Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Science Year 2006

Before we get too far into 2007, and before I finally take down my Christmas lights, its time we took a look back at the science year that was 2006.

This story will feature on the podcast very soon - it will also be the 50th Mr Science podcast episode, and so will feature these stories, plus some music, recordings and a few other tidbits from the year that was. I will post about that story when I finish up the recording - sometime this week, sorry for the delay.

(Edit - The mp3 for this episode can be found here, or on the podcast.)

So, to the stories, and coming in in 10th place in my top 10 science stories of 2006 ...

10. A brave new world of transhumanism is upon us.
Well almost. 2006 saw Harvard nanotechnologist Charles Lieber and colleagues demonstrate for the first time that transistors can control the function of individual living nerve cells.

“This work could have a revolutionary impact on science and technology,” Lieber said. “It provides a powerful new approach for neuroscience to study and manipulate signal propagation in neuronal networks at a level unmatched by other techniques; it provides a new paradigm for building sophisticated interfaces between the brain and external neural prosthetics; it represents a new, powerful, and flexible approach for real-time cellular assays useful for drug discovery and other applications; and it opens the possibility for hybrid circuits that couple the strengths of digital nanoelectronic and biological computing components”
More info at PhysOrg.com

9. Weird Science
2006 had some weird and wonderful science. Here are two examples that caught my eye:

a) Whales speak in dialects:
Scientists have eavesdropped on whale conversations and found that Pacific Northwest blue whales have different accents and sound different to western Pacific Ocean or Chilean blue whales. We don’t know why.
More info at MSNBC

b) Penis Transplant Removed:
A 44-year old man who lost his penis in an unfortunate accident had it reattached. But not long after, Chinese doctors had to remove it again due to problems that you might not encounter in other microsurgery cases. The doctors stated that is was “because of the wife's psychological rejection as well as the swollen shape of the transplanted penis”. So much for “For better or worse”. Poor bloke.
More info at Live Science

8. Fields Medal No Show
Mathematicians are known to shun the limelight, but surely not awards ceremonies and even US$1 million? When the International Mathematical Union, meeting at the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid, announced the recipients of the 2006 Fields Medals - often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics – one recipient, Grigori Perelman, failed to show and declined the award.

In 2002-2003, Perelman worked out a proof of one of mathematics' oldest problems, the century-old Poincare conjecture. This result is not only a major achievement, but profoundly important with possible use in discovering the shape of the universe. It carries a bounty of $1 million from the Clay Mathematics Institute. It is expected that Perelman will win some or all of that money, and it seems quite unlikely that he will accept it! If you’re reading Grigori, I’ll have it!

7. Rats born to Mice
If you asked a rat to “Come to Papa”, or indeed “Who’s your Daddy”, and assuming the rat could talk, then you could be surprised by the answer. In one of the weirdest scientific breakthroughs of 2006, scientists have produced offspring from sperm cells grown in a different species with rats giving birth to mice.

Scientists have been able to develop one animal’s sperm in another for about a decade, including human sperm in rats. However, now we know that this sperm is fertile.

We have reproductive biologist Takashi Shinohara and his colleagues from Kyoto University in Japan to thank. The breakthrough raises the possibility of generating viable human offspring by growing human sperm in other animals, but Shinohara is not in favour of pursuing that avenue. Besides the ethical minefield, he noted that animal viruses could encode themselves into the sperm DNA.

So next time you flippantly ask “who’s your Daddy”, or even curse that someone is “A son of a bitch”, listen carefully to their response. You might be surprised.
More info at Live Science

6. Neanderthal DNA Mapped
The disappearance of the Neanderthals and why we homo sapiens won the human race, when about 50 000 years ago we were neck and neck, is a mystery as we have never known exactly what Neanderthals were like. How were they like us? How did they differ? Were they intelligent or simply cartoon cavemen? If the answers to these questions have a genetic answer, then 2006 saw us take some great steps to discovering them. Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his team have managed for the first time to obtain nuclear DNA sequences from a 45 000-year-old male Neanderthal from north-western Croatia. Their results also suggest that Neanderthals split from modern humans about 500 000 years ago, suggesting that they didn’t interbreed with our ancestors.

