Science & Technology 2012

| FROM ACADEMY PRESS | BY BENNETT VOGT | December, 2012 |

So far, 2012 has seen an number of exciting scientific developments. These include a plethora of verifications of global warming, uses for the wonder-molecule graphene, and applications of 3D-printers. I would like to briefly discuss some of the well known, and lesser known discoveries from this year.

Physics:

Higgs Boson:
This discovery produced a considerable amount of buzz earlier in the spring. It is effectively the next step in physicists grand endeavor to make a theory of everything. Scientists have known for a long time now about quark particles that compose neutrons and protons, but how a particle achieves the property of mass was still a question. Indeed some sub-atomic particles have no mass while others do. At the Large Hadron Collider this past spring, scientists confirmed the existence of the Higgs field, which is a field that effectively gives particles mass when they pass through it. This discovery is moving humans forward in the understanding of quantum mechanics.

Does Quantum Physics Have a Boundary?
Quantum Physics has rules which apply to the smallest particles known in the universe, but where is the boundary between classical physics and quantum physics rules? At what size do the rules of our macro understanding take precedence over the quantum ones? Physicists made a shocking discovery this year by repeating the double slit experiment with large molecules: between 58 and 114 atoms. The double slit experiment was the famous experiment which began quantum physics. The experiment revealed that electrons could somehow be both waves and particles. After performing the experiment with these huge molecules, scientists achieved the same result. This brings into question where the boundary between quantum and macro is, but scientists suspect they have reached it with these molecules.

Microwave Cloaking:
Delving into the realm of science fiction, we may be approaching the point of creating an invisibility cloak. The theory is that you can bend light around an object, effectively shielding it from view. This year scientists were able to cloak a small object, but it was only shielded from microwaves. This suggests that in the future objects could be shielded from lightwaves, thereby rendered invisible to our eyes.

Environment:

Honey Bee Parasite:
For those of you who don’t know, the world’s honey bee population is at risk. Bees have been dying around the world, causing major headaches for farmers and growers. Bees have an essential job in pollenating crops and plants, without them, new generations of plants cannot grow. Farmers in China are being forced to pollenate their crops by hand in some locations because there are not enough bees left. Thankfully, a parasite has been discovered which may be the cause of the dwindling bee population worldwide. The international community can now begin to treat this issue and prevent a more serious agricultural disaster.

Hexagonal Structure of Polyethylenimine:
Scientists unveiled a new kind of plastic this year which can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. It is well known that this polymer, polyethylenimine, can absorb CO2, but chemists effectively put that capability on steroids by folding the polymer chain into little hexagonal baskets which are ideal for absorbing the harmful greenhouse gas. I believe there is some potential for this plastic, I am just concerned about what happens when it gets full of CO2, and also how much energy is needed to create the plastic, which may make it produce more CO2 than it absorbs.

Pestalotiopsis microspora:
On the same issue of plastic, a new fungi has been discovered which could aid in the disposal of polyurethanes. The mushroom can actually survive on a “diet” of this kind of plastic, using it as the only source of carbon. This fungi could transform how recycling of plastics is handled by preventing its build up in landfills and by providing a natural method for breaking it down.

Energy:

Photonic Crystals:
A new form of crystal has been discovered which can convert heat directly into electricity. I’m not sure how efficient these crystals are, but the hope is that in the future we could have pocket reactors which generate electricity for electronics just using body heat. I think this could also potentially be a good way to harvest geothermal energy, but that may not be cost effective for a while given the cost of making these crystals.

Cheaper Solar Panels:
This year has seen various advances in the field of solar energy. Panels are becoming more efficient and cost effective. This makes them increasingly more viable options for our energy future.

Astronomy:

Earth-like Planets:
Someone came to talk to us about this during ASM last semester, but the basically a current, major focus of astronomy is finding planets like our own which may harbor life. I found nearly monthly press releases unveiling newly discovered planets that could harbor life.

Buckyballs in Space:
I was particularly excited to hear this news story, as it is about my favorite molecule. The Buckyball, or more precisely buckminsterfullerene, is a molecule made of 60 carbon atoms. The molecule has the same appearance as a soccer ball and is one of the most stable molecules ever discovered. That said, these molecules are generally not found in nature, so it was exciting when they were discovered orbiting a distant star. They were able to spot them because the structure of buckyballs makes them reflect waves in a peculiar and noticeable way. I find it cool to imagine huge clouds of these strong molecules orbiting a distant star.

Water on Mars:
Everyone was excited to hear what the next generation of Mars rover would uncover, and it was not a disappointment. There is now conclusive evidence that there was once water on Mars. Rivers and oceans once flowed along its surface. What lead to its decline has yet to be discovered, but this discovery is exciting in itself.

Medicine:

Lab Grown Organs:
The medical field is slowly on its way to not having to deal with the issues of donor organs and rejection. A new study released that a lab grown kidney was actually able to perform its function inside of a living animal. This promises a future in which people can use their own stem cells to grow new organs to replace ones that may no longer be functioning properly. This is far down the line but advances are evidently being made.

New HIV Test:
AIDS is a scourge of humans, especially in underdeveloped countries. Not only is there no cure for it yet, but the test for it is expensive. A new test has been unveiled which could completely change how AIDS is identified and how early it can be treated. The test uses a colorful enzyme reaction to present results to the naked eye. It is effectively a litmus test for HIV, which is less expensive than current methods, and can easily be used without paying for lab time.

Fifty Hour Genome Sequencing:
In recent years, the time needed to sequence a genome has been rapidly decreasing. The sequencing time for a human infant is now down to just over two days. This presents the possibility of paying to have your own genome sequenced. As geneticists decode more over the genetic language, this sequencing could serve as an early marker for various genetic diseases.

Down Syndrome Treatment:
Speaking of genetic diseases, a new method for addressing down syndrome came out this year. Down syndrome occurs when someone has an extra chromosome 21. Scientists have discovered a way to effectively target this extra chromosome and make a cell more likely to survive without it. This makes only cells without the extra chromosome go on to grow into a complete organism, effectively eliminating the symptoms of down syndrome.