The Highlights of 2012
As 2012 draws to a close and the new year begins, now is a good time to wrap things up and recapitulate the year just passed. It’s been an exciting year with plenty of interesting happenings in science, technology, and education. Despite the fact that we aren’t especially keen on top 10 lists (because all of our authors are fantastic and inspirational), here are a few of the highlights from the past year. We hope you enjoy them!
The news that CERN had detected a signature matching the much sought after Higgs boson was the biggest news this year in physics. While physicists at the LHC still aren’t 100% certain what they’ve found, one thing is for certain – they’ve definitely discovered something never before seen, and it definitely seems to match what’s expected for the Higgs boson. Now it’s up to the theorists to work out if this will confirm existing theories, or if it will require brand new physics to be devised to explain it!
“It’s a bit like spotting a familiar face from afar,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer, “sometimes you need closer inspection to find out whether it’s really your best friend, or actually your best friend’s twin.”
In August this year, the eyes of the whole world were looking towards our neighbouring planet. A team of NASA scientists and engineers watched intently, waiting for the news that the Curiosity rover had touched down safely on Mars. Then came the first images from our planet’s sibling. Curiosity is the largest and most sophisticated vehicle ever to set wheel on another planet, and its mission so far has been an astounding success. Coupled with the new scientific discoveries which Curiosity is still to make, there’s a more exciting implication behind this feat of engineering. The ability to safely land something as large as Curiosity paves the way for possible human exploration of the red planet. If you want to know a little more about the people behind the Curiosity rover, you may want to see our interviews with rover driver Matt Heverly, meteorologist Keri Bean, and mission scientist Marion Anderson.
“There will be a lot of important firsts that will be taking place for Curiosity over the next few weeks, but the first motion of its wheels, the first time our roving laboratory on Mars does some actual roving, that will be something special,”
Neuroscience is a fascinating area of study, and a lot about it is still being actively researched. Of particular interest are things such as the mysterious phenomenon of synaesthesia. Synaesthetes are people who experience one sensory perception as another, and it’s a condtion which is more common than you might realise. Understanding synaesthesia may help us to better understand human perception and neurology.
Synaesthetes are otherwise neurologically normal people who experience parts of the world in extraordinary way, sometimes without realising it. To them, the city skyline could taste of tomato soup, the musical note C could look like red, and Monday could be perceived as sharp and spiky.
The Great Barrier Reef is an iconic feature of the Australian coast and one of the most well known of Earth’s natural wonders. Unfortunately, corals are fragile creatures who are particularly susceptible to climate change. Earth’s slowly increasing temperature, together with several other environmental factors have repeatedly decimated Australia’s corals. This year, the Australian government confessed that they had not given sufficient attention to the reef, and plans are now in place to help save it and rescue the myriad creatures which live there.
Australia’s Environment Minister, Tony Burke… admitted that ”there’s no doubt that there’s been a level of neglect for decades which, if it had been dealt with otherwise, we’d be in a much better situation now,” which is at least a sign that the problem is being given the recognition it deserves.
Historically, space travel has been dominated by government agencies like NASA, and international institutions like ESA. This year marks what could be the turning point. For humanity to progress into becoming a spacefaring civillisation, private spaceflight needs to become available. In April, SpaceX, under the enthusiastic leadership of Elon Musk, became the first private company to launch a space vehicle into orbit and successfully dock it with the International Space Station. Now that it’s been proven possible, we can only sit back and wait for more companies and initiatives to follow suit.
The significance of this event is Dragon is a reusable spacecraft, developed, and built by the American company Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceX, as it is more commonly known. Established in 2002, SpaceX has developed a new family of launch and cargo and crew capsules from the ground up.
As human society becomes increasingly dependent on science and technology, scientific literacy is becoming more and more important. The best way to foster this is, of course, through education. Encouraging scientific inquiry and investigation in children is the best way to safeguard the future and ensure that future generations are properly equipped with all the skills they need in a technologically advancing world. Of key importance in this is the need to banish outdated gender stereotypes and to emphasise the fact that science is for everyone!
Despite the fact that some of the applicants held biased views that boys are better and science was the realm of men, the children overwhelmingly wanted to be together. The children appreciated that irrespective of gender, each child could play a role and that they could learn from each other.
While many people may find reality TV to be abrasive and distasteful, one announcement this year had potential to change that. Dutch company Mars One announced their plans to start a human colony on Mars by the year 2023. Their source of funding? To turn the whole thing into a reality TV show and broadcast it to the world. They’re quite serious about the idea too. How successful will they be? Only time will tell…
Mars One has developed a roadmap to Mars made up of various stages of the plan, each stage bringing to the final goal: the first four people on Mars in 2023.
Citizen science is the latest big thing in research. With increasingly large datasets being recorded by scientists in all fields, the general public is more and more frequently being enlisted to help in analysing all of this data. The latest developments see citizen scientists actually being sent out to record data too!
A scientist could quite easily dispatch his volunteer army with marching orders to perform observations of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) over a 5-acre area of the park and have his/her data collection completed within a month’s time.
Plastic is simultaneously one of the best inventions of the past century, and the worst. On one hand, it’s completely changed out day-to-day lives, but at the same time, it’s responsible for some of the worst environmental damage. In particular is the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But the question is, what can be done to stop the damage being caused by plastics and help aquatic life to recover from it?
If we cannot see the direct effects, know that indirect effects to humans do exist and the problem could worsen. Many of us enjoy seafood, but 85% of the world population relies on fish for their protein intake.
One project which a lot of astronomers are excitedly looking forward to is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA for short) – set to be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever constructed. For years, it has been hotly debated whether the array should be built in Australia or South Africa. July saw the announcement that the SKA will be constructed in both countries, with different components in each. The Australian part of the SKA is now due to be built in Murchison, Outback Western Australia – one of the quietest places on Earth for radio signals.
Being astronomy’s answer to the large hadron collider, the SKA is a staggeringly large international collaboration… Over 24 major organisations from countries spanning 5 continents are involved in the project, ranging from universities to industrial engineering companies.