Using some the techniques in our number 7 story, perhaps one day we will be able to recreate the full Neanderthal genome (the team predicts the full genome will be sequenced within 2 years) and give birth to one.
More info at Scientific American, New Scientist (here and here) and Nature

5. Steve Irwin's Death
Steve Irwin, probably one of the best known advocates for wilderness and animal conservation in the world, tragically passed away in 2006 in North Queensland, Australia. He was arguably Australia’s best-known science communicator, although he was more popular overseas, particularly in America, than he was at home. His unconventional methods of communicating his work – some say he provoked animals to get them to attack on camera in order to bring viewers to his Crocodile Hunter television series – drew criticism from some and inspired others, yet it is unarguable that Irwin will have a lasting effect on the environmental and conservation movements in Australia and around the world.
More info at Mr Science

4. Cervical Cancer Vaccine
2006 saw a vaccine for cervical cancer approved for the first time. The vaccine, first developed by Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer, is now available to those willing to pay for it. There are two vaccines out there - one from Merck, the other from Glaxo­SmithKline. Both have demonstrated in clinical trials that they can prevent infection from the two types of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that account for up to 70 percent of cervical cancers. In the US, over 10 000 women contract invasive cervical cancer annually and nearly 4 000 die from it.
More info at Scientific American

3. South Korean Fraud
Until 2006, South Korean Hwang Woo-Suk was considered a pioneer in the field of stem cell research. However, on May 12, 2006, Hwang was “indicted on embezzlement and bioethics law violations linked to faked stem cell research.”

So, he faked it all! His famous 2004 and 2005 Science Magazine articles in which he claimed to have succeeded in creating human embryonic stem cells by cloning, were found to contain vast amounts of fabricated data.

He also had a shot at cloning mammoths, fraudulently obtained money for his research and embezzled $A3.8 billion worth of state and civilian donations to his research team. In one saving grace for the researcher, investigators into the affair found that his claim to being the first to successfully clone a dog, was accurate. The dog, an Afghan Hound, was named Snuppy.

2. Pluto's Fall
In an even greater fall from grace, 2006 saw the astronomical demotion of Pluto from planet, to planetoid. The hub of all space knowledge, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), came up with the first ever definition of what it is to be a planet – and Pluto failed. At one stage, it looked as though our Solar System may have ended up with a number of new planets, including Pluto’s moon Charon, the asteroid Ceres and the newly discovered body 2006UB313. However, in the end, it was decided that because these bodies had not completely cleared their orbit of other space material and debris, they could not be officially called planets. So now we have only 8 planets.

“We made a mistake 76 years ago," says Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. “I thought that people would be too scared to demote Pluto. It is the right scientific decision.”

This has meant a tough job for text book writers around the world. But there is a nice symmetry now – in general, atoms are most stable when they have 8 electrons in their outer-most shell. Now we have a stable solar system with 8 planets. Intelligent Design? Convergent Evolution? Coincidence? Who knows!

1. Global Warming
Former US Vice President and failed US Presidential candidate Al Gore has finally won an election – well at least the entirely undemocratic election that came up with this list. His Documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has become the third-highest-grossing documentary of all time and brought the issue of global warming to forefront of the public consciousness.

2006 saw global warming become the most talked about scientific topic of the year. Some scientists denied it, others blamed everything from animal migrations to the performance of the local sporting team on it, but you certainly couldn’t ignore it – global warming was everywhere in the press. As it’s a process that takes of the order of 100 years to have an effect, it is difficult to prove, however many researchers in the field now think that global temperatures could rise by as much as 5 degrees Celsius, and sea levels by 20 feet. Some good news is that whilst carbon dioxide levels continue to climb, levels of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, have stabilised.

The debate has now caused the EU and California to adopt a carbon trading system. And even the Australian government has been forced to think about it – which given our reliance on dirty old coal as an energy source (despite having massive areas exposed to the sun and wind that could be used for solar or wind power), and also the fact that there could be a whole lot of Pacific Islanders without an Island to live on knocking on the Aussie and Kiwi doors if the sea levels rise, is only a good thing.
More info at Scientific American (here, here and here)

So there you have it. Let me know what you think - what were your highlights? And keep the Mr Science feedback coming in, so we can make this year bigger and better than the last.

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