Each year, editors at Science magazine
compile a list of the year’s top achievements in science and technology.
For 2012, their top pick was the long-anticipated confirmation of the existence of the so-called "God particle," which is believed to be a building block of the universe.
Science breakthough of 2012
The confirmation of the existence of a sub-atomic particle known as the Higgs boson
was named breakthrough of the year by the prestigious Science
The long-sought-after particle - believed to impart mass to all other matter in the universe - was made by researchers at the CERN
particle physics lab near Geneva, using the $5.5 billion atom smasher called the Large Hadron Collider.
In a podcast interview on the magazine’s website, Science
deputy news editor Robert Coontz said the discovery fills an important gap in our understanding of the physical structure of the universe.
“The Higgs boson is a fundamental particle that completes physicists’ standard model, which describes all the fundamental particles and the forces with which they interact.”
Coontz said the discovery, first hypothesized by physicist Peter Higgs 40 years ago, may spark a new round of discoveries in particle physics.
“That’s what the scientists at CERN are going to be looking for," he said, "that beyond the standard model lies this theory; one of them is called ‘super symmetry’ in which every particle in the standard model has another particle that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
Matter and anti-matter
Another major breakthrough listed by Science
was further proving the existence of so-called anti-matter particles which annihilate themselves.
These elusive, short-lived particles may have practical applications in information technology, and the development of the so-called quantum computer.
“Computers that are based on things called qubits instead of bits," Coontz said. "So, it could well be that these will turn out to be the key to these super-duper computers unlike anything else we have, and that will be a breakthrough of the year, if it happens. This year all they’ve got is quasi particles that have these properties.”
Quantum computers would be vastly more efficient at storing and processing data than today’s silicon-chip computers, according to Coontz.
An ancient finger bone found in a Siberian cave, believed to be from an extinct early human species known as Denisovan
, made the Science
list in 2011 and again this year.
Last year, DNA was extracted from the fossilized bone. This year, researchers managed to sequence the complete genome using a new technique that revealed as much genetic detail as could be obtained from a living person.
The genome allowed scientists to construct the profile of a three-year-old girl with brown hair, brown eyes and brown skin who lived about 80,000 years ago, who had a similar genetic makeup to people who today live in parts of Asia and the Pacific.
“They find out that some of them have Denisovan genes in them and that means that our ancestors interbred with some of them,” Coonz said.
Brain machine interface
The research team that previously showed how the mind could be used to move a cursor on a computer screen demonstrated an even greater feat in 2012.
They showed that people paralyzed by injuries or disease could use their minds to move an electro-mechanical arm
, with their thought-impulses conducted over wires surgically implanted in their brains.
“The progress that took place in 2012 is very hopeful, and I’m sure that we’ll see a lot more," Coonz said. "Now that they’ve managed to make this technology work, it will just get cheaper and better and more graceful and more useful as time goes by.”
Among the year’s other major advances recognized by the Science
editors was the ingenious landing system
that enabled NASA’s car-sized Curiosity rover to set down, flawlessly, on the surface of Mars.
Also, there's a new instrument which gives scientists the ability to alter genes in fish, toads and other animals.
Additionally, the list includes a laser that's one billion times brighter than conventional x-rays. The scanning technology was used to determine the structure of an enzyme required by the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness, raising hope for new treatments.