Archaeologists sure must be feeling grateful that the Maya doomsday didn't arrive on Friday after all. Man, wouldn't they have felt silly if the world had ended?
I guess it is just as well. Archaeologists aren't the only scientists with reasons to be grateful as 2012 comes to a close.
The year has brought a bevy of advances, from a sterling success of a brand-new Mars rover roaming the Red Planet to detection of something that looks a lot like the long-awaited Higgs boson, better known as the "God particle," at CERN's Swiss high-energy physics lab.
The Higgs boson, says Science magazine editor Robert Coontz, is like "the keystone of the arch" in physics, in an interview his magazine released to celebrate its top 10 list of science discoveries this week. Science named the detection, announced on July 4 at CERN, as its top discovery of the year.
"The discovery wasn't so much a surprise, as a relief," Coontz added, since physicists had wagered about $5.5 billion on building a huge particle collider experiment under the Swiss border with France to find the Higgs boson.
(For perspective, that's a bit over half of what banking's JPMorgan Chase,blew on London credit derivative wagers this year.) The particle interacts with others, such as the electrons swarming around atoms, to provide them with their mass in the standard model of particle physics, which explains phenomena such as electromagnetism and radioactivity, but not gravity.
Incidentally, the CERN lab was another thing that some folks had feared would end the world this year, by spawning black holes, but since it shut down already for the year, I guess we all can feel even more doomsday-averted relief on that score, too.
Science went on to celebrate other successes, such as the recovery of DNA from ancient "Denisovans," archaic humans who lived in Asia as recently as 74,000 years ago and seem to have contributed genes to modern people. Another advance was in genetic engineering technologies, with growing use in labs of "TALENs" proteins. DNA has a variety of biological mechanisms built into cells to repair genetic damage, and these TALENs proteins trigger this repair machinery to modify targeted genes. The technology can create cells or animals, such as a pig seen as a model for heart disease, to help out in biomedical research.
Mars, and NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, also made the list, not so surprisingly. Curiosity has already uncovered evidence of flowing water once rushing over the floor of its crater landing site. The rover has performed flawlessly as it heads toward next year's excavation of clay that may deliver evidence of chemistry friendly to life once residing on the Martian surface. Most important, says NASA's science chief John Grunsfeld, the rover's almost-flawless landing proves that humanity can deliver a 1-ton rolling chemistry lab to another planet, not too shabby for a species that apparently spends a lot of time worrying about botched doomsday prophecies.
We'll see how Curiosity works out next year, which in truth, is how it goes in most scientific endeavors, notes science analyst David Pendlebury of information firm Thomson Reuters. "The flipping of a page on the calendar has little to do with progress in science, I think," Pendlebury says. "There needs to be some reasonable time frame for assessing significant changes or new developments."
Looking at which scientific papers ended up most cited by other scientists from 2012 (which does tend to favor papers published earlier in the year), Pendlebury finds the Higgs boson result at the top of the list, just like Science magazine. But some other results unnoticed by Science, or by its competitor Nature, in its yearly roundup, also rang up big notice among scientists.
Among them, a New England Journal of Medicine study led by Charles Swanton of the London Research Institute that suggested wide variations in genetic mutations found inside tumors across common types of cancer might thwart promising "personalized" approaches to medicine. The genes prompting cancer in one part of a tumor might not be the ones that do this in another part of the same tumor, the study showed. Medicines tuned to the wrong genes might fail to slow cancersas a result. Published in March, the result has already been cited 128 times in Thomson Reuters' "Web of Science" study registry.
Another study that attracted a lot of interest from scientists was on "tandem" plastic solar cells that yielded a world-record 8.6% efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity, reported in the journal Nature Photonics, by UCLA's Yang Yang. Also published in March, the paper has already been cited in 93 other scientific papers. "Papers with these many citations are already standouts, clearly, even though the year isn't over," Pendlebury says.
Not every scientist was a winner this year, as Nature's Richard van Noorden noted this week. "Arguments raged over whether information about a potentially dangerous flu virus should be published, for example, and funders, publishers and researchers discussed how to make raw data - as well as peer-reviewed research - more openly available," he wrote in his journal's year-end wrap-up. "Meanwhile, high-profile cases of dubious or fraudulent results offered a reminder that above all else, findings need to be trustworthy."
This may be the year that science fraud went from being seen as an occasional nuisance to a chronic, festering problem in the scientific enterprise, as Nature editor Colin Macilwain noted in an August editorial. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences is expected to issue a report in 2013 calling for widespread reform of how science is policed for fabrication, falsification or plagiarism. The astonishing case of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, seen as making up data in 55 studies and book chapters, according to a Tilburg University report, has rocked the world of experimental psychology, for example.
Finally, funding has been hanging heavy over science, like much else funded by taxpayers, this year. European budget talks collapsed this year on science funding amid the continent's fight over rescuing nations such as Greece and Spain. And U.S. planetary scientists held a bake sale to dramatize cuts to NASA's budgets, even without the looming sequestration cuts contemplated in Washington's "fiscal cliff" fight.
Despite the worries, at least the world didn't end, as some had predicted based on erroneous interpretations of the ancient Maya calendar. And we do have science to look forward to from Mars, and undoubtedly elsewhere in the new year. "You never know what you are going to find; that's what's nice about science," Coontz observed in his commentary on 2012.
Happy holidays, folks, and here's hoping 2013 brings us all more news from the world of science.