1. Rated the top scientific achievement of the year by Science, the observation of the Higgs boson during experiments conducted in the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland completed the standard model of particle physics. With reserved optimism, Rolf-Dieter Heuer and the scientists of CERN announced their discovery on July Fourth, careful to note that they had only a 5 sigma level of certainty until further testing could be done (because a one in 3.5 million chance that they had not actually observed the sought-after, mass-creating particle is not convincing enough for the average person).
2. The world watched in suspense on August 5th as NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity rover landed successfully on the surface of Mars via a rocket-powered sky crane. The unprecedented safe landing has since paid off for Adam Steltzner and his team as Curiosity has already discovered sites where water once flowed on Mars and the presence of simple organic molecules that are at the core of life on Earth.
3. With the development of a robotic arm controlled by a brain implant which translates the firing of neurons in the brain into computer code, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have revolutionized the field of robotics. This novel brain-machine interface was implanted into a 52-year old woman paralyzed from the neck down, and allowed her to successfully control the limb using natural thought processes to complete tasks such as picking up objects and putting them down in another location in a fluid motion.
4. Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA, was unfortunately proven right this year as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in accordance with a report she had written in the year 2000 for the U.S. Global Change Research Program which predicted the rise of such cataclysmic meteorological events with the progression of climate change. This report was used in efforts to prepare New York City for foreseen affects of climate change, and Rosenzweig and her team are currently assessing to see whether these measures helped minimize the affects of the storm.
5. After the release of several studies showing that an overwhelmingly large proportion of major scientific discoveries published in recent years have not been able to be reproduced, Elizabeth Iorns and her colleagues launched the Reproducibility Initiative, a nonprofit which seeks to encourage scientists to have their findings reproduced by independent laboratories. This initiative hopes to rectify the problem of unreliable findings by rewarding scientists for validating their research before publication.
6. A paper published by Jo Handelsman of Yale University showed that bias against women is still pervasive in scientific fields. The study’s methodology was purposely kept simple: professors of biology, chemistry, and physics at six major universities were asked to evaluate an application from a recent graduate seeking a position as a laboratory manager. All participants received the same summary of qualifications for the mythical applicant, who was named John on half of the applications and Jennifer on the other half. The differing reactions of the faculty are astonishing and seem to have discouraging implications for women pursuing careers in science:
“On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being highest, professors gave John an average score of 4 for competence and Jennifer 3.3. John was also seen more favorably as someone they might hire for their laboratories or would be willing to mentor. The average starting salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. To John it was $30,328.”
7. Virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam sparked international controversy when he made an extremely lethal strain of the H5N1 bird flu airborne by introducing only four genetic modifications. After lengthy debate concerning the ethics of such research which aims to create deadly viruses and the subsequent publication of results which could be exploited for bio-terrorism, Fouchier and his colleagues published their study in Nature only after key methodological details had been removed.
8. Italy drew international outrage after convicting six Italian scientists and government official Bernardo De Bernardinis of manslaughter for understating the danger of a 2009 earthquake which killed 309 people in L’Aquila. While many spoke out against holding scientists responsible for seismologic events which cannot be predicted with any level of accuracy, De Bernadinis accepted his verdict gracefully and warned that the situation demonstrated a need for better methods of determining and communicating risk to help prevent casualties, both in Italy and across the globe.
So there you have it, a run-down of 2012’s most notable moments in science. Here’s hoping that the Mayans were wrong and we live to see a year of many more revolutionary advancements in science.