Top Science Discoveries of 2012

science disc

This is my personal top 25 discoveries and stories from the world of science this year.  In terms of criteria I wanted to make a list of what I thought was interesting or important.  I also wanted to try and equally represent discoveries in the environmental, physical, life, and social sciences.  I purposefully left out more applied scientific discoveries in health and technology.  This is because it is hard for me to quantify their importance next to more theoretical and conceptual breakthroughs.  There were also a lot of interesting discoveries that I had to leave off the list.  I debated making a list of the top 50 discoveries, but this project took me a very long time as it is.  Its purpose is to be thought-provoking, inspire a broad interest in science, and give people a snapshot of what the world’s best researchers are discovering about our Universe!

25. Mapping Earliest Complex Human Societies


A new system has been developed to help understand early human settlement patterns.  This system utilizes computers to scour satellite images for telltale clues of human habitation, like soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding that results from the collapse of mud-brick homes.  This method was first applied this year by a team of archaeologists in a 23,000 square kilometer area of northeastern Syria.  The images revealed 9,000 possible ancient settlements between 7,000 and 8,000 years old.  These data were staggering and will help archaeologists understand an area of the world where the first complex human societies emerged in greater detail.  At the moment archaeologists only have small-scale understandings of the ancient world.  However, with these new techniques we may be able to understand the ancient world on large, complex scales.  Consequently, we may gain a new understanding of how humans made the first transition from hunting and gathering to settled agricultural city-states.


Mapping patterns of long-term settlement in Northern Mesopotamia at a large scale

24. Record Minimum Arctic Sea Ice


Arctic sea ice extent has been shrinking consistently since satellite records have been tracking it over the past 30 years.  This year represented the start of what climatologists are calling “uncharted territory”.  In 2012, the record for lowest extent of Arctic sea ice coverage was broken three times.  The previous record was broken on the 18th of Septemeber 2007, when the Arctic sea ice extent low was 4.17 million square kilometers.  In 2012, Arctic sea extent was 4.10 million square kilometers on 26th of August, below four million square kilometers on the 4th of September, and reached the now record low of 3.41 million square kilometers later in September.  This is almost one million square kilometers less than the previous record and is 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average Arctic sea ice extent.  At current rates, climatologists now expect no Arctic sea ice by the 2030s.


Record minimum for Arctic sea ice

23. First Objects Temporally Cloaked


Scientists developed spatial cloaking earlier this century.  However, now researchers have developed a device that can hide events in time, or “temporal cloaking”.  The device does this by speeding up and slowing down different parts of a light beam and then putting them back together.  As a result, the event would become “hidden in time”.  At the moment, this technology can only hide events for 40 trillionths of a second (0.00012), which is a time frame impossible to directly impact human actions.  In the future, the ability to cloak events in both time and space simultaneously may be improved to the point where events and spaces can be hidden on the scale of seconds and minutes.  Combining the ability to cloak events both spatially and temporally is theoretically possible.  Likewise, extending the current timeframe and spatial scale of cloaking ability is also possible.


Demonstration of temporal cloaking

22. XNA Compounds Demonstrate Evolution


In the emerging field of astrobiology, researchers are attempting to understand if life elsewhere could be based on a host of alternative nucleic acids other than the ones that compose RNA and DNA.  Synthetic biologists seem to have proven it is likely that life could be based on a number of different nucleic acids.  The team showed that artificial molecules can be made to pass genes onto their descendants by focusing on XNA’s (xeno-nucleic acids).  XNA’s are based on different sugars than RNA and DNA, but even with a different sugar backbone, XNA can mimic many of DNA’s properties.  This evidence suggests that XNA’s (or other forms of DNA) could form the basis of life on other planets or moons, where different conditions lead to different types of chemistry than found on Earth.  Perhaps most importantly, this research makes it even more likely that some moons in our solar system with different chemistry to Earth (e.g., Titan, Europa) may host complex life.

21. Origins of Indo-European Language Family Linked to Farming


There are currently two competing hypotheses for the emergence of the Indo-European language family, which is the most widespread language family in the world.  The history of this language family is relatively clear over the past 2,000 years because these languages have been written consistently and the history of their peoples is understood as a result.  However, it is less clear when these language families emerged.  At the moment the majority view is that the language family emerged in Ukraine 6,000 years ago, and the minority view is that it emerged in Anatolia between 8,000-9,000 years ago.  Researchers from the Max Planck Institute attempted to better understand this emergence by applying a Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to model the expansion of the family and test the two hypotheses.  This analysis revealed that the minority view is likely correct.  It appears as though the Indo-European language family first emerged in Anatolia between 8,000-9,000 years ago.  This means that the spread of the Indo-European language family is likely connected to the emergence of farming and the societies that first adapted to a farming lifestyle in central Eurasia.


Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family

20. Star Formation 1/30th of its Peak


The first-generation stars born after the Big Bang were massive and short-lived by today’s standards.  These early stars produced the complexity of elements found in third-generation stars and solar systems like ours.  However, the stars in the present day Universe are much smaller and longer-lived than their predecessors.  Understanding this cosmic evolution is key to understanding its future development.  In order to better understand this evolution astronomers wanted to assess whether star formation rate over cosmic time was stable, increasing, or decreasing.  A team of international researchers collected information on star-forming regions of galaxies at different distances.  Using this data the team was able to determine that star formation was at its highest rate 11 billion years ago, and is 1/30th of its peak in contemporary times.  If this decline continues, 95% of the stars that will ever be created in the Universe have already been born.  This is because stars today are lasting billions of years longer than their predecessors and are exploding their gaseous material into an ever-expanding Universe.  This means fewer stellar nurseries will form in the future.  These data help scientists better understand how our Universe has evolved and how it will be structured billions and trillions of years from now.

19. Lichen Survive Mars-like Environment


Scientists have debated for decades whether Mars may be host to microbial life.  Although no indigenous Martian life has been discovered, research this year demonstrated that it is theoretically possible.  A team of researchers exposed lichen (Circinaria gyrosa) to Mars-like conditions at the German Aerospace Center’s Mars Simulation Laboratory for 34 days.  The lichen were subjected to the same conditions that they would have experienced if they were placed on Mars.  The researchers discovered that these lichen adapted fairly easily to the environment, but were most successful at surviving in small cracks within the simulated Martian soil.  It is believed that these areas allowed the lichen to avoid harsh radiation.  This experiment revealed that fairly complex life could still exist on Mars.  It is known that Mars had a much more hospitable environment billions of years ago.  If life arose during this time period, there may still be indigenous life forms on Mars in present day niches that resemble areas that the lichen adapted to in the simulated environment.  This research also shows that life is extremely adaptable, even to extremely harsh conditions, and indicates that life could theoretically survive in others areas of the solar system.


The resistance of the lichen Circinaria gyrosa (nom. Provis.) towards simulated Mars conditions – a model test for the survival capacity of an eukaryotic extremophile

18. 100-km, 3-Billion-Year Old Impact Crater Discovered


There have been several massive asteroid and meteor impacts in Earth’s natural history.  However, a team of scientists in Greenland discovered one of the largest and oldest.  The team that made the discovery has been methodically piecing together the key evidence of this impact over the past three years.  It took so long to understand what caused the geological structures observed in western Greenland because the impact occurred three billion years ago.  Scientists had previously thought that it would be impossible to find evidence of such an impact from this epoch due to geological processes like erosion.  However, this impact was so large and intense that the shock wave penetrated deeper into the crust than any other known crater.  The impact itself was around 100 kilometers in size and would have completely reshaped the evolution of the early Earth’s climate and life.  Future research will be needed to understand how these processes were affected.


Oldest Known Meteorite Impact Uncovered

17. Lethally Hot Temperatures During Early Triassic


Earth suffered a major mass extinction called the end-Permian event 252 million years ago.  However, scientists were always unable to answer why it took 5 million years for life to recover from that mass extinction event.  Palaeoclimatologists in 2012 revealed why: the Earth became “lethally” hot.  The end-Permian die off killed almost all of the Earth’s plants, and without any plants to consume carbon dioxide, the Earth experienced a runaway greenhouse effect.  Researchers discovered that at its worst, oceans reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (compare that with contemporary oceans that are 77-86 degrees).  Over this time period the Earth was virtually life-less.  This study also shows how our planet reacts to a climate with unbalanced levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is currently driving up average global temperature every year.


Lethally Hot Temperatures During the Early Triassic Greenhouse

16. Pleistocene Plant Blooms Again


We got a little closer to Jurassic Park in 2012.  A team of scientists brought a 30,000 year-old Siberian Pleistocene plant (Silene stenophylla) back to life.  This is by far the oldest plant brought back to life; 2,000 year-old date palm seeds held the previous record.  The scientists claim that the seeds of the Pleistocene plant were in permafrost for the entire period of time, which acted as a giant freezer, leaving them undisturbed and unthawed.  This research represents a landmark discovery that biological material can be revived after laying dormant for tens of thousands of years, and may be an important development in the quest to revive other species, including species that are currently extinct.


Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old fruit tissue in Siberian permafrost

15. Dark Matter Scaffolding Directly Detected


Dark matter is thought to make up 83 per cent of matter in the universe, yet until 2012, astronomers had never directly detected its existence.  In July a team of researchers announced that they had directly detected dark matter between two galactic clusters Abell 222 and Abell 223.  The discovery came as a surprise to the science community, which did not expect dark matter to be directly detected until future advancements in telescope technology were made.  The team made the discovery after analyzing the light of more than 40,000 background galaxies to determine the percentage of unseen mass holding Abell 222 and Abell 223 together.  Astronomers have said that this research is a resounding confirmation of standard theory of structure formation in the universe.  Future research and improved telescope technology should give astronomers more opportunities to study the structure of dark matter in the universe.


A filament of dark matter between two clusters of galaxies

14. Super Volcanoes May Be Predictable


Supervolcanoes are extremely rare, but extremely devastating events for the Earth’s climate and biosphere.  Research into the nature of supervolcanic eruptions has revealed some startling and terrifying results.  However, volcanologists main concern has been trying to devise a way to predict when the next supervolcanic eruption would occur.  New results from an international study this year may have revealed how much time we would have to prepare for such an event.  By studying the crystals in pumice rock from the Santori site, researchers realized that magma was growing within the caldera underneath the volcano for decades.  This new discovery should help volcanologists predict a supervolcanic eruption decades in advance, as opposed to weeks or months in advance.  Some tell tale signs would be rapid caldera chamber build up, increased rock deformation, and increased gas emission to the surface.  Our species biggest challenge now becomes trying to understand what we would do to prepare for such an event.


Decadal to monthly timescales of magma transfer and reservoir growth at a caldera volcano

13. Human-Caused Megafaunal Extinctions During Quaternary


Scientists have long-debated about the cause of Quaternary megafaunal extinctions in Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas.  This debate frequently centers around climate change or anthropogenic overkill as the main cause.  However, several research papers this year seemed to strongly indicate that anthropogenic overkill was the main cause of megafaunal extinctions throughout the world.  Research studying environmental change in Australia over 130,000 years concluded that human presence disrupted ecological equilibrium, not climate change.  Other researchers studying geographic ranges of over 150 animals in North America, attempted to understand whether extinctions disproportionately effected taxa with small geographic ranges.  They found that the extinction event did not preferentially impact taxa with small geographic ranges, but did preferentially impact taxa with large body size.  This is also consistent with the anthropogenic overkill hypothesis.  Furthermore, theoretical research was also used to integrate our understanding of Neanderthal extinction into the larger Quaternary megafaunal extinction events.  These studies have important implications for contextualizing contemporary extinction events, and predicting our future impact on the biosphere.


The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia

The Quaternary megafaunal extinction and the fate of Neanderthals: An integrative working hypothesis

Range sizes and shifts of North American Pleistocene mammals are not consistent with a climatic explanation for extinction

12. Oldest Galaxy Discovered


Astronomers are constantly improving our understanding of the early universe by utilizing new technologies and methods.  As a consequence, our knowledge of the Universe in its infancy keeps improving.  Before 2012, astronomers had little knowledge of the “cosmic dawn” a period between 400-600 million years ago.  This year, we gained a better understanding of this period when a family of the oldest galaxies were discovered.  The oldest of these galaxies was UDFj-39546284, which formed approximately 380 million years after the Big Bang.  This galaxy, along with its surrounding galaxies, which formed between 400-600 million years ago, have indicated that the first galaxies formed gradually, as opposed to suddenly.


The Abundance of Star-Forming Galaxies in the Redshift Range 8.5 to 12: New Results From The 2012 Hubble Ultra Deep Field Campaign

11. Denisovan Genome Decoded


Until recently, most scientists thought that there were only two species of humans (i.e., modern humans and Neanderthals) living in Eurasia in the Upper Palaeolithic (50 – 10 thousand years ago).  However, over the past decade several finds have indicated that there were several more.  Svante Paabo and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Evolutionary Anthropology have revealed further proof of this fact with genetics.  They sequenced the genome from the bones of an individual that had been found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia.  The results indicated that the individual was not a modern human or a Neanderthal.  The new species has been named Denisovans.  Together with Neanderthals, Denisovans are the closest extinct relatives of modern humans.  It is likely that all three species knew of each others existence and may have even lived together in what is today Siberia.  Future genomic comparative studies should help scientists uncover important genetic differences that contributed to the development of modern human culture and technology.


