The biggest, craziest, gee-whizziest science stories of 2012

Science writer Kate Lunau picks her favourite stories of the year

by Kate Lunau

Rex Features/CP

It was a big year for science.

Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first International Space Station commander, blasted off on the mission of a lifetime.

The line between human and machine became ever finer, as a paralyzed woman ate a chocolate bar with a prosthetic arm controlled by her own mind.

There was bombastic Canadian filmmaker James Cameron’s record plunge into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans; and the Curiosity rover’s nail-biter of a landing on Mars, where the one-ton robotic geologist is now seeking signs that our neighbouring planet could support life.

On the 35th anniversary of its launch, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft was set to break free of our solar system altogether, becoming humankind’s first interstellar emissary.

Stem cells were used to create eggs in mice, which gave birth to healthy offspring, hinting at human fertility treatments of the future.

And SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first private vehicle to dock with the Space Station, marking the start of a powerful new shift in how humans live and work in space.

The year’s most jaw-dropping moment, though, was the discovery of the Higgs boson—the so-called “God particle”—by a team of literally thousands of scientists from around the world, working for decades on one of the largest experiments ever conceived. A tiny bit of the universe, the Higgs boson particle explains why we all exist.

But as 2012 comes to a close, there’s enough lists out there. Instead of revisiting these major moments, here’s some of my other favourite science stories of 2012—stories that stuck with me —and a few things I’ll be watching in 2013.

1. A planetary bounty

Not so long ago, we didn’t know for sure if there were any planets outside of our solar system. Now we’re starting to see that other worlds might be more common than stars, and their variation is incredible. This year we learned about a massive diamond planet, a lonely rogue planet floating freely in space, and a place that resembles Star Wars‘ fictional Tatooine, but even more elaborate than anything George Lucas dreamed up: the two-sunned planet is orbited by two more stars, the only solar system of its kind ever seen.

Closer to home, the star Tau Ceti, a mere 12 light years away, might even host a planet that can support life.

Worlds in our own solar system have their own surprises, too: NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence that water once flowed on freeze-dried Mars, and on Titan—one of Saturn’s many moons—a “mini Nile river” was spotted flowing into a large sea. (Unlike our Nile, Titan’s river is probably full of liquid hydrocarbons; it’s the only place we know of, other than Earth, with liquid at the surface.)

It’s tempting to want to pay these other places a visit, but current technology could never get us as far as another solar system. That might not be true forever. In September, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center revealed he’s working on a real-life warp drive.

2. Dinosaurs: fast and feathery

Remember when dinosaurs were fat, slow, and scaly? That’s how we used to depict them in movies, books and museums, but our understanding of these creatures has undergone some seismic changes, and continued to shift in 2012. Today, we know that carnivorous theropod dinosaurs like T. rex were often active, agile—and, at least in some cases, feathered.

This year, scientists unveiled the incredible Yutyrannus huali, or “beautiful feathered tyrant,” a massive cousin of T. rex covered in plumage, and by far the biggest feathered dinosaur we’ve found. And a Canadian team announced specimens of ornithomimids, 75 million years old, that also show evidence of feathers, making them the first feathered dinos ever seen in the Americas. (Until now, most have come from China.) Some palaeontologists now wonder if all dinosaurs had feathers—a striking idea. But traditionalists can rest easy for now, at least at the movies: next year, Jurassic Park is scheduled for re-release in 3D, and while its special effects look better than ever, the preview shows charging ornithomimids still scaly and featherless.

3.  A personal factory, at home

Imagine being able to download whatever you like off the Internet, or even design it yourself—an electric guitar, maybe a full-size house—then print it off, in your own personal factory. That’s the promise of 3D printers, and this year, it seemed they were everywhere.

MakerBot, which sells a desktop 3D printer model for about $2,200, opened its first retail store in New York. Author Chris Anderson’s new book, Makers, spoke of a “new industrial revolution” as the DIY movement takes off, partly thanks to these devices. Beyond just metal and plastic, 3D printers are being dreamed up that could print everything from food, to human cells (maybe one day capable of turning out out a transplantable kidney) and body parts, too.

DNA pioneer Craig Venter talked about emailing downloadable vaccines around the world that could be produced on 3D biological printers. Washington State University scientists practised printing artificial lunar dust into various shapes, suggesting we could use 3D printers on the moon one day to make tools and other supplies instead of launching them from Earth. Of course, putting such a limitless technology in the hands of everyone, makes some people nervous. Defense Distributed, a Texas non-profit, wants to create a fully downloadable and printable gun, and this year they got very close to doing it, firing six rounds from a partially printed rifle before the gun broke apart.

