12/30/2011

Coolest Science & Technology Breakthroughs of 2011


Here's my favorite year-end list of all: the coolest science and technology breakthroughs of 2011.  When I get frustrated by the ignorance and waste of politicians, pondering the brilliant initiatives our world's scientists are getting up to (somewhat) restores my hope. 
  1. Cloud computing wasn't introduced in 2011, but 2011 was the year when regular folks started understanding what it meant, and learned to appreciate its conveniences.  Almost everyone I know now has a Dropbox account.  Does this mean those cute novelty USB drives (the ones shaped like kittens and rocket ships) soon be a thing of the past? 
  2. Google+.  Google has tried to take on Facebook before.  (Remember Google Buzz? Google Wave? Didn't think so.) But this time they're supporting the launch of Google+ with advertising and all the good will they've built up over the years.  Doubtless they're hoping to capitalize on Facebook's many misteps this past year, launching a series of poorly explained "tweeks" that chipped away at users' privacy rights.  And something about circles ....
  3. iStuff. This year's iOfferings included the highly anticipated iPad2 and the iPhone4S.  But with Verizon's Droid phones offering a viable alternative to Apple's iPhones, and with the death of Steve Jobs in October, could this be the last year that Apple shows up on my yearly "hot science and technologies" list?
  4. Kindle Fire/Nook Color.  I realize I identified this as a trend last year, but in 2011 the devices became practically ubiquitous, thanks to several new developments: (1) internet connectivity, allowing the devices to function as tablet computers, (2) color displays, and (3) efforts by libraries to make newly-published materials available in digital format to borrowers.
  5. A Cure for Aging?  For decades scientists have wondered about the role that damaged cells play in the aging process.  Finally, this past year, scientists figured out how to remove damaged cells from the bodies of a particular strain of genetically modified mice.  What happened?  The mice didn't live appreciably longer, but their quality of life was much higher, seeming to suggest that damaged cells do play a roll in aging.  All I can say is they need to get hopping on this, as I'm not getting any younger.
  6. Space Shuttle Retires.  The space shuttle program was characterized by a few tragic failures but a whole bunch of phenomenal successes.  In latter years it was primarily perceived as a way to resupply the International Space Stations - hardly the sexiest of missions - but would be wrong to forget all the other cool things it did: launched satellites, repaired space assets (remember when astronauts fixed the Hubble Space Telescope? coolest repair ever), and conducted experiments that furthered our understanding of the universe. 
  7. Higgs Boson found?  Physicists at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, announced that they are finally closing in on the elusive Higgs particle. The Higgs is the last, missing piece of the Standard Model, the physics version of Camelot.  That lowering of air pressure you're feeling?  That's 100,000 physicists around the world, all holding their breath.
  8. Faster Than the Speed of Light.  Speaking of CERN, they announced in Sep 2011 that they had timed a subatomic particle travelling 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light, which would seem to violate the laws of nature as we've come to understand them.  Guess I might as well throw out those notes I took in Physics 101 all those years ago - practically everything I learned is being debunked!  
  9. Arsenic-based life forms!  Maybe I should throw away my Biology 101 notes as well?  Because I was under the impression that all life forms on Earth are carbon based.  Not so!  In 2011, scientists announced the discovery of freaky arsenic-based life forms in a lake in California.  Or not?  Some argue that the DNA samples must have been tainted. But if the finding is verified, this means we're definitely going to need to expand our definition of "life".
  10. Mars Mission. The Mars Science Laboratory, a rover nicknamed Curiosity, is five times bigger than any of the previous Mars rovers.  Its mission is to find evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars and then to find evidence of microbial life that might have spawned on Mars billions of years ago. So far, scientists have found no conclusive evidence of life on Mars. But since Mars once had great oceans (one of them about the size of the U.S.) there is still hope that some form of life may have germinated on Mars.
  11. Humanity hits 7 Billion.  In October, the human population reached 7 billion. This happened just 12 years after we hit 6 billion; in contrast, it took humanity about 72,000 years to reach its first billion. According to the science fiction books I read as a teen, we're definitely going to start eating each other soon.
  12. E.T. Phone Home!  Using NASA's Kepler space telescope, astronomers spotted the closest planet yet to being considered a home away from home. The exoplanet, named Kepler 22-b, has a mass just 2.4 times greater than Earth's and orbits its parent star within the so-called 'habitable zone,' potentially giving it a temperate climate and the right conditions for life.
  13. Halting HIV?  A clinical trial completed this year conclusively proved that people taking ARVs to treat their HIV were 96% less likely to transmit HIV to others.  That's wonderful news for people trying to live normal lives with HIV, and provides hope that there may be a way to slow down the transmission of the disease in countries where AIDS is pandemic.
Am not going to include a list of science controversies of the year, but if I did, list would begin and end with fracking, a process that releases natural gas from shales but that has potentially scary environmental consequences, to include water contamination and destabalization of fault lines. A process only ExxonMobile could love.

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