2011 has been a remarkable and diverse year for science. Everything from physics, medicine, genetics to cosmology has been in the spotlight or news at some point during the year.
Now that 2011 has come to a close, we will take a look at the top 10 scientific discoveries and breakthroughs of this past year.
Quantum Computer On A Single CPU
The 10th place spot goes to Matteo Mariantoni and colleagues for being the first to implement a quantum version of the “Von Neumann” architecture found in home computers. Based on superconducting circuits and integrated on a single chip, the new “CPU” has been used to perform two important quantum-computing related algorithms. Its creation helps to move us closer to the development of practical quantum computers that can solve real-life problems and help move us into the 21st century.
Neandrathal Genes Survive in Us
Some of the first genetic evidence that early Homo sapiens mated and reproduced with Homo neandertalensis was actually introduced back in 2010, but it was findings of a study published back in July of this year that solidified it.
The study determined that some of the human X chromosome originates from Neanderthals, but only in people of non-African heritage. Researchers believe that most, if not all, of the interbreeding between Humans and Neanderthals took place in the Middle East, when modern humans were migrating out of Africa.
With a radius 2.4x that of Earth, NASA scientists have confirmed that Kepler-22b is the first planet we’ve ever discovered that orbits its sun within the so-called “Goldilocks Zone”. This makes it the most Earth-like planet we have discovered.
The “Goldilocks Zone” is a term that refers to the habitable zone which is the region surrounding a star in which an orbiting planet could maintain liquid water. It would be not too hot or cold. It would be “just right“.
Measuring The Universe With Black Holes
Darach Watson and colleagues have worked out a way to use supermassive black holes – which exist at the center of most galaxies – as “standard candles” for making accurate measurements of cosmic distances.
The work is important because these kinds of black holes can be found just about everywhere in the universe. Unlike the current method of using a specific type of supernovae, the light produced by these active galactic nuclei endures for long periods of time.
Flushing Senescent Cells
Gerontologists showed in November, that flushing aged, broken-down cells from the bodies of mice indeed slowed down their aging. This was powerful proof that so-called “cellular senescence” did matter.
Though, despite the fact that this same process cannot be performed on people as was performed on these genetically modified mice, the findings and results could create a whole new generation of aging research.
Photosynthetic Protein Captured
Researchers in Japan have mapped, in striking detail, the structure of the Photosystem II protein, a protein that plants use to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Their crystal-clear image shows off the protein’s catalytic center and reveals the specific orientation of atoms inside.
Thanks to this discovery, scientists will now have access to this catalytic structure which could also hold the key to developing a powerful source of cheap and clean energy.
Scientists at Oxford University developed the world’s first vaccine against the malaria parasite which has been shown to be effective against even the most deadliest strains.
The vaccine cut the risk of infection by nearly half — an amazing achievement, considering this is the first vaccine against a human parasite, which infects millions of children each year.
Hints of the Higgs Boson
The LHC may have found what it was looking for in December when results from two experiments showed a small data bump in their results which just might be the elusive “God Particle” – the Higgs boson.
If further testing corroborates the results, finding the Higgs will likely be seen as one of the 21st century’s greatest discoveries.
Faster Than Light Particles
Researchers at OPERA announced in September that they had measured neutrinos traveling faster than light. Most physicists dismissed the finding, believing it to be a systemic error in the measurement or an overlooked error in the analysis, but the team’s most recent findings — gathered from a second, more finely-tuned version of the first experiment — revealed that their work still stands.
More rigorous tests will come soon via independent research teams, the results of which, will not be available until next year at the earliest. While many scientists aren’t holding their breath, if confirmed, the FTL neutrinos could very well become the biggest scientific discovery in history.
HIV Treatment For Prevention
The journal Science has named the HIV study, known as HPTN 052, as the most important scientific breakthrough of 2011. The clinical trial of the treatment showed that people with HIV are 96% less likely to transmit the virus to their partners if they take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).
The findings end a long-standing debate over whether antiretroviral drugs could provide a double benefit by treating the virus in patients while also effectively cutting transmission rates. Researchers now agree that it’s clear that ARVs provide treatment as well as prevention when it comes to HIV.