Feature

The big scientific milestones of 2012...

...From Mars to mood disorders

Finding the Higgs boson
Forty-eight years after British physicist Peter Higgs predicted its existence, the Higgs boson was finally spotted by scientists at the CERN lab in Geneva. The “God particle” explains the existence of mass and backs up the Standard Model, the foundational theory of modern physics. “For physicists, this is the equivalent of Columbus discovering America,” says physicist Themis Bowcock. The Higgs is evidence that an invisible energy field—activated shortly after the big bang, 13.7 billion years ago—permeates the universe. Without it, all particles would zip chaotically through space like the mass-less photons that make up light. The Higgs field slows down certain types of particles, creating stars, planets, and life. 

The vital job of ‘junk’ DNA
Since the late 1990s, when they began decoding the human genome, scientists have believed that 98 percent of DNA is “junk,” with no function. But new research shows that most of this genetic material serves as switches that turn genes on or off, which could explain why some people predisposed to certain diseases get them, while others don’t. Our genome contains at least 4 million switches, and scientists are already linking certain ones to asthma, diabetes, and mental illness. Figuring out what each switch does could lead to new drugs and revolutionize medicine. Says researcher Ewan Birney, “It’s going to take this century to fill in all the details.” 

Curiosityexplores Mars
NASA’s rover made a spectacular landing on Mars in August and started investigating whether the planet has ever been capable of harboring life. Curiosityset off from its landing site, on the floor of 3.5-billion-year-old Gale Crater, for 3-mile-high Mount Sharp, giving scientists the fullest picture yet of Mars’s makeup. So far, the rover’s instruments have found proof that water once flowed swiftly across Mars’s surface and that Martian soil contains basaltic materials similar to the volcanic sands of Hawaii. If Curiosity detects carbon—a building block of life—NASA scientist James Green says, we’ll have to radically “rethink our place in the universe.” 

A new depression drug
A hallucinatory party drug is inspiring the first new treatments for depression in a generation. Ketamine (“Special K”), clubgoers’ choice for a dream-like high, improves mood disorders by repairing damaged connections in the brain. That discovery, which suggests that depression may be caused not by a chemical imbalance but by stress-induced damage to brain cells, “represents maybe one of the biggest findings in the field over the last 50 years,” says neurobiologist Ron Duman. Ketamine’s negative side effects make it unfit for widespread use, but what it’s revealing about how depressed brains work could lead to new, better drugs. 

The Arctic’s vanishing ice
The Arctic ice cap shrank to its smallest size in recorded history this year. At the rate the ice is disappearing, the Arctic Ocean could be completely ice-free during the summer within just a few decades—almost a half century sooner than climate models predicted only five years ago. “What you’re seeing is more open ocean than you’re seeing ice,” says climate researcher Ted Scambos. It “just doesn’t look like the Arctic Ocean anymore.” Climate change is warming the Arctic almost twice as quickly as the rest of the globe. And since the Arctic ice cools polar regions and influences climate patterns for the rest of the planet, its decline could rapidly accelerate the rise of global temperatures. 

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