Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010 was quite a year:Scientific accomplishments

Every year DISCOVER sorts through the scientific accomplishments of the past 12 months, and assembles a list of the coolest experiments, most brilliant discoveries, and most world-changing events. As you page through the countdown to the #1 science story, we think you'll come to the same conclusion we did: 2010 was quite a year.
100. A Portrait of a Violent Star: NASA's new Solar Dynamics Observatory takes ultraviolet images of the sun.
This ultraviolet image of the sun was captured by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched last February to monitor Earth’s temperamental star with unprecedented precision. The purplish aura reveals high-arcing loops of 3.6-million-degree plasma that link sunspots and other magnetic areas on the surface; white lines illustrate computer calculations of how the magnetic areas connect. Occasionally eruptions on the sun are so powerful that they can cripple Earth’s electrical grids and global positioning satellites. SDO’s observations will help scientists understand the mechanism behind these outbursts—research that is particularly important as the sun awakens from its longest slumber in a century

99.Sex Secrets of the Bi-Gender Chicken: These bizarre gynandromorphic birds are bizarre on the cellular level, too.

98. The Roaming Rocks of Death Valley: How do these boulders go wandering?
Large boulders like this one wander across the flat clay surface of Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park in California, leaving long furrows but no hint of what propelled them. Last summer, NASA’s Cynthia Cheung may have discovered their secret: The rocks, some weighing several hundred pounds, probably glide on collars of ice that form around their base. When rain or snowmelt wets the valley, the collars act as flotation devices, Cheung says. The boulders then slide so easily that high winds can send them scooting, improbably and beautifully, across the slick surface..
97. Science Explains Why Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Here's what you learn when you look at the brain scans of people who have been dumped.
96. Male Piperfish Pick Their Litters: The males of this species nurture the fertilized eggs and bear the young, but they seem to play favorites.
95. Rubik's Cube Decoded: What's the maximum number of moves it takes to solve a scrambled cube?
94. Natural Cycle Melts Alpine Glaciers: While human-induced climate change accounts for at least half of the retreat of Alpine glaciers, natural shifts in ocean currents are also to blame.
93. A Green City Rises in the Desert: In Abu Dhabi, an ultragreen city is taking shape.
92. Sharks Use Math to Hunt: These ocean predators know a little something about fractals.
91. Sun-Powered Plane Takes a 24-Hour Flight: The Solar Impulse flew through a day and a night without using a drop of fuel.
90. Slick Materials Could Lead to Super Electronics: Scientists experiment with intriguing materials that shuttle electrons along their surfaces.
89. Chinese Pompeii Unearthed (pictured): Archaeologists find an immaculately preserved village beneath layers of flood sediments.
88. Same-Sex Parents Do No Harm: A long-term study that followed children raised by lesbians finds they score higher on academic tests and have fewer social problems.
87. A Superfast Magnetic Shift: The Earth's poles trade places every few hundred thousand years--and the process may be abrupt.
86. Bowerbirds Use Illusion to Seduce Mates: Learn the interior decorating tricks of the male bowerbird.

85. Robot Skin Can Feel Your Touch: In tests of one electronic skin, the material detects objects as light as a butterfly.

Artificial organs keep us alive, artificial arms build our cars—and soon artificial skin may allow robots or prosthetics to respond to our every touch.
This past year, two independent groups made notable advances in that direction. At the University of California, Berkeley, electrical engineer Ali Javey and his team attached a grid of nanowire transistors to a polyimide film placed atop a layer of rubber. The resulting electronic skin recognizes pokes and prods as changes in electric resistance. Meanwhile, at Stanford University, materials scientist Zhenan Bao and collaborators cut pyramid-shaped holes in an elastic polymer to produce variations in capacitance, the ability to hold an electric charge. In tests, the material could “feel” objects as light as a butterfly.
Beyond robots and artificial limbs, synthetic skin might be used some­day in extremely responsive touch screens or in car devices that alert drivers if their hands slip off the wheel. “It would be nice if the machines we interact with could interact with human beings intelligently,” Bao says.

