But wouldn't you know it? A
week after the collider was fired up Sept. 10, an electrical
glitch and helium leak shut the monster down until at least
Although a bit esoteric, it was
arguably the biggest science story of 2008, if only for its
sheer size. What follows is a brief look at other
candidates, ranging from ice on Mars to a law that bans
Look, Mom, no scars
Through the teeth and over the
gums, watch out stomach, here they come!
What is usually an irreverent
toast now describes the latest in operations -- orifice
surgery. Instead of making incisions through skin and muscle
that take time to heal and risk infection, surgeons now are
inserting instruments down the throat and, in women, through
On July 23, Carrie Williamson,
of Granite City, became the first patient in the United
States to have her stomach stapled during such a procedure
at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Doctors snaked a
camera and flexible stapling devices down her throat to
perform the incision-free procedure designed to help obese
patients feel full after a small meal.
In March, a surgical team at
the University of California in San Diego removed a woman's
appendix through her vagina. And, in June, a Portland, Ore.,
surgeon removed a woman's gall bladder through her mouth.
In other major medical news, a
new drug known as Rember showed promise in attacking those
brain tangles associated with Alzheimer's disease; it's now
in the final phase of testing. In addition, receiving bone
marrow cells along with a new kidney allowed several
transplant patients to stop taking immunosuppressive drugs.
Ice on Mars
NASA celebrated its 50th
anniversary last year not with champagne but with water when
its Phoenix lander confirmed the existence of ice on Mars.
It was one of the biggest
discoveries Mars has ever yielded, made even more amazing
because Phoenix was fashioned from salvaged parts on a
relatively cheap ($420 million) budget. The existence of
water adds weight to the argument that some form of life may
exist or, at least, once existed on Mars.
But that was just the start of
a banner year in space. Last year also saw NASA launch the
most shuttle missions ever -- four, including the latest in
November that carried Belleville native Sandra Magnus to the
International Space station for a three-month stay.
In addition, NASA test-fired
its next-generation rocket engine, sent instruments to the
moon aboard an Indian lunar orbiter and shared the joy of
Michael Phelps' eight gold medals because it had helped
design his Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit.
Still other NASA probes visited
Mercury for the first time in 33 years and witnessed plumes
of water vapor on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Meanwhile, Spirit
and Opportunity, those two tiny Mars rovers, are about to
start their sixth year of exploration on the Red Planet.
It's in your genes
It's a scary thought for
Currently, there are genetic
tests for more than 1,500 medical conditions. Even flaws in
a single gene can cause illnesses such as sickle cell
anemia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington's. Yet most of these
tests reveal only a predisposition to the illness, not an
But what happens if an
insurance company or prospective employer learns you have
one of these predispositions? Could they deny you coverage
or a job?
Not anymore. Thirteen years in
the making, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act
(GINA) was passed by Congress and signed into law May 21. It
prohibits health insurers from denying coverage or raising
premiums based solely on a predisposition to developing a
disease in the future. It also bars employers from using
genetic information to make employment decisions, including
hiring, firing and promotion.
It is hoped the law will help
patients feel more confident that they can have necessary
medical screenings without fear of repercussions. It
couldn't have come at a better time: Companies now are
starting to offer do-it-yourself DNA tests for a few hundred
What's out there
Astronomers enjoyed an
out-of-this-world thrill in 2008 when they managed to take
the first photographs of planets outside the solar system.
Until now, the existence of
so-called "exoplanets" had to be inferred by their
gravitational effects on their host star. Even this produced
exciting results: This year, for example, methane and carbon
dioxide were found in the atmosphere of one such planet, a
sign of possible life elsewhere in the universe.
But astronomers were even more
jubilant when the Hubble Space Telescope took the first
snapshot of a planet circling another star -- in this case,
a planet three times the size of Jupiter orbiting the star
Fomalhaut in the constellation Piscis Australia. Three other
planets were photographed as well.
Astronomers also decided on a
name for those small worlds outside the orbit of Neptune in
our own solar system. They're now known as plutoids, named
for the former planet Pluto.
Food for thought
What would happen if a massive
natural disaster or nuclear war wiped out large areas of
agricultural production? Now, countries can turn to what is
being called the "Doomsday Vault," a giant seed repository
that opened last February in a desolate part of Norway north
of the Arctic Circle.
A year in construction, the
Svalbard Global Seed Vault is both inside a mountain and
underground, making it virtually indestructible and off the
beaten path of a military attack. Its first shipment
included 268,000 seed samples.
That may sound like a lot of
seeds until you consider that wheat has more than 200,000
international varieties and corn more than 30,000.
Duplications are necessary so that if seeds fail in one
area, they can be tried elsewhere. Eventually, the seed bank
will contain hundreds of thousands of seed types from 100
countries. Experts say they would be able to germinate even
10,000 years from now.
While most of the world was
focused on the new first family coming to Washington, D.C.,
scientists in November were excited about another family
that was first in every sense of the word (at least so far).
In central Germany, they uncovered the oldest nuclear family
ever discovered -- the 4,600-year-old graves of a foursome
interred together after apparently being killed in a raid or
The bodies included an adult
male and female and two children, one 8 or 9 and the other 4
or 5. DNA analysis confirmed they were mother, father and
two sons, and scientists suggest their burial together shows
the importance of family even in Stone Age life.
In another startling find,
scientists in northern Spain dug up the jaw bone of the
earliest humanlike ancestor ever uncovered in Europe.