A High Coverage Denisovan Genome

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10. Secret to Hydra Immortality Revealed


Scientists have known for several years that the polyp Hydra displayed signs of negligible senescence.  It appears as though this animal can only die from predation or disease.  One of the ways in which the Hydra can do this is because of continuous proliferation of stem cells.  This year, researchers in Germany gained a better understanding of this process, and believe their findings have relevance to ageing in humans.  They identified the gene FoxO, which is known to play a role in ageing, and they genetically modified three groups of Hydra.  One group had normal FoxO levels, one group had inactivated FoxO, and one group had enhanced FoxO levels.  They were able to show that the Hydra with inactive FoxO started to have severe complications with their immune systems.  Many of these complications mirrored immune system dysfunction that is seen in elderly humans.  The team concluded that FoxO plays a critical role in ageing, and that immune system function and stem cell proliferation may be the key to prolonging the human lifespan as well.


FoxO is a critical regulator of stem cell maintenance in immortal Hydra

9. Earth-sized and Habitable Zone Exoplanet Detection


The search for “another Earth” continued this year, with phenomenal results.  Before 2012 astronomers had detected over 800 planets, but none of them were Earth-sized or within the habitable zone of their host star.  That changed this year.  In the first month of 2012 astronomers identified three of the smallest planets ever detected (smallest was Mars-sized).  However, all three planets orbited their host star as closely as Mercury orbits our Sun, making them way too hot to be Earth-like candidates.  Later in the year astronomers made two more significant finds: an Earth-sized planet in the closest solar system to ours (Alpha Centauri), and a “super-Earth” within the habitable zone of its host star.  The Earth-sized planet in Alpha Centauri orbits very closely to its host star, but demonstrated astronomer’s ability to detect Earth-sized planets and suggested that Earth-sized planets were relatively common.  The “super-Earth” discovered is only 42 light-years away and is thought to be a candidate for life because it may be covered in liquid water.  More interesting news from exoplanet detections was made this December when astronomers announced the possible discovery of an Earth-sized planet within the habitable zone of Tau Ceti (12 light-years away).  If confirmed, this would become the number one candidate for the discovery of “another Earth” and also a potential hot-spot for complex life in the universe.


NASA’s Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets

Earth-size planet found orbiting the star system next door

Another Earth Just 12 Light-Years Away?

8. Crucial Milestone for Quantum Teleportation


Teleportation is no longer just science fiction…  at least at the atomic scale.  Scientists have been teleporting photons for several years now.  However, scientists from the University of Waterloo recently broke a new teleportation distance record with significance for the future of teleportation.  They successfully achieved quantum teleportation over 143 km distance from the Canary Islands to the islands of La Palma and Tenerife.  This distance is significant because that is the minimum distance between the ground and orbiting satellites.  Once full-scale networked quantum computing exists, quantum teleportation could allow for secure communication.  The next goals for the research team is to start quantum teleporting upwards.


Quantum teleportation over 143 kilometers using active feed-forward

7. “Ratcheting” Separates Humans From Other Primates


Sir Isaac Newton famously stated that we “stand on the shoulders of giants”, insinuating that humans are able to accomplish deep scientific understanding, create rich artistic traditions, and build sophisticated technology because our culture becomes increasingly complex.  We build on the cultural achievements of the generations that came before us.  However, a study in 2012 provided strong evidence indicating that this is absent in other species, even our closest relatives.  Researchers compared the ability of human children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys to solve a complex puzzle box with three different stages.  In order to solve the puzzle box (and acquire a food reward) the individuals would have to cooperate and teach each other in order to accomplish progressively higher-level solutions at each stage.  All human children were able to accomplish these tasks, however no chimpanzee or capuchin groups were able to exhibit the behaviour necessary to complete the task.  This led primatologist Victoria Horner to conclude: “if cumulative culture does exist in other species, it is extremely rare.”


Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture

6. Next Ice Age Offset by Human Fossil Fuel Consumption


A study from the environmental sciences this year provided significant evidence that the next scheduled Ice Age would occur 1,500 years from now, if we had left fossil fuels in the ground.  This study, although it can be interpreted positively, demonstrates just how dramatically humans are changing climate on a global scale.  The researchers claimed that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels immediately, the next Ice Age would already be averted.  The researchers were able to calculate when the next Ice Age would have occurred by comparing the Earth’s pre-industrial climate to past interglacial phases over the past few million years.  Ice Age and interglacial cycles occur in distinct patterns known as Milankovitch cycles.  These cycles are caused by subtle variations in the Earth’s orbit that take tens of thousands of years to change.  If we stop burning fossil fuels by 2100 the Earth should experience its next Ice Age approximately 120,000 years from now.


