From emotional honeybees to particles flying faster than Einstein’s theory of relativity ought to allow, 2011 abounded in findings that posed new questions and expanded frontiers of possibility. Here are Wired Science’s favorites.
Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos Detected — or Not
In September, researchers from the OPERA collaboration in Italy provided fodder for a thousand articles when they announced the measurement of neutrinos flying faster than that killjoy Albert Einstein would permit. Most physicists dismissed the finding, suggesting some error in the measurement or analysis, but that didn’t stop millions of people from hoping that they’d witnessed the start of a new scientific revolution.
Image: Neutrino tracks. (CERN)
Intelligent Animals and Emotional Bees
Rigorously tested and documented, the findings scientifically underscore the sheer richness of the life surrounding us — and perhaps none was more emblematic than observations that, by the standards devised to ensure that animal intelligence is measured by cold data rather than warm fuzzy feelings, honeybees have emotions. Specifically, they’re capable of a glass-half-empty pessimistic worldview, which in turn challenges a human worldview: What does it mean when insects meet a benchmark that only “higher” animals are supposed to attain?
Image: Jack Wolf/Flickr
A New Link Between Aging Cells and Aging People
Researchers have debated for decades whether aging at the organismal level was linked to aging at the cellular level. Did bodies and metabolisms malfunction as people grew older because, at a microscopic level, cells hit their replicative limits, broke down and clogged up the system?
In November, gerontologists showed that flushing old, broken-down cells from the bodies of mice indeed slowed their descent into infirmity. It was a powerful proof of principle: so-called cellular senescence did matter. And while the same trick can’t be performed for people as was performed in this one strain of genetically modified mice, the findings could seed a whole new generation of aging research.
Image: At left, two mice, one (top) treated to rid it of senescent cells, and the other untreated; at right, untreated bone marrow cells (top) and treated cells. (Baker et al./Nature)
Chimps Not Needed for Hepatitis C Research
After two decades of dwindling chimpanzee usefulness in infectious disease research, only one disease remained to justify experiments that in humans would be considered unconscionable: Hepatitis C, which kills 340,000 people every year and infects no non-human animal except chimps.
Hepatitis C thus became the main battleground for debates over the ethics and morality of invasive chimp testing, which is permitted nowhere but Gabon and the United States. At least scientifically, that battle now appears settled. In May, the FDA approved two new hepatitis C drugs, both far superior to the only existing treatment and both developed without chimp testing. In December, the Institute of Medicine formally declared chimps unnecessary for hepatitis C drug development, paving the way to treat the closest living relative to humans with humanity.
Extinct Human Ancestors Survive in our Genes
For years, anthropologists suspected that Homo sapiens cross-bred with Neanderthals before our closest ancestor went extinct. That hypothesis proved officially true in 2010, with the first hard genetic evidence of Neanderthal DNA surviving in living humans, and in July further tests found even more evidence of cross-breeding. Moreover, it’s not just Neanderthals that live on in us, but long-extinct, recently discovered Neanderthal cousins called Denisovans.The functional role of formerly non-human gene variants remains to be determined, but their importance to a human sense of self is clearer: Homo sapiens isn’t the product of some long, pure lineage, but a bit of a hominid mutt.
Image: Neanderthal sculpture by John Gurche, photographed by Chip Clark. (Smithsonian Institution)
Humanity Hits 7 Billion
In October, the human population reached 7 billion. This happened just 12 years after we hit 6 billion; in contrast, it took humanity about 72,000 years to reach its first billion. The number prompted a global moment of reflection: How do we, as a civilization, want to live? Do we want to share — with each other, and with the rest of life?
Deregulation, Speculation and the Price of Food
In 2008 and again in 2011, global food prices spiked massively and weirdly. There was no obvious reason: Demand didn’t increase dramatically, nor did supplies fall. The price of meeting a basic human requirement no longer seemed connected to conventional economic logic.
Many explanations were proposed, from bad weather to increased market sensitivity to the conversion of former food crops into biofuels. But when researchers from the New England Complex Systems Institute turned their mathematical models on global food markets, they found something else. Biofuel demand played a role in in nudging food prices up — but the spikes, the sudden and socially disrupting fluctuations, seemed to be caused by commodity speculators who entered food markets after the late-1990s wave of financial industry deregulation. The same forces that fueled the 2008 mortgage meltdown and subsequent near-collapse of the global economy have been turned loose on food.
Bird Flu Nightmare Comes True — in the Lab
Ever since H5N1 avian influenza emerged in the late 1990s, infecting billions of birds around the world, flu scientists have warned of potential apocalypse. The disease isn’t highly contagious to people, but kills 60 percent of those who contract it. Should H5N1 ever become as infectious as seasonal flu strains, civilization could be headed for a Contagion-style meltdown.
In December, a federal U.S. security panel announced that two teams of researchers, one in the Netherlands and the other in Wisconsin, had engineered just such a virus. By understanding how avian influenza could jump into humans, hoped the researchers, we could better prevent that from happening, and design drugs and vaccines in preparation for that terrible day.
Some scientists supported the work. Others considered it an abomination, either because terrorists could hypothetically use the research to manufacture their own killer bug, or — less hypothetically — because ultra-high-security laboratories designed to prevent diseases from escaping have sometimes failed to do so.
Though formal publication is expected in 2012, the details have already been shared with hundreds of scientists. For good or for ill, this research has the potential to be the most important scientific discovery of 2011, and perhaps much more.
Image: Transmission electron microscope image of two H5N1 virions. (Center for Biologic Counterterrorism and Emerging Diseases)
A Possibly Habitable, Earth-Like Planet
Using NASA’s Kepler space telescope, astronomers spotted the closest planet yet to being considered a home away from home. The exoplanet, named Kepler 22-b, has a mass just 2.4 times greater than Earth’s and orbits its parent star within the so-called ‘habitable zone,’ potentially giving it a temperate climate and the right conditions for life.
Image: Artist’s rendition of Kepler-22b (NASA)
Hints of the Higgs Boson
The $10 billion Large Hadron Collider may have proven its worth in December when results from two experiments, ATLAS and CMS, showed a small data bump that might correspond to the long-sought Higgs boson. If future data corroborates the finding, finding the Higgs will likely be regarded as one of the 21st century’s great discoveries.