Saturday, December 31, 2011

The most exciting scientific discoveries of 2011

The renown journal Science has just announced that a clinical trial with a new treatment strategy for HIV patients is the most promising discovery of the year. However, over the last few months I have seen quite a few other very interesting new findings. And what better moment to present you with a nice list on the very last day of 2011?

There is no such thing as nothing
Quantum theory predicted it, but observations have finally confirmed it: A vacuum is not empty. That means that nothing is no longer nothing. Scientists found that a phenomenon described as virtual particles is real, which means that particles spontaneously come into existence, only to disappear again moments later. By using a vibrating magnetic field, researchers were able to 'bounce' photons into existence. The field gave them energy, which is enough to give a photon the required energy to become real. While virtual particles were expected from previous observations, it is the first time we have actually seen that things can come into existence. And we can keep them 'being' by providing a bit of energy. In addition, scientists developed a camera that captures a trillion frames per second, so we can see a light beam.
A longer life
Mankind has made many efforts to prolong its life, and with success. We now live much longer than a thousand years ago, mainly because of hygiene and health care. However, we are reaching our biological limits, so we need to discover how we can improve ourselves and live even longer. Preferably in good health, of course. Research performed on yeast has revealed a mechanism that, when altered, could increase life span by 50 percent. The question remains whether we can find the same mechanism in humans, but we have already shown that life span is an inheritable trait, which opens the search for more factors that increase the length of our lives. Stem cells may also help us with that. In 2011, various attempts have been made to rejuvenate cells to get rid off ageing factors and make them viable for many more years to come.
Life elsewhere in the universe
So far, we still have not discovered any life form living on a different planet than Earth. However, because of the unimaginable large size of the universe, it is very likely that life exists elsewhere. Until recently, there were no candidate planets that could harbour life, except for Mars, but the Kepler telescope has found a planet that orbits a star in the so-called habitable zone. That means the conditions are just right for creation of life as we know it. What Kepler-22b looks like and whether life actually exists there is something that will keep scientists busy for decades to come. Meanwhile, on Earth we have discovered what it is that gives water its life-giving capacities. We already knew there was something special about the substance that makes up 70-80 percent of our body weight, but researchers have shown that strange quantum effects are responsible for making water more dense in liquid shape compared to solid, and to keep it stable. This feat is both remarkable and needed to create life as we know it.
Warmongering bacteria
It has been known for ages that bacteria cause infection and disease. However, we continue to learn about what makes them dangerous for our body, and how they succeed in evading our immune system, that guards our body. Newly discovered feats of bacteria include a communication system to launch an organized attack, and a way to hijack cellular materials to build a home in our cells. They also possess a 'survival mode' to protect them against antibiotics. These remarkable features make bacteria much more effective in infecting our bodies and causing disease, and it is astonishing to see what these microbes have developed during evolution to counter the immune system, that normally protects our body. Additionally, in 2011 we have discovered several ways in how bacteria can cause tumours, which is important for the treatment of cancer.
The computer
We continue to make more and more use of the computer in medicine. It has been used for a while to make models that help us explaining certain phenomena, but we have made them much more useful. While cyborgs are normally associated with science fiction, we are getting closer to creating them. This year, scientists succeeded in giving rats a partly robot brain, and managed to control beetles by implanting a chip. Humans have also been modified: a man was able to control a robot arm using his mind, with the aid of a computer. We are also getting closer to developing a mind reading device. But there is more. We can use a computer to create DNA, print bone or provide us with accurate cancer diagnoses. The possibilities are endless.
New weapons against cancer
The battle against cancer is far from over. Millions of people worldwide suffer from a wide variety of tumours. While we do have ways to treat patients, our therapies are often far from cancer-specific, and also harm healthy tissue. Scientists have been working on more specific therapies for decades, but have not been very successful. In 2011, several interesting novel ideas were developed, such as killing a cancer cell from the inside with something that is similar to a trojan horse. Other interesting new therapies include starvation, or treatment with nanoparticles. Also, vaccines can help us to prevent cancer, by training the immune system.
Lots of nice pictures and videos
We use telescopes and satellites to observe the universe. Ever so often, space organizations such as NASA provide us with stunning pictures of the elements that fill the night sky. This year, we have seen pictures of the sun, and a video of the moon's surface. Even our own Earth got treated to such a time-lapse video, in which the Aurora Borealis is visible; one of the most amazing natural phenomena.

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