the first time a "road train" - a lead truck  with a driver controlling a convoy of following vehicles - had driven among other road users.

In this case, on a motorway outside Barcelona, the lead truck had been followed by another truck and three Volvo cars.

The Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project said the vehicles in the road train drove at 85kmh, with gaps of just six metres between them.

As well as enabling drivers to make better use of their time, road trains were said to be safer, reduced environmental impact as vehicles travelling close to each other benefited from lower air drag, and used the road more efficiently with improved traffic flow and reduced speed variations.

Vehicles in the road train used features such as cameras, radar and laser sensors to monitor the lead truck and other nearby vehicles.

Wireless communication enabled the vehicles to mimic the lead truck - accelerating, braking and turning in exactly the same way as the leader.

Most major automobile makers are working on self-driving systems of one form or another.

A growing consensus among transportation experts expects self-driving cars to come sooner rather than later.

CRIPPLING CANCER

On the medical front, progress is being ground out across a wide front, and it can be hard for the layperson to identify the moments of greatest significance.

One achievement announced towards the end of the year packed an emotional wallop, along with some arresting science.

American girl Emma Whitehead, then aged six, had been near death earlier this year from leukemia which her doctors had run out of options to cure.

Her parents sought an experimental treatment that involved using a disabled form of the AIDS-causing HIV virus, to reprogramme Emma's immune system genetically to kill cancer.

In the treatment, doctors remove millions of a patient's T-cells - a type of white blood cell - and insert new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. A disabled form of HIV is used because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells.

The new genes programme the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia. The altered T-cells are then dripped back into the patient.

The treatment nearly killed Emma, but she emerged free from cancer, remaining in complete remission seven months later.

She was the first child and one of the first people ever whose own immune system was given, using new techniques, the lasting ability to fight cancer.

A WARMING COOLER

Amid the excitement, the fun and the new hope, some scientists are sounding more like harbingers of doom as concerns about climate change grow.

A major focus in 2012 was the extent of Arctic sea ice, which reached its lowest level in the satellite record in September, shrinking to 3.4 million sqkm. That was 18 per cent smaller than the previous record and nearly 50 per cent smaller than the average between 1979 and 2000.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the sea ice shrinkage was one of several record-setting melting events in the Arctic in 2012.

They happened even though, with a few limited exceptions, it was an unremarkable year in the Arctic for surface air temperature - a primary driver of melting.

Other records included terrestrial snow extent, melting at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, and permafrost temperature.

Large changes in multiple indicators provided strong evidence of the momentum that had developed in the Arctic environmental system, due to the impact of a persistent warming trend that started more than 30 years ago, NOAA said.

A major source of the momentum was the replacement of bright, white surfaces that reflected summer sunlight, with darker surfaces such as ocean and land, which absorbed sunlight.

HAIR COVER UP

If that causes people to worry so much their hair falls out, help may be at hand. It was reported in August that a hair lotion that cured baldness could be on the market within two years.

Hopes were raised after scientists in the United States studied the balding and non-balding areas of men's scalps. Detailed genetic analysis of cells pinpointed the molecule, Prostaglandin D2 (PGD2), as being found at higher levels in men's bald scalps.

Dr George Cotsarelis, head of dermatology at Pennsylvania University, said the findings could  lead researchers to a treatment that could suppress PGD2 and the genes that make it, to stop or even reverse hair loss.

The fact drugs are already available that reduce levels of PGD2, which is implicated in asthma, increases the possibility for speedy development of a product for baldness.

Cotsarelis has been talking to several drug firms about creating the anti-baldness product.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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