22 December 2011

Your favourite moments of 2011

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We reveal the top 10 most popular news stories for 2011, with everything from alien trees to walking cacti in the mix.
gliese-581d

In a recent study, Gliese-581d was ranked the 3rd most habitable planet known, after Earth and gliese-581g. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

~ Becky Crew

The great thing about being involved in science communication is that as we reflect on every year past, there’s never a time when we can’t legitimately say, “This has been a big year for science.” In fact, it’s a pretty pointless thing to say, because for as long as humans are alive and curious, every year will be a big year for science.

Looking over the most popular COSMOS news stories for the past 12 months, there’s a common theme that runs through almost all of them – they captured your imagination. Whether its otherworldly trees, strange fossils, stranger LHC results or the prospect of burrowing deeper into the Earth than ever before, each of these discoveries had the “What if?” factor. And the odd one out is surely there because Greenpeace deprived you of your “What if?” moment before you had the chance to entertain it.

Here are the top 10 most popular news stories for 2011 as determined by COSMOS Online readers. We will be taking a break over Christmas and will be back in early January. We hope each of you has a safe and very lovely holiday.

Top 10 reader’s choice 2011

1. First ‘habitable’ exoplanet confirmed

A rocky world orbiting a nearby star was confirmed as the first planet outside our Solar System to meet key requirements for sustaining life.

Ranked third in a list published a month ago in the journal Astrobiology of the 10 most habitable planets found so far (Earth and Gliese 581g came in first and second respectively), Gliese 581d is just one of the Earth-like planets discovered this year. Especially exciting about the suggestion that this planet could harbour life is that during Australia’s National Science Week in August 2009, COSMOS partnered with the Australian government, NASA and the CSIRO to run a 13-day campaign called Hello From Earth to send messages from the public to this very planet.

2. Student finds universe’s missing mass

A 22-year-old Australian university student has solved a problem which has puzzled astrophysicists for decades, discovering part of the so-called ‘missing mass’ of the universe during her summer break.

Now that’s what I call an internship. Through X-ray analysis, Amelia Fraser-McKelvie discovered that cosmic filaments could contain an amount of mass large enough to contend with the theory of dark matter.

3. Cloaking device makes objects vanish in a mirage

A new cloaking device made from heated up carbon nanotubes has been used to replicate the ‘mirage effect’.

Don’t plan on robbing any banks or slipping into the zoo for free just yet – this is a mere step towards the very distant goal of an invisibility cloak that Harry Potter would be happy with. We’ve seen a lot of this type of research in the recent past, but this one, which makes an entire piece of tape vanish, was really something.

4. Journey to the mantle of the Earth by 2020

A half-century after the first attempt to drill through the ocean crust into the Earth’s mantle, a new campaign armed with improved technology is underway that could reach the mantle by the end of the decade, researchers say.

“If successful, this would be the first in situ sampling of the largest part of our planet,” said geochemist Damon Teagle, co-author of the report. This was the beginning of a true adventure into the depths of our own planet, but we will have to wait another few years before the preliminary test-drilling is completed.

5. Self-renewing human lung stem cell discovered

Human lung stem cells that are self-renewing have been identified for the first time in a discovery that could offer important clues for treating chronic lung diseases.

With hopes that this discovery could lead to new treatments for those who suffer from chronic lung diseases by regenerating or repairing damaged areas of the lung, this was a pretty exciting story. But because the lung is such a highly complex organ and an overwhelming patchwork of different cell types, it’s probably a long way off just yet.

6. Walking cactus gives arthropod evolution a leg-up

An international team of paleontologists may have found the evolutionary key to the most diverse species on earth – in the form of a walking, sea-dwelling, armoured ‘cactus’.

Okay, okay, so it wasn’t an actual walking cactus, but this scuttling, sea-dwelling, armoured ‘cactus’ worm named Diania cactiformis was seriously weird in its own right. The researchers suggest that it could be the link between the Lobopodians, a group of extinct invertebrates that lived from the early Cambrian to the Carboniferous, and the arthropods, the richest species on Earth today.

7. Did particles break the speed of light?

In breaking news, physicists reported Thursday that sub-atomic particles called neutrinos can travel faster than light, a finding that – if verified – would blast a hole in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

And then last month the experiment was adjusted and redone, and produced the same result. But nothing is confirmed yet, say physicists, as more adjustments will be made before another test is conducted. When talking about this experiment, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said that the best feeling you can have as a scientist is to find out you were wrong, and have to rethink everything. Only time will tell if we have to rethink the standard model of physics.

8. Greenpeace destroys CSIRO wheat GM trial

In the early hours of July 14, Greenpeace protestors gained illegal entry into an experimental CSIRO operated farm near Canberra and destroyed a crop of genetically modified (GM) wheat.

This one really struck a chord amongst COSMOS staff, as it was such a devastating blow to the CSIRO scientists who had been working for 10 years to come up with a solution to abate world hunger. The crop they had developed contained a higher level of nutritional value than ordinary wheat does, but it was illegally destroyed by Greenpeace activists.

9. Earth-like planets could grow black trees

A sky with two suns is a favorite image for science fiction films, but how would a binary star system affect the appearance of life evolving on an orbiting planet?

This is one of those highly speculative studies that doesn’t really offer much by way of practical applications, but it was such a fun idea.

10. Video captures critically rare Javan rhinos

Hidden motion-activated video cameras have captured proof that Javan rhinos are breeding in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, conservationists calling it the last hope for the endangered mammals.

The devastating reality is that all the evidence seems to suggest that it is inevitable that rhinos will soon be poached to extinction. It was reported last month that a subspecies of the western black rhino native to western Africa is now extinct, and central Africa’s northern white rhino has been listed as “possibly extinct in the wild”. The Javan rhino is now making a last stand after the last one left in Vietnam was killed by poachers in 2010.

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