Determining the natural length of the current interglacial

5. Final Great Ape Genomes Decoded


Before 2012, humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans had their complete genomes decoded.  This year two separate European research groups decoded the gorilla and bonobo genomes.  Researchers at Cambridge decoded the gorilla genome.  The results indicated that gorillas share 98% of our DNA and diverged from the human/chimp/bonobo lineage 10 million years ago.  Although these numbers weren’t major shocks, the speciation date was earlier than had previously been thought.  Researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology decoded the bonobo genome shortly later in the year.  Their genome revealed that only 4 amino acids per 1,000 within their DNA sequence differed from chimpanzees.  Using these data researchers were able to pin point the chimp/bonobo divergence to 1 million years ago.  Now researchers at MPI are going to try to understand more about the human/chimp/bonobo common ancestor by comparing all three species genomes in greater detail.


Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence

The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes

4. First Model Simulation of Observable Universe

This year a team of French researchers used CURIE, a new supercomputer, to create the first ever computer model simulation of the entire observable universe from the Big Bang to the present (a distance equivalent to 90 billion light years).  The super computer created this simulation by following the evolution of 550 billion particles as part of a project called Deus: full universe run.  The results from these simulations allowed the researchers to a) estimate the total number of galaxy clusters with a mass larger than hundred thousand billion solar masses (144 million), and b) discover that the first of these galaxy clusters developed around 2 billion years after the Big Bang.  Their data also revealed that the largest massive cluster in the observable universe weighs 15 quadrillion (15 thousand trillion) solar masses.  In the future, data from this simulation will help cosmologists understand the imprint dark energy leaves on cosmic structures and how dark energy can be inferred from observing distributions of matter.


First-ever model simulation of the structuring of the observable universe

3. Planets Around Stars: Rule, Not Exception

exoplanets upside down

A long-term astronomy study this year suggested exoplanets outnumber stars by a large margin in our galaxy.  Their results revealed that each of the 100 billion or so stars in our galaxy hosts 1.6 planets on average.  Most of these planets are likely to be low mass, indicating that there may be hundreds of millions of small/rocky planets like Earth.  This study was based on statistical extrapolation and provided considerable evidence that stars with a gravitationally bound planetary system is the rule, rather than the exception.  The data was collected between 2002-2007 with earth-based telescopes using gravitational microlensing.  Gravitational microlensing is a more reliable approach to uncover hidden extrasolar worlds because other popular methods (e.g., photometry, radial velocity) are biased towards finding stars that orbit closely to their parent star.  This made statistically extrapolating the number of planets in the Milky Way based off of the data collected in this study more accurate.  Although it is now estimated that there are around 160 billion planets in our galaxy, the number of total planets is likely double that because of the recent discovery of nomad planets (planets without a host star).



In early September our understanding of the human genome was increased substantially with the coordinated publication of 30 research papers produced by the research consortium Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE).  Before their publication we understood how small sections of DNA — genes — coded for important chemicals and proteins in our body.  However, that was only 2% of the entire human genome; the rest was thought to be ‘junk DNA’.  Researchers revealed that 80% have our genome does have a function, but further research will be needed to elucidate exactly what it does.  Most aspects of this part of the human genome is information that is coded to be ‘on’ or ‘off’ during certain times in our lives.  Medical professionals hope that we will be able to use this information to understand how these ‘on/off’ switches can be modified to prevent diseases, improve overall health, and slow the ageing process.


ENCODE-funded Publications

1. Discovery of the Higgs Boson


On July 4th, CERN rocked the world of physics with the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last of the elementary particles in the Standard Model of physics.  The Higgs can explain why particles acquire mass and why the electromagnetic force and the weak force are divided.  Although it is still unclear whether the boson was exactly what the Standard Model predicted 40 years ago, the discovery is sure to define the entire subject for the foreseeable future, and open up the possibility of “new” physics.  Perhaps most importantly, this discovery allows physicists to make a pitch for a new next-generation collider that would work as a “Higgs factory” and enable the possibility for a theory to unify quantum mechanisms and the theory of general relativity.


Observation of a new boson at a mass of 125 GeV with the CMS experiment at the LHC

Combined search for the Standard Model Higgs boson using up to 4.9 fb-1 of pp collision data with the ATLAS detector at the LHC


About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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