Ian Sample explains what a Higgs Boson is.

Ian Sam­ple explains how to find a Higgs Boson.

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 FiveThir​tyEight​.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 12 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 drugsFed­eral 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.