84. A Better Yardstick for Killer Waves: Researchers are working to predict the exact scale of an oncoming tsunami by determining how much water has been displaced.
83. Mammoth Star Is the Biggest One Ever Seen: How did this heavyweight star get so massive?
82. Scientists Tap the Wisdom of Crowds: Whether you want to establish the structure of proteins or survey galaxies, there's a way to help science.
81. Melting Ice Exposes Ancient Artifacts: The retreat of glaciers around the world pays an unexpected archaeological dividend.
80. Magnets Can Change Your Moral Values: Stimulating subjects' brains with a magnetic field yields some surprising judgment calls.
79. A Stunning Portrait of Saturn's Moons: Titan looms in the background, while Enceladus's jets sparkle in the sun.
78. Good Listeners Get Inside Your Head: How the fMRI brain scans of listeners and storytellers match up.
77. Wired Bees Do Field Research Thanks to this handy transmitter backpack, researchers can track bees' flights and foraging habits.
This orchid bee was one of 16 outfitted with a radio transmitter backpack as part of a study of the insects’ flight habits by ecologists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “We can ask animals how they see their surroundings by observing their movement,” says lead researcher Martin Wikelski. Teams on the ground tracked the pollinators while a helicopter crew provided additional monitoring. The results, published in May, indicate that individual bees typically cover a home area of about 100 acres, but some set off on long-distance flights. One intrepid bee took a three-mile jaunt across the Panama Canal, where it spent a few days before returning home.


76. What Lies Beyond the Visible Edge of the Universe? Astrophysicists detect a mysterious "dark flow" of galaxies towards something beyond the edge of what we can see.
75. Social Life Begins in the Womb: Ultrasound monitoring suggests that twins in utero interact with each other.
74. New Species: Found Today, Lost Tomorrow. These newfound critters are already teetering on the brink of extinction.
73. Interview with Robert Bigelow: The hotel entrepreneur talks about building a private fleet of space taxis.
72. Stone-Age Romeos and Juliets: Did Neanderthals and modern humans find love with each other?
71. Fossil Prints Rewrite History: Ancient tracks in the mud are adding to our understanding of key evolutionary transitions.
70. The Proton Gets Small(er): Do we have more to learn about this much-studied subatomic particle?
69. Is Life's Chemistry Cooking on Titan? A experiment that mimics the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon produces interesting results.
68. Emotions Survive After Memories Vanish: Studying amnesiacs suggest that memories and emotions are stored separately in the brain.
67. Marine Census Completes Its Count: Want to know the estimated number of species in the world's oceans?
66. Synthetic Lung Takes a Breath: This lung-on-a-chip could one day replace animal testing. 65. Animals Survive Without Oxygen: In salty, oxygen-depleted water at the bottom of the Mediterranean, life finds a way.
64. What Color Was This Dinosaur? Researchers recognize color-bearing structures on a dinosaur's fossilized hair-like bristles.
63. Ghost Particles Shakes Physics: Elusive particles known as neutrinos are caught in the act of doing something very strange.
62. Glia: Your Under-Appreciated Brain Cells. They were once considered merely neural scaffolding, but not anymore.
61. Rivers at Risk Worldwide: A new map shows where pollution, dams, and urbanization are jeopardizing the water supply.
60. Fighting Crime With Mathematics: By analyzing crime hot spots, police can better calibrate their response.
59. Are There Active Volcanoes on Venus? (pictured): Our sister planet could be alive and ready to rumble.
58. The 13 Faces of Lyme Disease: Sequencing the genomes of different strains of the Lyme bacterium is providing insight into the disease's baffling range of symptoms.

