The Year in Science 2012
The year 2012 was a big one for scientific advancements. So big, in fact, that Michael and DC have already touched upon science (including statistics and mathematics) in their year-end reviews.
After years of being excluded from political decisions, science resurged into the public policy arena this year. It seems a tipping point has been reached:
- The Big Bang Theory is the highest-rated series show on American television.
- Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise (researched by Arikia Millikan) was released, to wide acclaim. (And just to bring things full circle, most Logarchism readers and commenters met on Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com blog; Monotreme has been called by one of his students “Sheldon [Cooper], but with a personality” and is one of the FiveThirtyEight faithful; and Millikan is the descendant of Robert Millikan of the famous oil drop experiment which marked the beginning of the early 20th century explosion in physical chemistry.) Nate, like Sheldon, is now the toast of the town in all his geeky glory.
- Even conservatives are willing to grudgingly acknowledge anthropogenic global warming. David Frum and Matt Yglesias are even advocating for a carbon tax.
Among the other top stories in science and medicine in 2012:
The Higgs Boson
Quantum physics is mysterious and almost inexplicable. Still, in order to develop A Theory of Everything, physicists needed a Higgs Boson to explain why elementary particles have mass.
To make a particle as massive as the Higgs Boson, scientists needed a really big machine. They got it in the form of the Large Hadron Collider, an underground ring 26.659 kilometers (about 16 1⁄2 miles) in diameter, cooled with 10,000 metric tons of liquid nitrogen and 120 metric tons of liquid helium to a temperature of –271.3°C (1.9 Kelvin, or just barely above absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature). Along with cooling the tunnel, all gas molecules are pumped out, leaving a vacuüm of 0.00000000000001 times atmospheric pressure, one-tenth the density of the atmosphere surrounding the moon. Physicists are trying to recreate the conditions just nanoseconds following the Big Bang (one might even call it “The Big Bang Theory”).
On the same day the United States was celebrating Independence Day, July 4, 2012, CERN scientists announced that they had found statistically compelling evidence of a particle in the mass range of 125–126 GeV, exactly where the Standard Model predicted it should be. Ever since, we’ve been singing about it.
“Elvis” and “Mohawk Guy” Land an SUV on Mars
As DC has already mentioned, in early August, as the Perseids were spending their usual summer vacation pelting the Earth with interstellar debris, a former rocker with an Elvis haircut (Adam Stelzner) and the Mohawk Guy (Bobak Ferdowski) became TV stars and geek icons when they and their Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team landed a Ford Expedition-sized spacecraft on Mars in the most improbable way.
It takes 14 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth, so it took twice as long for the craft to signal success as it did for the probe to complete a complex series of maneuvers that JPL scientists dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror” in a memorable video that became a minor YouTube sensation.
It was a resounding success. Curiosity is now collecting data on Mars. Its older cousin Opportunity is still collecting scientific data. Opportunity’s twin Spirit died in the Martian winter on March 22, 2010 after six years of data collection. (Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact, it’s cold as Hell.) Each was designed to last only 90 days.
Fungal Meningitis Outbreak
In early October, Federal officials announced an outbreak of spinal meningitis (an inflammation of the coverings of the brain and spinal cord) which was traced to a batch of drug contaminated with a fungus at the compounding pharmacy, the New England Compounding Center. So far, 36 deaths have been attributed to the tainted batch of steroids, which were designed to be injected directly into the space surrounding the spinal cord. If the injections work, they should reduce the swelling and inflammation of the nerves which come out of the cord and relieve the patient’s pain.
The incident cast a cold light on the naked search for profits which led the facility to cut corners in preparing supposedly sterile drugs. Federal indictments are expected to be issued in the upcoming year.
In spite of this setback, the incentives established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, “Obamacare”) may represent a turning point. For years now, patient safety advocates and medical professionals have advocated for evidence-based medicine. The PPACA has set the process into motion: electronic medical records and a systematic approach to “comparative effectiveness research” — finding the best treatments for each patient and each condition — promise to bring down the cost of medical care with better outcomes and fewer errors.
Will 2012 be remembered as a turning point in the history of science? Certainly it will be hard for particle physicists to top the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Planetary science may have turned a corner with the complex, autonomous landing of Curiosity. The PPACA may finally push medicine over a threshold and into a science-driven process of finding the best possible treatments for patients. It’s not the Big Bang, but 2012 may be remembered as a year of Little Bangs.
- Higgs Boson Named Top Science Find of 2012 (voanews.com)
- Top (mostly climate change related) Science Denialist Books [Greg Laden’s Blog] (scienceblogs.com)
- Best Science Books 2012: Cocktail Party Physics [Confessions of a Science Librarian] (scienceblogs.com)
- The Greatest Science Photos Of The Year (popsci.com)