Top 10 Scientific Discoveries And Inventions From 2011

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With 2012 all but over, we thought it would be a neat bit of instant nostalgia to go ever-so-slightly back in time, and re-visit important discoveries and inventions from 2011. Scientific achievements of 2012 shall be covered next week.

Narrowing the top ten discoveries of 2011 is difficult, especially since significant scientific discoveries are being made on a regular basis in all kinds of fields. Here are the top ten in order of importance.

10. The Stark Hand

stark-hand

Featured on the cover of Popular Science in 2011, the Stark Hand is a natural, dexterous hand which functions like a mechanical hand. An electric model was created by Mark Stark for his friend, Dave Vogt, who was born without a left hand. The hand is attached to a cable that runs from a shoulder harness worn by an amputee. A lever on the palm opens all five fingers at once, so an individual can bend around objects with a secure grip to do things like catch a ball or grip a wine glass. The springs exert a level of pressure that is gentle enough to hold an egg, but strong enough to lift a chair.

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9. Extinct Human Ancestors Survive in our Genes

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In 2010, anthropologists proved the hypothesis that Homo Sapiens cross-bred with Neanderthals before they went extinct, by discovering genetic evidence of Neanderthal DNA in living humans. In 2011, it was proven that not only do our Neanderthal cousins live on in us, but another recently discovered Neanderthal, Denisovans, live on in us as well. In other words, modern humans have been found genetically to be a kind of “mutt,” the combination of at least two groups of ancient human. So the next time your man starts to get a bit too feisty ladies, remember it’s just his Neanderthal nature rearing its ugly head again.

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8. The Discovery of Quasicrystals

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In 2011, Dan Shechtman received the Nobel prize for discovering what are now termed “Quasicrystals.” They are atoms that are ordered over long distances, but do periodically repeat in arrangement as traditional crystals do. Until now, researchers thought this was impossible. Researchers have always believed that every crystalline arrangement of atoms has a pattern that repeats perfectly in all directions but, with this discovery, a whole new category of crystals has been identified. Not only has that been proven, but now scientists have to redefine the term “crystal” entirely.

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7. The Bird Flu Recreated, But For Good or Evil?

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Starting in the late 1990’s, the H5NI Avian Influenza has been infecting billions of birds around the world and, although it isn’t highly contagious to people, kills 60% of those who contract the disease. Some believe that the flu is close to becoming a worldwide epidemic of the 21st century. In preparation for such a scenario, scientists began successfully creating engineered viruses of it, to study and treat it. It is now feared that such a discovery could be used by terrorists to manufacture their own killer strains. For good or ill, this discovery has now become one of the most important discoveries of 2011.

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6. HIV Treatment for Prevention

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According to the journal Science, the most important scientific breakthrough, in regards to future HIV treatment, happened in 2011. The study is referred to as HPTN 052, and proved in clinical trials to make people 96% less likely to transmit the virus to their partners if they take anti-retroviral drugs known as ARVs. ARVs have now been shown to provide treatment as well as prevention.

Another interesting discovery in regards to the HIV virus also happened in 2011, when a group of videogamers cracked the code of a molecule that the HIV virus uses to replicate itself. The video game, Foldit, was developed at the University of Washington by students in a Biochemistry class led by Professor David Baker. These gamers figured out the structure of the molecule known as protease, and accomplished what the scientific community has been working on for the last 10 years, while playing a  game!

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Play Foldit here, for free!

5. A New Link Between Aging Cells and Aging People

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For decades, it has been assumed that aging was linked to a cellular level. Now gerontologists have shown that, by flushing old, broken-down cells from the bodies of mice, this indeed slowed down their susceptibility to aging. This evidence has given solid proof that science may not be far off from providing the answers to a longer, healthier life for people. As of yet, the experiment cannot be performed in humans, but the findings will no doubt lead to a whole new generation of aging research ahead – and not just for certain privileged rodents.

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4. A Possibly Habitable, Earth-Like Planet

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In 2011, astronomers used NASA’s Kepler space telescope to spot the closest planet yet to being considered as a possible future home for our fair species. Technically known as HD85512b, the planet was found by astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, instrument in Chile.

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3. A Planet At The Right Distance For Life

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Known as Kepler 22-b, it has a mass just 2.4 times greater than Earth’s, and orbits its parent star within the so-called “habitable zone,” which is a term used to indicate a temperate climate and the right conditions for life. Of course, it is still 600 light-years away, hardly a hop, skip, and a jump away from your couch.  The planet was found orbiting an orange dwarf star in the constellation of Vela- the next exotic destination for space travelers. The age of the system is said to be 5.6 billion years, in contrast to our own solar system at 4.6 billion years old. So, maybe once we have the technology to get us there, someone will be waiting to greet us. In fact, astronomers are referring to it now as the “Goldilocks Zone,” a term that refers to an even better forecast than “habitable:” not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

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2. Discovery Of The Accelerating Expansion Of The Universe Through Observations Of Supernovae

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According to Nobel Laureates in Physics of 2011, Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G. Riess, the world will end in ice. After studying dozens of exploding stars called supernovae, scientists have discovered the Universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate. You may have thought you already knew that (for almost a century, the universe has been known to be expanding) but more recent findings after studying a more specific type of supernova called “Ia supernova” (an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun, but as small as Earth,) that can emit as much light as a whole galaxy. At that rate the world, driven by dark energy (which constitutes about three quarters of the Universe,) is expanding much faster than we originally thought.

What does this mean? It means that the universe is cooling down and will, in time, turn to ice. How’s that for a chilly forecast? This frozen fate is still billions of years away though, so Earth inhabitants can still enjoy the sun for many generations to come.

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1. Hints of the Higgs-Boson

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Right at this very moment, thousands of scientists are busy analyzing their current results of energetic particle collisions, after a small data bump was discovered in their data. This bump may lead to the elusive Higgs-Boson, thought by many to soon become the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st century.

What is the Higgs Boson? An elusive particle scientists have been searching for the last 40 years, that many believe will prove that the Standard Model is indeed, correct. It’s thought to explain why other elementary particles, like quarks and electrons, have mass, and of what constitutes the dark matter and dark energy that rules the larger Universe. It is also believed that, if they can turn it into energy, as predicted by Einstein’s theory, it can then create new types of matter, never before seen. It is also known as “The God Particle” after it was coined so by physicist Lederman who was later reported saying, “A better term for it would have been The Goddamn Particle (but of which publishers wouldn’t allow) given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”

The Large Hadron Collider, which accelerates protons to energies of 7 trillion electron volts, around a 17-mile underground racetrack at CERN, was designed to get enough data to prove the Higgs-Boson theory. 16 years, and $10 billion later, many eyes and ears are now on CERN – making Higgs-Boson number one on our Top Ten List of Discoveries in 2011.

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3 Comments

  1. Herbert Urlaub on

    I’m surprised to find in your article “Extinct humans survive in our genes” the stupid and unscientific stereotype “So the next time your man starts to get a bit too feisty ladies, remember it’s just his Neanderthal nature rearing its ugly head again.”
    Whoever wrote that disqualifies what was properly stated before about introgression of ‘archaic’ genes into ‘modern humans’.

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