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Breakthrough of the Year

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The year is coming to an end so maybe its now time to consider the greatest scientific breakthrough for 2009. Luckily the journal Science recently published its list so I can comment on that instead of trying to come up with a list myself!

According to Science, the greatest discovery this year was the reconstruction of the fossil of Ardipithecus ramidus. This is a 4.4 million year old fossil of a human ancestor. In fact, to be more accurate the specimen represents an individual who made up part of the human ancestral tree. She could have easily been from a branch which later went on to extinction instead of being in the branch which lead to modern humans.

That detail isn’t critical though because we should expect a lot of specimens which aren’t ancestral to us. After all, natural selection is the major process which evolution uses so we would expect for the unsuccessful variations which didn’t survive to be in the majority. So “Ardi” isn’t necessarily a missing link as such (missing link is a very imprecise and misleading term anyway) but she is part of the evolutionary process which lead to modern humans.

Any new piece of news in the field of human evolution is generally greeted by some feeble attempt at refutation on the creationist web sites and this one is no exception. Actually, the two articles I read make an even weaker attempt that usual at discrediting this discovery. One article doesn’t really say anything except make some sort of promise at answering this awkward question in the future. And the other makes several false claims, such as evolutionary reversals being “virtually impossible” and the distinction between different species of early hominids being relevant to the science as a whole.

Anyway, moving on. The other important discoveries of the year included these…

The Hubble Space Telescope being “reborn” (not the word I would have chosen!) Further repairs and modifications were carried out this year and the HST is working better than ever. Those magnificent pictures are important from a scientific perspective, of course, but maybe are even more important because of the reaction many non-scientists have to them. As I have said in past blog entries, science is currently suffering from a lack of respect from the public but at least these HST pictures have had some positive impact.

Graphene molecules being used in materials science. New materials and other nano-scale science will be very important in the near future. Nanotechnology and advanced bottom up chemical synthesis techniques are sure to revolutionise many areas of technology.

The others were: pulsars in the gamma-ray sky, how plants use ABA receptors to get through stressful times, mock monopoles spotted, drugs that eventually could lead to life extension for humans, ice discovered on the Moon, gene therapy becoming successful again, and the first X-ray laser.

I woud like to add the successful restart of the Large Hadron Collider to this list. All science geeks were disappointed last year when LHC failed and needed extensive repairs. It now seems to be progressing well and next year should lead to some genuinely basic breakthroughs from this machine which is the greatest science experiment and the biggest and most complex machine ever made.

I hope the LHC does lead to some significant results in the area of fundamental particle physics because there are several things I really want to know! Let’s start with dark matter. I really need to now what that is. And dark energy is even weirder so I would be prepared to wait a bit longer before that is understood. Oh and let’s get the Higgs boson sorted out, can we? I really want to know if it exists otherwise let’s figure out which other theory explains the existence of mass.

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