The Sciences

Top 10 Stories of 2012


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We found the God particle, learned to make clean energy work, tapped the healing power of germs, explored ancient streams on Mars, and made 96 other stirring advances. 

Photo Credits: danielfoster437 / Flickr

This year natural gas moved to the top of the electricity-producing charts in the U.S., threatening coal's 120-year dominance and pushing carbon emissions down to their lowest levels in 20 years.

Natural gas produces half the CO2 emissions of coal, but its extraction is harder on the environment. Fracking—the process by which water, sand, and chemicals are pumped underground to force the oil out of rock formations—is suspected of contaminating nearby aquifers and wells, as well as causing dozens of small earthquakes near the drill sites. Plus methane leaking from the wells may, in some cases, be enough to offset the environmental advantage that natural gas enjoys.

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Photo Credits: CERN / CMS

A decades-long, multibillion-dollar search paid off in July when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva announced they had discovered the Higgs boson—a particle so fundamental that without it there would be no atoms in the universe—and therefore no stars, no planets, and no one to wonder about it all.

The Higgs holds a special place in physicists’ hearts (and equations) because it helps explain a baffling dichotomy in nature: Why do some particles have mass while others do not?

After analyzing 800 trillion collisions in two years’ worth of data, physicists at the LHC finally uncovered traces of the Higgs boson, and it fits neatly within its theorized bounds. Thus researchers have since turned their attention to other potential rule-breakers, such as supersymmetry, to attempt to explain the failings of physics’ current ruling paradigm, the standard model. 

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So there's the top 10 stories of 2012. To see the other 90 stories that made Discover's list this year, check out our latest issue

Photo Credits: ollyy / Shutterstock

A handful of studies this year have emphasized the importance of getting your eight hours and getting them on a regular schedule.

Sleep deprivation hinders your body's ability to break down sugars as well as your brain's ability to tell when you're full. If you undersleep during the week and try to make up for it on the weekends, you have a higher chance of developing depression and obesity. If you cut your sleep time short and also suffer from insomnia, you're also at a higher risk for high blood pressure. Researchers also found associations between sleep disorders and Alzheimer's, cancer mortality and hyperglycemia—a precursor of type 2 diabetes. Bottom line: Make a resolution to get enough sleep in 2013!

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Photo Credits: NASA

Scientists still don't know what dark matter is, but thanks to some cosmic advances in 2012, they at least have a better idea of how it works.

One team compiled the largest map of dark matter to date by measuring bent light—an indicator for the presence of invisible dark matter. The map measures a billion light-years across, which sounds massive, but in the grand scheme of things actually covers less than 0.4 percent of the sky. Another team of astrophysicists found a stream of gamma rays smack dab in the middle of the Milky Way, and they are tentatively fingering dark matter as the cause.

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Photo Credits: Jesse Burke

Fourteen years after the stroke that paralyzed her, 58-year-old Cathy Hutchinson picked up a bottle of coffee, brought it to her mouth, and drank. Coffee has probably never tasted so good. Hutchinson accomplished this feat via a robotic arm she controlled with her thoughts.

The technology was developed at the Institute for Brain Science at Brown University. Researchers implanted a silicon chip into Hutchinson's brain, offering a high definition view of her neurons' electrical signals. They then asked Cathy to imagine herself performing basic tasks with her arm, and watched to see how her brain responded. By matching her intended movements with their corresponding neural signals, the researchers were able to write a computer code that translated her thoughts into directions for the robotic arm.

This brain implant technology may one day offer an optimistic prognosis for those who have lost control of their limbs. The applications may also extend to people with psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and depression by identifying where and how their brains function differently than healthy ones.

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Photo Credits: NASA

Industry stakeholders have been heralding the dawn of private spaceflight for nearly a decade, but the 2012 success of SpaceX and other companies suggests the era has finally arrived. In May SpaceX’s Dragon became the first nongovernmental vehicle to dock with the ISS.

Over the next few years NASA is hoping for similar commercial success in taxiing astronauts—and many of these companies will likely offer private citizens trips to space as well.

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Photo Credits: Ana Blazic Pavlovic / Shutterstock

While much research has highlighted the risk of genetic mutations passed along by older mothers, studies published this year flagged a similar risk for older fathers. One study of autistic or schizophrenic individuals found they’d received four times as many new genetic mutations from dad as from mom.

The findings, paired with two other 2012 studies, suggest that the rising age of fathers in Western countries may contribute to the recent increase in autism.

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Photo Credits: alecperkins / Flickr

Record heat waves, droughts, floods and melting: in 2012 our planet’s weather went to extremes it had never gone before. This led to a string of costly and destabilizing environmental disasters across the globe.

For instance, the Pacific Northwest has seen oyster larvae fatality rates of 80 percent in commercial hatcheries due to ocean acidification. In colder waters, ice coverage on the Arctic Ocean shrunk to 1.32 million square miles in September, the lowest ever recorded.

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Photo Credits: NIAID / RML

A hundred trillion bacteria, viruses, and other microbes—collectively known as the human microbiome—live on and inside our bodies. In 2012 scientists on two big projects conducted the most comprehensive census so far of this inner world.

The U.S.-based Human Microbiome Project used genomic analysis to I.D. microbes in the noses, gums, tonsils, genital tracts and guts of more than 200 Americans. In parallel, a European project called MetaHIT studied 124 Europeans. Both projects found that each person’s body supports many different microbial ecosystems, and that our microbiomes vary greatly from person to person.

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Photo Credits: NASA

Curiosity’s chauffeur carried the rover though space for eight months and—with the help of a heat shield, a parachute, and a rocket-powered platform—deposited the rover gently on the surface of Mars on August 6.

The rover is decked out with the most state of the art geology tools of any rover yet. So far it has photographed rock formations, analyzed sediment samples, and discovered a riverbed—the most direct evidence to date of potentially life-giving water on Mars.

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