Lyme disease, the most prevalent tickborne infection in the United States, can vary greatly from one person to the next. The hallmark is said to be a bull’s-eye rash, yet the rash can take other shapes or not appear at all. Some patients suffer nerve damage, others heart block or swollen joints. Almost 20 percent report a flu-like condition marked by myalgia, arthralgia, and fatigue. Intensity veers wildly too: In one patient symptoms may be barely discernible; in another so incapacitating that life is derailed.
Now the reason for this inconsistency is becoming clear. In October a team of scientists published the sequences of the genomes of 13 strains of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. “Different strains have different capacity to cause disease,” explains infectious-diseases physician Benjamin Luft of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “We now have a more complete picture of the pathogen and the genes that may be related to the disease.”,

57. Interview with Hank Greely: The bioethicist speaks out on the promise and peril of personal genome tests.

56. Plastic Antibodies Cure Infected Mice: Can artificial antibodies fight real diseases?
Our immune system cannot always make antibodies —proteins that surround and deactivate pathogens—
quickly enough to neutralize aggressive viruses. Vaccines prime the system to build antibodies before infection, but they can be expensive to develop, slow to produce, or elusive. In March chemists created a promising alternative: a synthetic antibody that can disable a pathogen in a living animal.
Ken Shea and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, 
used melittin, the toxin in bee venom, as the antigen (the substance triggering an immune reaction). Melittin particles hold a positive charge, so Shea created a negatively charged polymer. He added melittin so the polymer particles formed with a molecular imprint of the toxin’s shape. The plastic nanoparticle attracted the toxin and fit it like a cast, neutralizing it.
Shea gave mice a lethal dose of melittin, then injected half the animals with his plastic antibodies. All the unprotected mice died, but almost 60 percent of the treated ones survived. The experiment shows how antibodies might be built quickly in the lab, “a decided advantage if some unknown horrible disease might appear,” Shea says.

55. The First Peek at the Solar System's Edge: A new NASA observatory is staring out at the edge of our home system.
54. Airplanes Pull Snow From the Clouds: How a plane can act like a hole-punch.
53. The Medical Secrets Inside a 2,000-Year-Old Pill: An ancient Greek shipwreck contains a really old medicine chest.
52. Large Hadron Collider Gets Going With a Bang: This year, the LHC started smashing protons together at 99 percent the speed of light.
51. A Computer Rosetta Stone: Researchers find a high-tech way to decipher ancient, forgotten languages.
50. Giant Ancient Fish Fed Like Whales: These filter-feeders thrived for more than 100 million years.
49. Why Swine Flu Fizzled: H1N1 changed as it spread--but we may not have seen the last of it.
48. The Science of Chivalry: Studies of the Titanic and Lusitania shipwrecks shed light on "women and children first."
47. An Early Dawn for Earth's Complex Life: Did multicellular organisms get their start 2.1 billion years ago?46. Do Physical Laws Vary From Place to Place? A surprising finding casts doubt on our understanding of the constants of nature.
45. The Pinkie Pokes Holes in Human Evolution: Even the littlest bone can change the story of human origins.
44. A Prehistoric Moby-Dick: Meet Livyatan Melvillei, a toothy 12-million-year-old sperm whale.
43. Plasma Rivers Explain the Quiet Sun: Researchers have been looking for an explanation for a recent lull in sunspots and flares.
42. X Prize Shows the Easy Path to a 100-MPG Car: It doesn't require wild new technology to reach super-efficiency.
41. Scans Unlock Hidden Life in Vegetative Brains (pictured): A man believed to be in a vegetative state communicates with doctors using only his thoughts.
40. Wild Winds Made Gorgeous Mars Gorges: The ice cap of Mars's north pole was sculpted over millions of years.
39. Microbes Are the Key to a Happy Gut: Each person's unique ecosystem of gut microbes plays a vital role in good health.
38. Sinkhole Eats Guatemala City: Well, it didn't devour the entire city, but it did take down a clothing factory.
37. CIA Doctors Did Forbidden Research: A report states that doctors went too far with prisoners after the 9/11 attacks.
36. Astronomers Catch an Asteroid Smashup: An X-shaped tail provides direct evidence of a space collision.
35. Haitian Quake Signals Future Shocks: Is the Caribbean in for more serious shakes?
34. Our Jumbled Ancestor With a braincase and limb bones that don't look like they're from the same species, this fossil poses an evolutionary riddle
When paleoanthropologist Lee Berger unearthed a fossil near Johannesburg, South Africa, it seemed to be a jumble of parts: a braincase similar in size to that of an Australopithecus africanus, a Homo erectus pelvis, and the arms of a Miocene ape. But in April Berger announced that they all belonged to the same skeleton, that of a 12-year-old boy who lived 1.9 million years ago. The boy, called Karabo, may represent a bridge species between our Homo genus and its Australopithecus ancestor.

