January 1, 2013

Big Moments in Science 2012

by Christine Hoekenga

Well, it’s that time of year again: time to look back and reflect on everything that transpired during our latest trip around the sun.  In 2012, there were plenty of moments (or in some cases extended sagas) in science worth remembering–whether for their sense of triumph and discovery or for the, sometimes painful, lessons we can learn from them.  Here are a few of our top picks for last year’s most noteworthy science news. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so please chime in:
Which science moments or milestones will you remember from 2012?

Hyperdermic Needle

Image courtesy: Doug Wheller (Flickr CC)

Dangerous Medicine
OK, let’s start with the bad news first. In September, three large batches of Methylprednisolone Acetate–an injectable steroid used to treat chronic pain–were recalled after being linked to an unprecedented outbreak of fungal meningitis and a small number of strokes. Testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the drug was contaminated with Exserohilum rostratum, a common mold, which under normal circumstances rarely causes infection in humans. Doctors and public health officials have been scrambling to stop the outbreak and treat affected patients, but as of Dec. 28th, 656 cases have been reported in 19 states and 39 have resulted in death.  Since fungal infections can take a several weeks to appear, public health officials and doctors are still on the look-out for new cases new year.

Climate Challenges
This year was also fraught with extreme whether events. Summer saw a historic heatwave, that killed 18 and shattered record highs in St. Louis and other Midwestern locals. In October, “superstorm” Sandy unleashed her wrath on the East Coast of the U.S., killing more than 100 people and leaving a trail of destruction that will take years to repair. Some researchers and news outlets linked such events to climate change directly.  Others were more measured, saying that whether or not they are directly connected to climate change, these extreme events–made worse by rising sea levels–are the type of thing we can expect more of as climate change continues. In September, researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center also reported that the extent of Arctic sea ice coverage had reached a new record low. They attribute the decline in the ice’s thickness and extent over the past several decades to global climate change.

Feathers Ruffled Over Bird Flu Research
The scientific community also saw it’s fair share of controversy in 2012. The year started off with a searing debate over the fate of two scientific papers that were held up from publication (in the high-profile journals Science and Nature) when the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that they stop the presses.  The board called for the journals to censor the studies by removing the methodology and other details that would allow replication of the research described.  Both papers described new experiments testing whether avian flu (the virus called H5N1 that is normally only contagious among birds) could be mutated in a lab to create a form contagious among mammals.  The research community established a self-imposed moratorium on similar research and spent countless hours considering and debating whether the papers should be published–and the potential consequences of the entire line of research. The papers went to press in June, but a partial moratorium on further research–and many questions about how to balance public health benefits with biosecurity risks in research–remain as we enter 2013.

Grand Canyon with Snow

Image courtesy: Grand Canyon National Park

Chasm Divides Scientists over Age of Grand Canyon
Another debate that had been quietly simmering in the scientific community raged into the headlines this year: just how old is the Grand Canyon?  The prevailing view among geologists holds that the canyon was formed by erosion from Colorado River about 6 million years ago.  But a study published last fall in Science suggested that the western portion of the canyon is about 70 million years old. The “old canyon” theory is not entirely new, but it received renewed attention–and scoffing–in 2012 when the study came out.  The authors of the paper reached their conclusion using a technique called thermochronology, which is somewhat similar to carbon-14 dating used in archeology.  Reconstructing a thermal record of minerals beneath the canyon’s floor allowed the researchers to extrapolate how much time had passed since erosion had brought those minerals closer to the Earth’s surface, allowing them to cool. The study met with some harsh criticism, and the majority of geologists still appear to favor the young canyon hypothesis. But even critics applauded the clever use of the thermochronology technique.

New Interpretation of Data Debunks Cyanide Bacteria
In 2011, the scientific community was abuzz over a paper in Science that purported to describe a life form–a bacteria called GFAJ-1–that did not need phosphorus to survive. In fact, the paper concluded, GFAJ-1 bacteria were replacing the phosphorus in their DNA with the normally-toxic metal arsenic. While the paper’s conclusions had been widely debated since it was published, this summer it was officially rebutted by two new papers, also published in Science.  New interpretation of the data showed that GFAJ-1 is very resistant to arsenic (a feat in and of itself), but that it does not incorporate the metal into its genetic material and that it still needs a small amount of phosphorus to survive. The new papers were a striking example of the process of science at work and the importance of scientists peer reviewing and attempting to replicate each other’s work.

God Particle Comes to Earth
This year also ushered in some amazing discoveries and triumphs. On July 4th, 2012 physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland made a landmark announcement. After having set up and closely observed trillions of collisions between high-speed protons, they had finally amassed enough evidence to officially describe the Higgs boson. Nicknamed “the God particle,” the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle first proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs and other theorists. Scientists had been searching for firm evidence of its existence for decades.  In addition to the satisfaction of finally detecting the elusive particle, physicist now have an explanation for the last piece “missing” (undetected by science) from the “Standard Model” of particle physics that describes the structure of matter and our universe.

Artist's rendering of the Curiosity rover on Mars

Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Goes to Mars
The award for most charismatic science figure in in 2012 might just go to someone with six wheels, 17 cameras, and a laser that can vaporize rocks. Curiosity, NASA’s newest Mars rover, captured our imaginations in August when it made a spectacularly complex but successful landing on the Red Planet and began its mission to search for evidence of life.  Since the summer, Curiosity has been exploring, beaming images and data back to Earth, and even tweeting about its adventures. While Curiosity may be the most famous figure of the mission, a close second goes to flight director Bobak Ferdowsi (aka the Mohawk Guy) who was launched to internet stardom after viewers watching live footage of mission control during the landing were delighted by his unconventional hair style and dedication to the mission.

Make Over Starts for U.S. Science Education
While it isn’t science per se, the release of the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 classrooms is a moment worth reflecting on as well.  The national standards have not been revised since 1995, and the Visionlearning Team was pleased with the emphasis placed on the tools and process of science in the new draft. This is an excellent first step, and we submitted comments urging the authors to create additional resources aimed at helping teachers incorporate the process of science into their teaching in a fundamental way.  The second draft of the standards are due out this month.  Let’s hope that 2013 is the year that we bring our science standards into the 21st Century and reinvigorate science education in the U.S.

Happy New Year to you and yours, and best wishes for a happy, healthy, productive, and learning-filled 2013!

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.