By Richard Solash
The most intriguing breakthrough in the world of science this past year may have taken place in a 27-kilometer-long tunnel deep below the border of Switzerland and France.
That’s where researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) say they moved one possible step closer to solving one of the universe’s greatest mysteries.
Their groundbreaking experiments in particle physics were the highlight of 2011’s notable scientific and technological advances.
The group’s director-general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, revealed on December 13 that he and his team had found “intriguing hints” that an elusive subatomic particle, theorized to be a basic building block of the universe, actually exists.
“We still need many more collisions next year in order to get a definite answer on the Shakespeare questions on the Higgs [boson]: To be or not to be,” Heuer said. “But I think we have made extremely good progress.”
The Higgs boson particle — dramatically dubbed the “God particle” — is thought to help impart mass to all matter in the universe. In decades of work, researchers have been unable to prove its existence.
Its discovery would rank among the most significant in the history of physics and potentially answer some of the most perplexing questions about how the universe was created.
Was Einstein Wrong?
A rival for science story of the year also came from CERN, which announced in September the stunning result of experiments that measured the speed of neutrinos, electrically neutral subatomic particles.
“We found that the neutrino apparently travels faster than light,” said Italian physicist Lucia Votano, the director of the National Laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy, who led the experiments.
“The time of the neutrino to travel from CERN to Gran Sasso in Italy should have taken 2.4 milliseconds. We found that the neutrinos traveled in such a way that their time of flight was 60 nanoseconds earlier than expected,” she added, which means the neutrinos traveled “0.0001 percent faster than light. It’s apparently very small, but its physics effect is a big effect.”
If confirmed, the finding would prove that Albert Einstein’s central tenet — that the speed of light is the maximum possible velocity — is not always true.
The Hunt For The ‘Goldilocks Planet’
The year in planetary-science research ended on a high note, with NASA’s announcement in early December that scientists at the U.S. space agency had found the first-ever planet in the “habitable zone,” the window of distance from a star where Earth-like conditions for life could exist.
Pete Worden, the director of California’s Ames Research Center, called the discovery “a major milestone on the journey to finding Earth’s twin.” He said the discovery was “a tantalizing indication that with time, [the] Kepler [spacecraft] may find true Earth analogs — if they exist. We’re getting closer and closer to discovering the so-called ‘Goldilocks planet,’ that is, both Earth-like and in a habitable zone.”
More dazzling space news this year was the discovery of a planet that appears to be made of diamond. And what a shame it would be if the cosmic sparkler were to fall down one of the “monstrous” black holes that U.S. astrophysicists also discovered this year. At 10 billion times the mass of the sun, they are the largest black holes known to exist.
Prenatal Pens And The Devil Worm
In 2011 in the field of medicine, scientists tested a promising possible treatment for leukemia that turns a patient’s own blood cells into “assassins” able to track down and destroy cancer cells.
U.S. researchers also developed a pen, costing just $1, that can identify prenatal diseases early and accurately. The new diagnosis tool could help women in developing countries head off dangerous pregnancy complications.
No summary of the year in science would be complete without a mention of the newly discovered “devil worm,” or Halicephalobus mephisto, a microscopic creature that now holds the title of deepest-living animal ever found.
The worm has evolved to withstand the staggering heat and pressure of life 3.6 kilometers underground.
The Cloud Emerges
Above ground, there was plenty of new technology this year to keep the tech-savvy occupied.
We witnessed the rise of “cloud computing,” which lets users store all kinds of data — from documents to music — on a network outside a computer’s hard drive. People who use “clouds” can access their data from any computing device, including smart phones.
Brian Chen, a reporter for “The New York Times” technology blog, “Bits,” says the popularity of cloud computing soared this year, after computer giant Apple began offering it.
Noting that “big players” like Microsoft and Amazon are involved, as well as smaller firms like Dropbox, “one of the hottest start-ups this year,” Chen believes that “the way that this trend is going is that at some point we’re going to be able to juggle our information between multiple devices without really having to make much of an effort. It’s kind of like having a magic pocket; you stuff the information in one place and you’re able to access it anywhere.”
The past year also saw the continued growth of social networks, as Facebook surpassed 640 million users and Twitter grew to 200 million users.
Voice recognition and so-called artificial intelligence also expanded in 2011, but Chen says the ability to ask your phone for the weather forecast is “thinking small.”
“Think about all the things that just don’t work very well and how much easier it would be if we could just talk to the device and have the device tell us what to do,” Chen explains.
“Say you’re in a car and a yellow light [starts flashing]. You could ask the car what the yellow light means and the car would say, ‘You have this problem with your engine and here’s what you need to do.’ This is, ideally, what we’re thinking is going to be happening with artificial intelligence-powered voice assistance in the next few years.”
Indeed, like the hunt for the “God particle” and the search for a cure to cancer, most of 2011’s scientific and technological breakthroughs represent just the beginning of what’s to come.
- Rael: ‘Will Research About the Speed of Light Be Forbidden Soon?’ (prnewswire.com)
- Science with ties to Fermilab top yearend ‘best of’ lists (quantumdiaries.org)
- Whether we find the Higgs Boson or not, particle physics is a benefit to us all | Jon Butterworth (guardian.co.uk)
- Closing In On ‘God’? Scientists Point To Possible Signs Of Higgs Boson Particle – RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty (rferl.org)
- CERN Finds Higgs Boson Evidence, But Not Enough to Be Conclusive (mashable.com)
- A science news preview of 2012 – Jason Palmer and Paul Rincon – BBC News – Science & Environment (richarddawkins.net)
- CERN ATLAS: No Higgs boson yet (but CMS findings still to come) (extremetech.com)
- Reclocked CERN neutrinos still break the speed limit (news.cnet.com)
- International Linear Collider race starts in physics – USA TODAY (usatoday.com)