This is a list of the top 10 science stories of 2009 — with only eight entries. I’m hoping readers will complete the list by weighing in with their own nominations for the final slots.
My nominations are not ranked in order of importance. They also may not reflect all of the most important discoveries or breakthroughs of the year. Some are, indeed, big breakthroughs; some are stories that dominated the news.
Do scientists have kitchen cabinets? Or would they take advice from “lab cabinets?” Whichever it is, my advisers for these selections were University of Minnesota astronomy professor Lawrence Rudnick and Shawn Lawrence Otto, who spearheaded Science Debate, the nonprofit initiative that is working to elevate science and engineering policy issues in the national dialogue.
Ice on the moon and many other places in space
NASA crashed a smart probe into our moon and found evidence of significant reserves of frozen water. Many reports of the finding stressed the usefulness of the reserves for future lunar exploration. But Rudnick said the long-term significance may be for better understanding the origins of water on Earth.
Extraterrestrial water played very large in general this year.
Expanding on discoveries in 2008, scientists worked over data from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and reported further evidence of water on the red planet. And planet hunters from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used ground-based telescopes to find what appears to be a “waterworld,” orbiting a distant star. They said this “super Earth” appears to be about three-fourths water and ice and one-fourth rock.
The sum of the discoveries is that there is a lot more water out there than most people thought a few years ago.
Meeting a great-grandmother
This year we had our first close-up meeting with Ardi, aka Ardipithecus ramidus. Her 4.4-million-year-old skeleton was discovered in Ethiopia 15 years ago, but the details were just released this October. The small-brained, 110-pound female is considered to be the oldest fossil skeleton of a human ancestor.
National Geographic said, “The find reveals that our forebears underwent a previously unknown stage of evolution more than a million years before Lucy, the iconic early human ancestor specimen that walked the Earth 3.2 million years ago.” Some scientists say the fossil puts to rest the long-standing notion that a chimpanzee-like missing link — resembling something between humans and today’s apes — would eventually be found at the root of the human family tree.
Science magazine noted, though, that “Not all paleoanthropologists are convinced that Ar. ramidus was our ancestor or even a hominin.”
But no one disputes the importance of the new evidence.
So far, the H1N1 influenza pandemic does not seem as lethal as had been feared. But it did serve as a “warm-up act” for the pandemic scientists had warned was coming, Otto said.
“It provided a valuable trial run, showing problems in vaccine distribution, but also what we got right,” he said. And it spurred new research at the molecular level to fight pandemic flu.
Further, it jolted us out of the belief that a serious influenza outbreak likely would start in far-away Asia. This one erupted in Mexico and spread northward like wildfire.
This story is far from finished as the year ends. Scientists warn that the virus could mutate into a far deadlier form. Let’s hope not.
Climate changes; politics do not
President Barack Obama said breakthroughs were achieved at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. For one thing, the United States was a serious participant — even a leader in forging a compromise. The interim agreement does outline paths directing nations toward a broader, tougher deal. And developing nations will get billions of dollars in “climate aid” by 2020.
But many environmentalists denounced the failure to achieve an ironclad, enforceable agreement for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
At the end of the year, the drip from the melting glaciers seems to be moving faster than the politics.
Obama and science
One of Obama’s first acts in office was to reverse former President George Bush’s ban on federal funding for research on new lines of human embryonic stem cells. The regulatory machinery worked cautiously, and the new lines eligible for the funding weren’t announced until late in the year. But meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first clinical trials for the use of the stem cells — for treatment of spinal cord injuries.
Obama also signaled he would be a friend and benefactor to science with the ceremonial signing of a presidential memorandum saying “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues.” He directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy to draft guidelines for the respectful use of scientific information and appointment of science advisers.
Since then, research has benefited from funding Obama’s administration has distributed through the economic stimulus package.
Dark matter? Maybe.
After six years of chasing elusive dark matter in the depths of northern Minnesota’s old Soudan mine, researchers reported in December that they have detected two signals from what could be the mysterious particles believed to function as invisible glue that binds the universe.
If, indeed, the particles are dark matter, this would be a colossal finding, leading to a better understanding of everything from the origins of the universe to the forces that surround us here on Earth today.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota and 17 other institutions collaborating on the quest for dark matter were cautious, though, in explaining their findings: Two times, their experiments have detected signals from particles with characteristics “completely consistent” with those expected from dark matter, said a statement issued by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill. But there is a one-in-four chance the signals came from far more ordinary stuff — the background chatter of radioactive decays and cosmic rays.
This will be a story to watch in 2010.
A torrent of recent gamma ray observations from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope topped Science magazine’s list of runners-up for scientific breakthrough of 2009. (Science named Ardi, the ancient skeleton noted above, the breakthrough of the year.)
Since its launch last year, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has observed a spectacular array of blinking pulsars (the crushed cores of exploded stars) and unprecedented flares from a distant galaxy with a giant black hole in its center. The observations are giving scientists their best ever chances for in-depth studies of the awesome and violent forces at play in the universe. The detection of gamma rays in space is a relatively new thrust for astronomy.
No breakthrough here — just a flood of stories observing the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin on Feb. 12 and the 150th anniversary of his landmark publication — “On the Origin of the Species” — on Nov. 24.
Scientific journals celebrated Darwin — and the work furthering his theory that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors — with the gusto that modern culture generally reserves for rock stars and athletes. MinnPost contributed to Darwin mania with a three-part series; you can find the first installment here.
Now it’s your turn. Please nominate more “top science stories” in the Comments area below.
And Happy New Year to all.