Berger thinks Karabo and an adult female found nearby represent a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba, that may have been the first to walk upright the way modern humans do. A. sediba had long, apelike arms; a braincase one-third the size of a modern human’s; and a modern-looking pelvis that suggests it was a better upright walker than previous australopithecines.

Others contend the two are not human ancestors at all because they appeared around 400,000 years after the first evidence of H. habilis, the earliest in the Homo line. “Sediba is too late to sit on the lineage,” says paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley. Berger counters that the only fossils that can be definitively classified as H. habilis showed up after A. sediba. “Australopithecus sediba is the best candidate for a transitional species,” he argues. “It’s more advanced than Homo habilis, which appears later. It probably means Homo habilis is not really an ancestor of anything.”

33. Science Saves the Chilean Miners: The dramatic rescue was a triumph of engineering and psychology.
32. Sleep Switch Found in the Brain: The chemical trigger that lets us nod off may not work on the whole brain at once.
31. Autism: One Label, Many Diseases. A study of more than 1,000 autistic children reveals daunting diversity in their genetic variations.
30. Ocean Plant Life Feels the Heat: The ocean's vital phytoplankton are in the midst of a long decline.
29. "Ardi" Continues to Shake the Human Family Tree: This fossil female created a huge stir when discovered, but some scientists question its significance to human evolution.
28. The Incredible Shrinking Moon: Researchers find signs of a lunar lessening.
27. Egg Recall Rattles the Food Supply: After 500 million eggs are recalled, what happens next?
26. How Matter Defeated Antimatter The Tevatron particle smasher offers hints on the universe's beneficial bias towards matter.
25. Interview with Steven Chu: Our Secretary of Energy speaks up on getting to a green-energy future.
24. Space Ship Sails on a Breeze of Sunshine: The first journey of a solar sail spacecraft is a success!
23. Comets Are Interstellar Visitors: The solar system's Oort cloud, where comets are born, may be full of immigrants from other stars.
22. Hair DNA Documents a Forgotten Migration: You can learn a lot from 4,000-year-old hair.
21. MRI Scans Track Brain Development: In six minutes, a scan can reveal if a child's brain is developing normally.
20. AIDS Virus Has an Ancient History (pictured): SIV, the virus that spawned HIV, was present in primates for at least 32,000 years.
19. Ocean Ooze Teems With Life: Do bacteria in the ocean floor's muck have a relay system to get the oxygen they need?
18. Helper Gene Makes Cancer Deadly: Researchers idenify a gene they dub "Mahjong" that determine whether cancerous cells get the upper hand.
17. New Hope for the World's Forests: Here's some good news: in the last decade, forest loss has slowed worldwide.
16. Google Whacked by Hack Attack: All signs point to China as the source of a malicious hack.
15. A Universal Vaccine Could Eliminate Flu: By targeting a protein found on the surface of all flu virus strains, an experimental vaccine could take the guesswork out of flu prevention.
14. Super-Material Gets Supersized: If engineers can produce sheets of graphene (made up of a single layer of atoms), what will they do with it?
13. Bats Devastated by Deadly Plague: White-nose fungus is wiping out bat colonies around the United States--and scientists don't know how to stop it.
12. Brain Map Shows You Think Like a Worm: Your cerebral cortex isn't so different from the clump of neurons in a marine ragworm.
11. Interview with Geoff Marcy: The astronomer is leading the hunt for Earth-sized, life-friendly exoplanets.
10. Early Diagnosis for Alzheimer's: If we can detect the disease early, maybe we can treat it more effectively.
9. The World's First Cyberweapon: The Stuxnet worm is the first cyberweapon to cause damage in the physical world--and Iran's nuclear facilities may have been its target.
8. Obesity Reaches Epic Proportions: With U.S. obesity rates still rising, public health officials and pharmaceutical companies are searching for new ways to prevent or treat the epidemic.
7. The Map of Everything: Astronomers use the new Planck space telescope to make a map of the entire infant universe.
6. Attack of the Bedbugs! These nastly little biters are now infesting movie theaters, department stores, and motels.
5. Family Genomics Links DNA to Disease: Thanks to cheaper genome sequencing, researchers can compare family members' genomes to find disease-causing mutations.
A decade ago, sequencing the dna in a person’s entire genome cost up to $1 billion, a price so prohibitive that only a few genetics pioneers had the honor of having it done. In 2010 the cost per genome tumbled to less than $10,000, making it possible to study dna variations within a single family. Almost immediately such familial genome sequencing proved its value, uncovering mutations responsible for diseases caused by defects in a single gene. “There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of diseases falling into this category. This approach will allow us to very quickly find the genetic culprit,” says Leroy Hood, a geneticist at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.
Earlier efforts to hunt 
down disease-causing genes—so-called genomewide association studies—frequently came up empty-handed because medical researchers had to take cost-saving shortcuts. Instead of trolling an individual’s entire genome, they limited their search to dna regions where variations are most often seen across large populations. “It was assumed that common variants might be responsible for common diseases, but many diseases turn out to have many different rare variants at their root,” says James Lupski, a medical geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “That’s why the power of whole-genome sequencing blows us away. It’s the only way we can get at these rare variants”...

