Science and Health – 2011 round up of the year’s 10 biggest science stories

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By Steve Elliott our Science and Health correspondent

As an end of year special, this is a selection of the top ten stories to make the science world news in 2011 :

1) Flying faster than the speed of light?
Einstein stated that no moving object could go faster than the speed of light – scientists carried out experiments this year that for the moment appear to break that rule.  Emphasis on appear – it’s a brave boffin that contradicts Albert Einstein.

By Steve Elliott our Science and Health correspondent

As an end of year special, this is a selection of the top ten stories to make the science world news in 2011 :

1) Flying faster than the speed of light?
Einstein stated that no moving object could go faster than the speed of light – scientists carried out experiments this year that for the moment appear to break that rule.  Emphasis on appear – it’s a brave boffin that contradicts Albert Einstein.

Physicists at Cern in Geneva fired a beam of neutrinos to colleagues at the Gran Sasso laboratory 454 miles away in Italy.  According to measurements, the neutrinos must have been travelling faster than light, albeit only slightly – about 60 billionths of a second quicker.

When the experiment was repeated, a second firing of a beam of neutrinos produced a similar result.

The result has met with a range of reactions from scientsts, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, of Surrey University has pledged to “eat his shorts” live on TV if it is proved that neutrinos can travel faster than light.  With a repeat result and more to follow, professor Al-Khalili may have to develop a taste for underwear.

2) Modern humans in Europe five thousand years earlier than previously thought

Bones and teeth found in England and Italy have pushed back the dates for the arrival of modern humans in Europe by about 5,000 years, researchers revealed.  Two baby teeth, found in the Grotta del Cavallo, Apulia, and a jawbone fragment, from Kents Cavern, Devon, were dated as being 45,000 and 41,000 years old respectively.

Previously it was believed that Homo sapiens arrived in Europe around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, just when the Neanderthals began to die out.  Palaeontologists have argued that humans had insufficient territorial overlap time to replace Neanderthals, based on previous overlap time estimates, but these new dates significantly increase the overlap period of modern humans and Neanderthals in Europe.

Dr Tom Higham, from Oxford University, who led the study at Kents Cavern said: “We estimate that probably 3,000-5,000 years of time is the amount of the overlap.  Thus humanity had a comfortable period of several millennia to wipe out the Neanderthals.”

3)
Astronomers find ‘Earth’s twin’
Kepler 22-b is a planet in a solar system 600 light years away that is the closest thing to another Earth that has been detected to date.  The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth and is located in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” around its home star – not too hot and not too cold. The planet’s surface temperature is estimated to be a relatively balmy 22°C while a year there that lasts 290 Earth days, and the planet is also thought to possess water. 

Douglas Hudgins, at Nasa headquarters in Washington, said: “This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin.”

4) Archaeopteryx may not have been the world’s first bird
Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861, two years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  Archaeopteryx, the first bird – the spectacular fossil link between dinosaur and bird – having characteristic bird feathered wings, but also having the teeth and tail of a dinosaur, caused an immediate sensation in Victorian England. 

Now however, it seems there are doubts over the special status of Archaeopteryx being the first bird following the discovery of other bird-like dinosaurs over the past decade or so.

Xing Xu at Linyi University in China, and his colleagues studied a new Archaeopteryx-like fossil – called Xiaotingia zhengi – and found the creature belonged NOT in the lineage of birds, but to a group of dinosaurs called deinonychosaurs.  Importantly, after their analysis (published in Nature), Archaeopteryx appears in the same deinonychosaur dinosaur group.   Deinonychosaurs, such as the velociraptor, walked on two legs, ate meat and had vicious retractable claws – a dinosaur, not a bird.

Paul Barrett, at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “Maybe Archaeopteryx wasn’t on the direct ancestral line to birds, but was part of an early experimentation in how to build a bird.”

5)The famous Higgs boson may exist, or it may not…
Scientists reported this month that the prime goal of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the pinpointing of the Higgs boson (the ‘God’ particle), the proposed theoretical subatomic particle which gives all other particles their mass – may have been proved.

The Large Hadron Collider, on the Swiss-France border, took 10 years to build at a cost of £6bn – the goal to smash particles together at colossal energies to try and recreate the conditions of the early universe.

Two experiments on the collider both showed something in the 125GeV region particle mass being created after collisions.

Jeff Forshaw, a physicist at Manchester University said:  “There is definitely a hint of something around 125GeV but it’s not a discovery yet.  We need more data! I’m keeping my champagne on ice.”

6) Graphene: putting lead in the 21st century’s pencil
IBM, Samsung and Nokia are pouring billions into graphene research.  Graphene – a sheet of carbon atoms one atom thick – with the potential to make everything from touchscreens to plastics cheaper and more efficiently in the decades to come.

Andre Geim, who shared the 2010 Nobel prize for physics for his graphene research, said: “It is not even one material – it is a huge range of materials.”

According to research carried out by James Hone of Columbia University, graphene is the strongest material ever measured, some 200 times stronger than structural steel. “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of cling film.”

However, it is the versatility of graphene – a possible source for composite materials, electronic components and other goods – that is causing the excitement in industry.

7) The female orgasm lights up brain in a particular way
Professor Barry Komisaruk, a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey used an MRI scanner to film female brain activity during an orgasm.  The scanner showed a steady build-up of brain activity as a test subject brought herself to orgasm – disparate bunches of neurones flickered into life and then came together in a crescendo of activity before gently settling back down again.

The test subject, Kayt Sukel said: “If you move too much during an MRI scan you can compromise the data.  It wasn’t easy to work up to an orgasm but I found it wasn’t quite as difficult as I had imagined.”

The research team believes the findings could lead to treatments that help both men and women who cannot reach sexual climax.

8) Nobel awarded to deceased man
On October 3rd, the Nobel committee announced that Ralph Steinman had won the prize for medicine, unaware that the Canadian immunologist had died of cancer the previous Friday. After a quick look at the rulebook, an emergency meeting of the Nobel assembly decided the decision should stand, as it “was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel laureate was alive”. 

Dr. Steinman and two others were honoured for discovering the essential steps in the immune system’s response to infection – he shared his prize with American Bruce Beutler and French biologist Jules Hoffmann.

9) 2011 – stem cells yet to realise their potential
Stem cells continue to offer tantalising possibilities for researchers which more often than not come to nothing.  The great stem cell holy grail was making the paralysed walk again but US biotech giant Geron just announced it’s abandoning its stem cell programme aimed at doing just this.  Despite hind leg movement in rats injected with stem cells in their spinal columns, human trials have shown no improvement in patients.

Other conditions may yet show promise such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but this is clearly a disappointing blow to stem cell research.

10) Mars a place for Curiosity
Of the 38 Mars missions, 19 have suffered some kind of major flaw – a failure rate of 50%. Hopes are currently pinned on Curiosity, the giant mobile science laboratory built by the US, launched last month and is due to arrive at Mars in August.  Curiosity will be lowered from a rocket-powered “sky crane” on to the planet’s surface and the six-wheeled vehicle will then wander over the planet’s surface for several years.  The mobile lab will drill samples from rocks which it will analyse for signs that the planet once supported life.  US space controllers say the craft is currently on a perfect course to Mars.