’Tis the season for listicles rounding up the stories of the year. So with, the authority vested in me, here is a selection of six top, bottom and forgotten science stories of 2014.
The Rosetta drama reached fever pitch in November with the descent of Philae to the surface of a comet. But let’s not forget the slow build to the plot, starting with a launch back in 2004 setting Rosetta on a path that involved four gravitational “slingshots” around Earth and Mars, three orbits of the Sun, two close encounters with asteroids and a rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August. Chasing down the four kilometre-wide comet travelling at 135,000 km/hr and then touching down on its surface was a staggering feet of precision, roughly equivalent to a marksman hitting a bulls-eye on a one metre target from a million kilometres away (three times the distance from the Earth to the Moon).
Be prepared for a potential 2015 sequel which may see the hibernating Philae awaken as its ride approaches the Sun and the little probe’s solar panels eke enough power out of the rays to spring back to life.
Best quiet achiever
The year 2014 was observed, by the UN, as an international year for small island developing states, family farming and of crystallography. Crystallography wins out. It is a technique that usually gets little mainstream attention despite its importance to chemistry, physics and biology. Its implementation has led to no less than 27 Nobel prizes, not to mention the development of countless medical advances, technological discoveries and engineering innovations.
And so 2014 saw an effort from major science and media outlets to highlight the importance of the 100 year old technique to today’s world.
The Ebola epidemic started in Guéckédou in Guinea, where a two-year-old girl who died in late 2013, is believed to be the first case. In March the CDC announced the outbreak and since then the virus and the resting hemorrhagic fever has dominated the science news. By the end of November more than 17,000 people had been infected resulting in more than 6,000 deaths.
The ramifications could be felt worldwide, with health screening at international airports, western hospitals prepping to handle Ebola victims, court rulings on the quarantine of infected health workers and unprecedented circumvention of drug trials in an attempt to rush experimental drugs and vaccines into use.
In 1916 Einstein predicted the existence of waves and a corresponding particle, the graviton, that are responsible for gravity. But almost a century later and despite a plethora of massive experiments, direct evidence of either the waves or particles is sorely lacking. Without this evidence the two dominating pillars of physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics, remain at odds.
So in March the science world was aflutter with the news of the discovery of these allusive gravitational waves. The BICEP2 telescope in the heart of Antarctica peering into the distant Universe and back to the afterglow of the Big Bang found tantalising signs of the long sought gravity waves.
Before the talk of Nobel prizes could die down, the evidence disappeared in a cloud of dust. The data that looked so promising turned out to be the result of fine matter scattered throughout our galaxy.
But in science there is no shame in a u-turn. Theories and interpretations are adapted in the face of evidence. And so the hunt for the source of gravity continues.
Most overlooked innovation
In the decade that Rosetta was homing in on its target, research into a far less dramatic topic was gaining traction.
Cancer immunotherapy went mainstream this year. It may not have had the same media coverage as space science and medical epidemics, but its likely to have a greater impact on many of our lives.
The therapy exploits subtle differences between the surface proteins on cancer and normal cells, then persuades our own immune system to recognise these differences and attack the cancer cells.
The fruits of this research ripened in 2014, with trials underway and promising successes reported in top the journal Science and Nature Cancer reviews published 24 articles on the subject.
The year saw the passing of some truly great and influential scientists. To name three:
Chemist Stephanie Kowlek was most well known for her work on a compound beloved by soldiers and cyclists alike. For she invented the kevlar used in bullet-proof vests and puncture-resistant tires. Kowlek’s chemical was patented by Dupont for whom she served for 40 years.
Gerald Edelman received a Nobel prize for discovering the structure of antibodies. His work resolved questions about how our bodies deal with invaders. An understanding on which cancer immunotherapy now hangs. He passed away in May aged 84.
Julia Polak was a pioneer in stem cell and tissue engineering. Her own need for a lung transplant triggered her desire to research growing artificial implants. She died aged 75, almost 20 years after her transplant.
Their achievements, of course, live on. So here’s looking forward to a bright 2015.