Thought to be some 1.2 million years old, it is 400,000
years older than any previous human find and may change
theories on when and how our earliest ancestors came to
Europe. Until now, it was assumed that they established
themselves in the Near East and then spread out to Asia and
And, calling someone a
Neanderthal may eventually be a compliment. Although they
are generally regarded as simple-minded cavemen in insurance
commercials, discoveries on Gibraltar this year found they
fished, cooked and crafted quality tools. In addition,
Neanderthal mothers may have needed to exhibit more maternal
care to nurture their infants, whose brains, scientists
suspect, were as large as modern humans.
Greening of America
Barack Obama wasted no time
waving the red, white, blue and green when it comes to the
To fill the secretary of energy
spot in his cabinet, Obama chose Dr. Steven Chu, a physicist
who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A
1997 Nobel Prize winner, much of Chu's work has focused on
ways to make solar power more practical and affordable. The
pick suggests that Obama will focus on alternative fuels as
a major source for the nation's demand for energy.
He soon may receive a boost
from the Environmental Protection Agency. In a report last
summer, the EPA concluded that a warmer climate could
directly and indirectly hurt the United States in ways
ranging from droughts and heat waves to a proliferation of
insects. And, while the Bush administration opposes any
regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA this spring
is expected to publish its final report on the effects of
Meanwhile, the consequences of
climate change continue to mount. The Arctic ice cap is a
third smaller than average seen from 1980-2000. Polar bears
were put on the endangered species list because of their
loss of habitat. And, more scientists are calling for a
maximum carbon dioxide level of 350 parts per million, down
nearly 30 percent from their previous maximum.
Worse, new studies this year
showed that increased production of ethanol or, worse,
biofuels from plants such as switchgrass would actually
raise greenhouse gas emissions, not reduce them as once
Instead of building a better
mousetrap, scientists may be starting to build a better
At least, that's what Nobel
Prize-winning biologist Hamilton began to accomplish at the
J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. From scratch, he
and his team synthesized an entire bacterial genome,
modeling it after a real bacterium known as Mycoplasma
genitalium. They started with fragments of about 6,000 base
pairs of genetic material, copied it and stitched it
together into a genome containing nearly 583,000 base pairs.
Now, Hamilton wants to insert
his manmade DNA into a living cell and see if it can take
charge of that organism. The ultimate goal is to create
artificial cells that will perform useful tasks such as
breaking down pollutants or producing new types of biofuel.
He says he is making sure such cells could not live outside
a laboratory, but already some scientists are worried that
others may use the technology to create biological weapons.
And, finally, a few last odds
and ends -- some more odd than others -- from the world of
science in 2008:
out Harry Potter, scientists may be starting to unravel the
secret of your cloak of invisibility. Using almost
unimaginably thin wires, researchers created a sheet that
could, effectively, make light bounce backward, rendering
objects wrapped in the sheet invisible. Practical
applications are far too expensive at this point but can a
better cone of silence be far behind?
1965, Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, saw
that the size of transistors was being cut in half every two
years. We may be nearing the limit: A team of European
physicists reported creating a transistor 10 atoms square by
1 atom thick. It's made of graphene, which already has been
shown to outperform silicon.
may be 25 years past 1984, but in some ways we're still
approaching that Orwellian world. Last June, a judge in
India ruled that a brain scan proved that a woman on trial
for murder had knowledge about the crime that only the
perpetrator could possess. She was sentenced to life in
prison; reactions by American scientists ranged from
"fascinating" to "unconscionable," according to the New York
the Terminator movies are pretty far-fetched? Not anymore.
Mark Kim, an engineering professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, designed a robot from 15 blocks, which, when
kicked apart, was able to reassemble itself in its original
form. The Department of Defense is looking into the
application of such an independent-minded machine in war
zones. It'll be back, Ah-nold.
a rare bit of good news for one endangered species,
scientists went ape when they found there may be as many as
125,000 more western lowland gorillas in the forests of the
Republic of Congo. Of course, that news was tempered by war
in the country next door that threatens to wipe out even
more of the 350 mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park,
half of the world's total. Too bad they don't live in Spain:
In a law expected to go into effect in June, great apes in
Spain have been granted legal rights that protect them from
research and exploitation.
official: Scientists in Australia have determined that the
bite of the great white shark is the most powerful of any
living species: just shy of 4,000 pounds of force. Don't
worry, no humans were harmed in the making of this study; it
was all done by computer modeling.
something many will drink to: The Food and Drug
Administration said last month that it will reconsider its
opinion that bisphenol A (BPA) is safe. The agency said it
would consider hundreds of independent studies of the
estrogen-mimicking chemical that's often found in baby
bottles and other containers. Animal studies show even low
concentrations can interfere with reproduction and
development, and, in September, another study found humans
with the highest BPA levels were more prone to heart disease
and diabetes. If you're looking to avoid the stuff, don't
use containers with the recycling number 7 on them.
scientists managed to steer clear of the ongoing stem-cell
controversy by administering three proteins to the
pancreases of adult mice. The result? They turned
non-insulin-producing cells into insulin producers. They
hope the idea one day can be applied to treat type 2
diabetes in humans and possibly neurodegenerative and heart
diseases as well.
you are math-challenged, you might want to join the Piraha
people in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil. In one of the
biggest anthropological finds last year, scientists
discovered that the tribe has no words to express numbers or
it turns out that creatures have been doin' what comes
naturally far longer than scientists ever knew. In May,
paleontologists in Western Australia announced unearthing a
pregnant fish nearly 400 million years old. Until now, the
oldest record of copulation in higher animals were