4. Climate Science's Big Chill: Climate change scientists spend the year on the defensive, and climate policy stalls.
3. Interview with E.O. Wilson: The evolutionary scholar is overturning his own trailblazing theories.
2. The World's First Synthetic Organism: Craig Venter hopes to one day fashion designer organisms that can produce drugs or churn out biofuel.

1. 4.4 Million Barrels Later The Deepwater Horizon disaster gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 86 days. What are the consequences for our energy supply?

The massive gush of oil that started on April 20 and ran for 86 days was a disaster, obviously, but it was also a grimly informative experiment. In its wake we are learning all kinds of lessons about deep-drilling technology, about the environment and ecology of the Gulf of Mexico, and about the future direction of our energy supply.
It may be hard to appreciate now, but 2010 started as a banner year for oil. The world’s energy giants were on the move, dispatching their sharpest petroleum engineers, sophisticated seismic probes, and huge rigs to some of the most forbidding places on the planet, from the Gulf of Mexico to Greenland. Corporate boardrooms gushed with confidence. “BP operates at the frontiers of the energy industry,” the company announced in its 2009 annual report. “We are exceptionally well placed to sustain our success in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico over the long term.”
The economic message from all of this exploration still holds true: The world is not running out of oil—it is running out of easy oil. By using the new technology, remote stashes of oil long dismissed as too difficult or expensive to plumb (in the 30- to 65-million-year-oldLower Tertiary crust below the Gulf, or in the even more ancient Cretaceous sedimentary rocks off the coasts of Ghana and Brazil) are within reach. Innovative prospecting techniques like three-dimensional sonar, which emits sound waves from multiple angles, help discovery crews see through opaque and shifting layers of geological salt to pinpoint oil hidden four miles or more beneath the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic coasts of South America and Africa. Ultra-strong flexible pipes, remote flow-control valves, and vibration-resistant drill rigs can protect the prospecting equipment against corrosion, thermal shock, and crushing water pressure at the ocean floor.
The environmental message of the worst offshore oil spill on record (4.4 million barrels) is less clear and still unfolding...

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