Monday, May 10, 2010


Our Oldest Ancestor, "Ardi"

With her long, elegant fingers, 4ft. frame and a head no larger than a bonobo's, it's hard not to feel a certain fondness for little Ardi, the oldest skeleton of a prehuman hominid ever found. Painstakingly pieced together from more than 100 crushed fossil fragments unearthed in Ethiopia, this female specimen of Ardipithecus ramidus (Ardi, for

short) lived 4.4 million years ago and had remained anonymous until 1992, when her fragments were first discovered. After 17 years of research, a team of scientists led by Tim D. White from the University of California, Berkeley, published a comprehensive analysis of Ardi in October, in a series of articles. Among the team's revelations: Ardi was surprisingly unchimplike despite being the earliest known descendant of the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimps. Also, she was capable of walking on two feet despite living in an area of woodland and forest — a finding that downplays the importance of open grasslands to the evolution of human bipedalism.


The Human Epigenome, Decoded

The decoding of the human genome nearly a decade ago fueled

expectations that an understanding of all human hereditary influences was

within sight. But the connections between genes and, say, disease turned

out to be far more complicated than imagined. What has since emerged is a new frontier in the study of genetic signaling known as epigenetics, which holds

that the behavior of genes can be modified by environmental influences and that those changes can be passed down through generations. So people who smoke cigarettes in their youth, for example, sustain certain epigenetic changes. In October, a team

studied human skin and stem cells to produce the first detailed map of the

human epigenome. By comparing this with the epigenomes of diseased

cells, scientists will be able to work out how glitches in the epigenome may

lead to cancers and other diseases.


Gene Therapy Cures Color Blindness

Modern science already offers ways to enhance your mood, athletic

performance, concentration levels and overall health, but a discovery in

September suggests that truly revolutionary human enhancement may

soon move from science fiction to reality. A study in Nature reported that a

team of ophthalmologists had injected genes that produce colordetecting

proteins into the eyes of two colorblind monkeys, allowing the animals to see red

and green for the first time. The results were shocking to most .That's a transformative prospect in itself, but the discovery further suggests that it may be possible to enhance senses in "healthy" people too, truly revolutionizing the way we see the world.


A Robot Performs Science

By any standard, it was an elementary discovery — the identification of

the role of about a dozen genes in a yeast cell. But what made this finding

a major breakthrough was the unlikely form of the scientist: a robot. In

April, "Adam," a machine designed at Aberystwyth University in Wales,

became the first robotic system to make a novel scientific discovery with

virtually no human intellectual input. Robots have

long been used in experiments. Their vast computational power assisted in the sequencing of the human genome, for example, but Adam was the first to complete the cycle from hypothesis to experiment to reformulated hypothesis without human intervention. Artificial intelligence had almost limitless scientific potential and that a computer would one day make a discovery akin to Einstein's special theory of relativity. There isn't any intrinsic reason why that wouldn't happen. A computer can make beautiful chess moves, but it's not doing anything special.


Breeding Tuna on Land

In Australia, a tankful of southern bluefin tuna — regal, predatory fish prized for their buttery sashimi meat — began to spawn, and they didn't stop for more than a month. Scientists believe that the breeding population of the highly migratory southern Bluefin has probably plummeted more than 90% since the 1950s. Others have gotten Pacific bluefin to spawn and grow in ocean cages, but by coaxing the notoriously fussy southern bluefin to breed in landlocked tanks, Clean Seas may finally have

given the future of bluefin aquaculture legs.



Water on the Moon

There is water on the moon, scientists stated unequivocally in November. Gallons of it. On Oct. 9, NASA used a rocket to punch a hole about 100 ft. across the moon's surface, and then measured about 25 gal. of water vapor and ice in the resulting debris. Some

scientists speculated that there may be enough water in the craters of the moon's poles to sustain future colonies of astronauts. Others said the ice could hold a historical record of the solar system. NASA said the first priority was to figure out where the water

came from and measure how much of it there is. Meanwhile, the discovery

had a more immediate and widespread impact among the rest of us: the

rekindling of an old thrill. In 2009, the moon, our recently neglected

neighbour, regained her mystery.

The Fundamental Lemma, Solved

In 1979 the CanadianAmerican

mathematician Robert Langlands

developed an ambitious and revolutionary theory that connected two

branches of mathematics called number theory and group theory. In a

dazzling set of conjectures and insights, the theory captured deep

symmetries associated with equations that involve whole numbers,

laying out what is now known as the Langlands program. Langlands knew

that the task of proving the assumptions that underlie his theory would be

the work of generations. But he was convinced that one stepping stone

that needed confirmation — dubbed the "fundamental lemma" — would be

reasonably straightforward. He, his collaborators and his students were

able to prove special cases of this fundamental theorem. But proving the

general case proved more difficult than Langlands anticipated — so

difficult, in fact, that it took 30 years to finally achieve. Over the past few

years, Ngo Bao Chau, a Vietnamese mathematician working at Université

ParisSud and the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton,

formulated an ingenious proof of the fundamental lemma. When it was

checked this year and confirmed to be correct, mathematicians around the

globe breathed a sigh of relief. Mathematicians' work in this area in the

last three decades was predicated on the principle that the fundamental

lemma was indeed accurate and would one day be proved.




Inching our reality ever closer to Star Trek's, scientists at the University of Maryland's Joint Quantum Institute successfully teleported data from one atom to another in a container a meter away. A landmark in the brainbending field known as quantum information processing, the experiment doesn't quite have the cool factor ofbody transportation; one atom merely transforms the other so it acts just like the first.Still, atom to atom teleportation has majorimplications for creating supersecure, ultrafast computers.



The Large Hadron Collider, Revived

It is largest science experiment ever conducted. The Large Hadron Collider

(LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, took a

quarter of a century to plan and about $10 billion to build. Housed in a 17mile

underground ring, the LHC has been designed to accelerate particles

at temperatures colder than that of deep space to a velocity approaching

the speed of light. Beset by a series of hiccups and delays, the CERN

scientists on Nov. 29 finally recorded a benchmark achievement, powering up a proton beam to an energy of 1.05 trillion electron volts (TeV), overtaking the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab in Illinois as the world's most powerful accelerator.

Eventually the machine will power up to as much as 7 TeV, causing collisions of such high energy that they will recreate the conditions in the seconds after the Big Bang. Amid the byproducts of these collisions, physicists will be searching for signs of

a hypothetical subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, which according

to current theory is responsible for imparting mass to all things in the

universe. Other scientists are hoping for even deeper clues, like

confirmation of an ambitious theory called supersymmetry. Let the physics



A New Planet (or Brown Dwarf?) Discovered

In December, an international team of astronomers announced it had

spotted a planetlike object orbiting a star much like our sun. The star lies

300 trillion miles, or about 50 lightyears, from Earth; the planetlike object

is estimated to be 10 to 40 times the size of Jupiter. Using a new planethunting

instrument on the Subaru telescope in Hawaii, scientists were able

to get direct images of this new object — which may or may not be a

brown dwarf (a failed star). Although direct images of other solar systems

have been taken before, this is the first time astronomers have captured a star this similar to the sun in size and temperature. Scientists say the real surprise is the location of the orbit of GJ 758 B, as the newly identified object was ndubbed: it was previously thought that large planets form either closer to or farther from their stars, but not in the location of GJ 758 B, which is about as far from its star as Neptune is from the sun.

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