As far as most of us are concerned, science is just another subject to suffer through, something that only matters to a bunch of guys in lab coats typing on calculators and making stuff blow up. And to some extent, that’s true. But almost everything around us – the laptop you’re reading this on, the cold medicine you took last week, the phone you definitely weren’t texting on during that bio lab – started out as an idea that some guys in lab coats decided to test. Let’s see what they’ve been up to this year.
- Water on Mars (and friends!) In perhaps the most exciting announcement of the year, NASA released definitive evidence that water is currently flowing on the Red Planet. The claim is mainly based on images of dark streaks on certain sloped that seem to “ebb and flow” over time, growing deeper during warmer seasons and shrinking as the temperature drops. This phenomenon, along with traces of hydrated salts in the area, point to the possibility that Mars isn’t as barren as we thought. But Mars isn’t the only wet sphere in the solar system; scientists have recently discovered that Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which was previously thought to be frozen solid, is actually hiding a global ocean just under its surface. This ocean is likely kept from freezing by tides fueled by Saturn’s gravitational pull. And Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s icy moons, has been found to have an ocean over 10 times as deep as Earth’s. “The solar system is now looking like a pretty soggy place,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, in a teleconference in March. As the number of planets with flowing water increases, so does the exciting possibility of finding life on other worlds. Regardless, these discoveries will help bring scientists closer to understanding the development of life here on Earth.
- Baby Planet! Earlier this month, astronomers got a glimpse of a planet still in the early stages of formation. Orbiting a star in the Taurus constellation, the baby planet is still pulling material from the cloud of hydrogen gas and cosmic dust surrounding it, representing a never-before-seen stage of the planetary development process. By observing this planet throughout its growth, researchers will be able to test theories of planetary development firsthand.
- Pluto Pictures This past summer, everyone’s favorite dwarf planet stole the spotlight after some amazing pictures taken by New Horizons were released. The pictures show Pluto to have a much more varied terrain than was expected, suggesting new theories of its origins.
- Mapping of the Epigenome Scientists released a complete map of the human epigenome earlier this year. While the genome shows all of the DNA in a human set of chromosomes, the epigenome shows all the places within the DNA where environmental factors can turn genes “on” or “off”. The epigenome is how twins with identical genes can grow up to have nonidentical features, or how one, based on their environment, could have a higher chance of getting cancer or other diseases. By understanding the epigenome, scientists can improve the accuracy of genetic diagnosis and gain new insight on how to combat genetic diseases. Pretty epic if you ask me.
- Awesome Subatomic Action This year, particle physicists have made huge progress in understanding the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Basically, subatomic particles that have been perfectly aligned, or “entangled”, act the same way no matter how far apart they are. For example, if you set one entangled particle on fire, the one linked to it would act like it was heating up even if it was miles away from the fire. In the past scientists have been able to recreate this with single particles, but never anything larger – until this year, when researchers were able to entangle a mass of particles about the same volume as a red blood cell. This might sound pretty small, but it’s a gigantic step forward in the world of quantum physics. According to David Awschalom, a researcher at the University of Chicago, “the ability to produce robust entangled states in an electronic-grade semiconductor at ambient conditions has important implications on future quantum devices.” Translation: quantum entanglement opens the door for new, faster technology that can share information instantaneously. That could mean incredible advances, both for laboratory work and your Twitter feed. Keep an eye out for this tech.
Thanks for reading to the end of this article, as it was mostly me nerding out about awesome science stuff. But in all honesty,advancements in science are more than just interesting things to hear about on the news. They affect all of us in ways we never realize, and imagining a world where all of this seemingly unrealistic stuff becomes a reality is pretty cool.