Science 2008 – Part 1 December 23, 2008Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.
So I’m a sucker for year end lists. Top ten movies of 2008? Can’t live without it. Top 15 albums of the year? Yes. Top 25 pictures of the year? Of course. Top 5 new influential blogs dedicated to wrestling with faith, science and big questions started this year? You tell me.
Considering my arguably obsessive compulsive penchant for categorizing the year’s events into a tidy and prioritized package, I can’t see any better way to bid adieu to 2008 than to give you Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!
So sit back and let your imagination wander a bit. It’s time for us all to brush up on not only the fundamentals of how the world works but also take time to glimpse the horizon where human knowledge is just beginning to push. Reality is fascinating stuff.
To kick things off it’s everyone’s favorite visitor from the last ice age. The Woolly Mammoth made headlines this year, luckily not because Ray Romano was making another movie, but because researchers from Penn State were able to sequence the DNA of a mammoth, a species extinct now for 10,000 years.
A quick reminder: DNA is the long (very long) molecule held in each cell of every living organism which literally contains the instructions for how to build the complete organism. To sequence an animal’s DNA means that we’ve written out the pattern of ‘base pairs’ or letters that enable us to read the instructions piece by piece. This is a monumental task considering the complete mammoth genome contains over 3 billion base-pairs!
The previous record for sequencing the DNA of an extinct species was less than 1% of the genome. 2008 was a year when we jumped miles beyond that record to be able to read almost the entire instruction book for putting a mammoth together. The implications here range from the really cool (i.e. learning tons about mammoth and elephant evolution) to the really, really, really cool. Staggering actually, when we consider that it may be soon possible to bring the mammoth back to life armed with a complete genome.
Researchers in Kyoto, Japan have actually shown that by using an fMRI scan of patients’ brains they can predict what the patient is looking at. In the above picture you can see the test patterns the patients were presented and the resulting pattern the computer was able to reconstruct. Pretty good.
The computer imaging works because the part of your brain that processes information from your eyes, the visual cortex, directly maps whatever falls on your retina to the brain. By using an fMRI scan to evaluate the blood flow in the visual cortex, the researchers were able read this map and determine what the eyes were perceiving.
Admittedly, most news reports of this research were a bit overstated, claiming that we will soon be reading dreams or peoples thoughts, which isn’t quite warranted. These images aren’t really reading peoples’ thoughts per se but instead evaluating how the visual cortex processes information. The next step in my mind is to have people ‘imagine’ an image and see if we can similarly read the pattern. However, even with these limitations I’m still blown away by the serious strides we are making in unlocking the workings of arguably the most complex piece of machinery in the known universe, your brain!
Okay, so this one is probably going to be the toughest for me to write about. Quantum mechanics is confounding. Apparently this means we’re on the right track though: Niels Bohr is quoted as saying that, “For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” If you’re not familiar with this branch of physics, quantum mechanics is the study of atomic and subatomic particles and forces. At this scale the universe is frankly wacky and counterintuitive for us big lumbering humans.
This year Swiss physicists have demonstrated a well-established phenomenon in quantum mechanics called entanglement in a new and stunning way. By sending a pair of photons via fiber optic cable from Geneva to two villages separated by 11 miles they were able to show that when one photon was observed the other changed instantaneously. This essentially means that the photons are linked (or entangled) and able to influence each other without regard for the distance they are separated by.
These findings are radical because they challenge our very understanding of space and time itself. For those who think science is dogmatic or rigid they need look no further than the research being done with quantum mechanics to see a revolution in human understanding in the making. Breathtaking!
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year was awarded jointly to researchers who developed “green fluorescent protein” or GFP over the past 20 years. What the heck is GFP? Well I’m glad you asked.
Many animals (a la fire flies and jellyfish) are able to emit light through biological processes, bioluminescence. These researchers were able to isolate the specific protein which enabled cells to glow green in a specific jellyfish and insert it at will into other cells of other organisms. Essentially, they modify the DNA of a cell so that whenever a particular function of that cell occurs it lights up like a Christmas tree.
Harnessing GFP goes well beyond enabling us to produce dramatic pictures (even though this aspect is pretty cool). By the way, the picture above is of a embryonic zebra-fish with its neurons lit up. They call it a ‘brainbow’! GFP has also become an essential tool in studying biological process by its ability to tag and track individual cells as they mature, function and die.
In 1997 we launched a probe named Cassini to the system surrounding Saturn. It took seven years to cross interplanetary space and in 2004 it arrived to start studying Saturn and its moons. One of the most surprising finds has been from a previously nondescript small icy moon named Enceladus. In 2008 Cassini returned fantastic evidence that may just point us to the first discovery of extraterrestrial life.
What we’ve found on Enceladus is evidence of tectonic activity attested to by the relative lack of craters and the existence of deep fissures and cracks on the surface. On what should be a frozen solid piece of rock we’ve instead discovered enough heat to drive geological activity. Jets of powdery snow and water vapor are spewed miles into space from massive surface geysers. Some of them spewed so far as to be forming some of Saturn’s rings. What’s more, these ejections are chock-full of organic compounds. The current theory is that Enceladus has a surface of ice sheets similar to tectonic plates which float on a deep mantle of liquid water.
What do we get when we combine energy + organic compounds + liquid water? A very freaking fertile environment for life! The possibility that beneath massive sheets of ice there might be lurking microbial life in a liquid sea which has arisen 750 million miles from Earth is awesome. I’m almost at a loss for words…but don’t worry just almost. By the way for some additional pics that kick ass check out this link.
Well that wraps it up for the first 5 stories. Keep an eye out next week for the remaining stories that round out Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!
Before I let you go, vote below for the story that you found most interesting: