There is no doubt that science has become more like science fiction in the past decade, with amazing innovations and discoveries that increased our understanding of the universe. We list ten of the biggest science stories from the past decade.
This was the decade of the first face transplant, the first extinct species brought back from the dead, and printable human tissue; a decade that brought us closer to synthetic life forms and the invisibility cloak. But we’ve whittled it down to ten of the decade’s biggest science stories, with discoveries, advances, and topics that are sure to change our lives in the next ten years.
It’s Full of Planets: This was a big decade for planets, and not just because Pluto got a downgrade. In 2005, astronomers discovered Eris, a dwarf planet larger Pluto (as well as smaller dwarf planets Haumea and Makemake). Eris’ discovery prompted the International Astronomical Union to actually define the term planet, leading to Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet. But the discovery of Eris after all this time suggests there is still a lot to learn about our solar system.
We also got our first direct look at exoplanets, worlds outside our solar system, thanks to the Hubble Telescope. In 2008, astronomers at the Keck and Gemini captured the first images of planets orbiting distant stars. And the planetary discoveries just keep getting more exciting; just this week, astronomers announced that they had observed a super-Earth that might be made largely of liquid water.
Water, Water Everywhere: The world watched on as the Phoenix Lander dug through the Martian terrain for signs of water on the Red Planet. In the summer of 2008, NASA announced it had found definitive proof of water ice on Mars. More recently, scientists discovered that large deposits of water ice exist beneath the planet’s surface. This fall, the moon became the center of our watery attention when astronomers found evidence of water throughout the moon’s surface. Although the supervillainous plot to bomb the moon didn’t seem as initially impressive as we had hoped, the probe did confirm researchers’ suspicions that the moon does, in fact, contain a significant amount of frozen water. These discoveries not only reveal more about our solar system, they indicate that, should humans try to colonize Mars or the moon, there will be resources to make survival a little easier.
Shaking Up the Human Family Tree: Humanity got a new great-great-grandmother (or perhaps she’s our great-great-great-aunt) in Ardi, a fossilized hominid skeleton found in Ethiopia. Granted, Ardipithecus ramidus was discovered in 1992, but it wasn’t until 2009 that she was revealed as a significant addition to our family tree. Although there’s technically no “missing link” because humans didn’t evolve from chimpanzees, Ardi is, so far, our closest link to chimps, and brings us closer to the common human-chimp ancestor than ever before. Analysis of Ardi’s skeleton and probably anatomy reveals just how unlike either chimps that common ancestor is bound to be. One of the Ardi researchers even quipped that when we find that common ancestor, it might look less like we evolved from a chimp-like creature and more like chimps evolved from creatures more like us.
The Book of Life Recorded: Our understanding of human genetics reached a new milestone with the mapping of the human genome. The Human Genome Project announced a rough draft of the human genome in 2000, followed by a more complete version in 2003; the sequence of the last chromosome was published in 2006. Though the genome hasn’t been 100 percent mapped, the Human Genome Project has completed its mapping goals. We still have to interpret the sequences we have recorded, but hopefully as we translate the book of our genetic lives, we will get a better understand of how our genes interact and improve our treatment of genetic diseases. Plus, the project has paved the way for sequencing other critters and plants, and, just this week, the lung cancer and melanoma genomes were sequenced.
Changing Your Genes: The promises of genetic engineering have really begun to bear fruit in the last few years, in ways far beyond Alba, the glowing transgenic bunny that grabbed headlines in 2000. In 1999, an 18-year-old with a, inherited liver disease died during a gene therapy trial, after suffering an unanticipated immune reaction to a viral vector. But in more recent years, gene therapy and genetic engineering have shown their promise. In 2000, scientists reported the first gene therapy success, having provided a patient with severe combine immunodeficiency (commonly known as “Bubble Boy” syndrome), though SCID gene therapy treatments were halted when patients developed leukemia. This year, gene therapy successfully treated children with a congenital form of blindness, giving them the ability to see for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, genetic engineering experiments on animals have cured color blindness in monkeys, created super-strong monkeys, created drug-producing rats, and enabled animals to pass their altered genes to their offspring.
Stem Cells Grow Up: Embryonic stem cells have been a source of contention for years, but in 2007, Shinya Yamanaka helped sidestep that issue when he found a way to reprogram adult skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. Stem cells themselves have continued to aid important medical advances. In 2008, researchers generated motor neurons from elderly patients with ALS, an advance that could help researchers better understand the disease. A newly released study has suggested that a mini stem cell transplant could reverse sickle cell disease, and stem cell research has lead to advances in HIV research and the treatment of heart disease.
Climate Change Takes Center Stage: One of the biggest science stories of the decade has been less about scientific advances than about how the public responds to scientific research. Reports that the glaciers are melting faster than expected, a decade of record warmth, and Al Gore’s Nobel Prize have all been part of the conversation on climate change and to what extent humans are responsible.
Commercial Spacecrafts Prepare to Take Flight: Amidst NASA budget cuts, commercial spaceflight has come to the forefront. The Ansari X Prize, first offered in 1996 for the first private enterprise that could fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilopmeters into space twice in one week. In 2004, the prize was finally won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ SpaceShipOne. That same year, Virgin Galactic was founded to further space tourism. The company recently unveiled SpaceShipTwo, the first commercial spacecraft. 2004 also saw the certification of the Mojave Air and Space Port, the first licensed facility for horizontal launches of reusable spacecraft in the US. In anticipation of the spaceflight business, one company claims it’s readying a space hotel.
Our Cyborg Present: In the last decade, humans and machines have gotten closer than ever. We have machines that can read our memories, computers that let us type with our brains, and robotic arms controlled by monkey minds. Perhaps the most impressive cyborg advances have come in the last few months, with researchers hooking amputees up to robotic arms that not only respond to electrical signals from the human brain, but also provide tactile feedback.
The LHC Comes Online: The Large Hadron Collider has just begun colliding proton beams, but its construction represents one of the most ambitious scientific undertakings ever. The immense particle accelerator will hopefully give us first-hand observations of aspects of the universe that have been, thus far, the realm of theoretical physics. Despite fears from doomsayers that the LHC would destroy the world and a series of mishaps that led to claims that the device was being sabotaged from the future, the LHC came online this year and quickly got to smashing protons at record-breaking speeds.