4. Waking up to climate change (again and again and again)

This year, more than 62 per cent of the U.S. was plagued by widespread drought,  decimating crops and causing food prices to soar. Arctic sea ice was reported shrinking to record-low levels yet again, reaching the smallest ever recorded, and covering less than half of the area that would have been typical just four decades ago.

Off the West Coast of Canada, a a massive geoengineering experiment came to light, igniting debate on a controversial idea—that we could deliberately tinker with the climate through manmade means, to slow global warming—which some say could save the planet, and others insist could doom us for good. After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in October, global warming briefly made an appearance in the U.S. presidential election: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, publicly backed President Barack Obama’s bid for re-election, saying he was a better choice to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, until then, climate change hadn’t come up once in the presidential debates.

5. Do animals qualify as non-human people?

In February I attended the annual meeting of the AAAS, the world’s biggest general scientific society, and got to hear talks on all sorts of fascinating stuff, like bizarre underwater creatures, and the science of superheroes.

One of the most well-attended was about “cetacean rights”—whether whales and dolphins should qualify as “non-human people.” By this point, we know that dolphins seem to understand numbers and abstract concepts. They’ve been observed using sponges as tools to find food. Whale species are said to have their own culture; I’ve previously written about the complexities of sperm whale language, and traditions passed down between generations.

As the movement to give cetaceans legal rights rolls on, we saw more news this year showing just how remarkably “humanlike” many animals can be: like an Asian male elephant, named Koshik, which can apparently speak in Korean. (Like dolphins and some other species, elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror.) Or a beluga whale that mimics human sounds, and orangutans and gorillas that love playing with iPads. We increasingly understand animals as intelligent, even moral, creatures. It could have all sorts of implications, maybe first and foremost for the meat industry. How’s that test-tube hamburger coming along?

Thanks to everybody who submitted suggestions for this list over Twitter @katelunau and @MacleansMag.




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The biggest, craziest, gee-whizziest science stories of 2012

  1. test

  2. Finally a nice article of human progress, well done

  3. I have to take issue for item #4 on your list, that of “waking up to climate change”. This is not a story driven by science but by a misunderstanding of the science of climate by the public at large.

    You mention 3 items as triggers for this “awakening”: widespread drought in the US, dwindling arctic sea cover, and Hurricane Sandy. None of this awakening is in any way related to the science.

    1. Drought
    Drought is not only far from a freak occurence by itself, so to link it to climate change one must conclude that it is unusual that 62% of the US is exposed to drought. Except that there is compelling evidence that this drought is well within historical trends for the region, and that it has been much drier even during recorded post-colonial history.

    2. Arctic sea ice lower extent
    Your phrase “covering less than half of the area that would have been typical just four decades ago” is problematic. Four decades ago there was nothing “typical” since that’s exactly when we started holding consistent and comparable records (1978, to be precise). Arctic sea ice measurements are one of the weakest records of weather we have. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a cause to worry, but what it does mean is that it’s inadequate to draw too many conclusions on this.

    3. Hurricane Sandy
    I agree that lots of people started paying attention to the theory of climate change as a result of the hurricane, but this as well is highly problematic. How is this linked to climate change? Have there been hurricanes before? Yes. Have there been hurricanes more severe before? Yes. Have there been hurricanes going as far North before? Yes. So what’s special about this one? It happened in 2012 in a major world city. That’s it really.

    Therefore, if the world truly is awakening to climate change as a result of the above, and not through convincing the public through arguments and a better understanding of the science behind it, I fail to see how this is a science story for 2012. It’s actually rather depressing. It’s like convincing children that a hot stove is dangerous by hiding a crazy clown in the oven.

    - A thermodynamicist

    • Which is better, a kid burning themselves on a hot stove, or staying away from it because of a crazy clown that scared them once?

      Best is the kid avoiding it for the right reasons, sure. But I’ll take the crazy clown over the burnt kid any day of the week.

    • I have always been told global warming was always a scam Just another way to bring tons of money into government hands. similar to Y2K bug that was going to shut down all computers, put power out and the airplanes were all going to fall from the sky. Money Money Money. You have it all right, These are the kind of articles that need to be front page.

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