Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

2012: The Biggest (and Weirdest) Science Stories

The year's ten biggest science stories, and ten of the most weird and womderful science stories.

The Top Science Stories

1. Physicists found signs of the Higgs boson
CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) announced in July that the long-sought-after Higgs boson is real following a series of experiments conducted in the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs boson, first postulated by Peter Higgs in the 1960s and often referred to as the 'God particle', explains why mass exists, and is the final particle required to confirm the Standard Model of physics. "Australian researchers have played a significant role in this research," said Dr Martin White, a Research Associate with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale and the University of Melbourne. See AusSMC's simple animation and expert reaction. See CERN's media release.

2. Curiosity landed on the red planet
NASA's $US2.5bn rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August. After a 36-week voyage, the rover has started studying potentially habitable Martian environments. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), which CSIRO manages on NASA's behalf, was the main tracking station for landing activities. See NASA media release

3. Australia and South Africa were selected to host world's biggest telescope
Australia and South Africa will jointly host the world's biggest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). After a six-year battle between the two nations, antennae will be built in both countries - the Australian base will be at Murchison, a radio-quiet zone in WA. Mooted as one of the great scientific projects of the 21st Century, the sensitivity of the array will be such that it could detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away. In operation, the telescope will produce more data in a single day than the world currently generates in a year. It will look back into the distant past just after the Big Bang, and could help answer some particularly big questions, such as whether we are alone in the universe, and exactly what dark energy and dark matter are. See AusSMC expert reactions.

4. Hendra virus met its match
CSIRO announced in November that a vaccine against the deadly Hendra virus was now available for use on horses across the country. It is hoped the vaccine will help stop the spread of Hendra from bats to horses, reducing the risks to Australian horse lovers, vets and the equine industry in general. The vaccine is believed to be the first commercially available vaccine against a Bio-Safety Level-4 disease agent - the most dangerous and exotic infectious diseases in the world. The Hendra vaccine capped off a stellar year of discovery in this field, with an earlier announcement in August that CSIRO researchers had found a new virus, known as Cedar. While closely related to the Hendra virus, Cedar does not appear to cause illness in many of the animals normally susceptible to Hendra. Scientists hope that this difference will help them to better understand how to manage and control its deadly virus cousins. Click here to listen to an AusSMC briefing on Cedar.

5. A quantum leap: Aussie 'spin doctors' led the field in quantum computing
Australian engineers brought the futuristic world of quantum computers a step closer in September. UNSW-led researchers created the first working quantum bit (qubit), the basis of quantum computing, by controlling the electron 'spin' - or magnetic orientation - of a single atom in a silicon chip. The research was published in the prestigious journal Nature. Several other discoveries by this research team helped move the reality of quantum computers closer this year. They created the narrowest silicon conducting wire and the smallest transistor. The narrowest silicon conducting wire - just four atoms wide and one atom high - is as conductive as copper, and could have significant implications for connecting atomic-scale components. The smallest working transistor consists of a single atom placed precisely in a silicon crystal. This unprecedented atomic accuracy may yield the elementary building blocks of quantum computing. The studies were published in Nature and Science.

6. Salt-tolerant wheat was developed
Salty soil is no problem for a variety of durum wheat bred by CSIRO and University of Adelaide scientists working with the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics. Using traditional breeding techniques, they bred salt tolerance from an ancestral relative of wheat into a commercial durum wheat variety, which showed a 25 per cent improved grain yield on salty soils. The crop will be particularly useful in developing countries where wheat is commonly grown in arid areas with saline soils. This was published in Nature Biotechnology.

7. Our microbial companions were mapped
A consortium of scientists mapped for the first time the genomes of the microbial community that lives on or within the human body. Healthy humans host ten times as many microbial cells as human cells, including bacteria and viruses, and our minute companions play a critical role in human health and disease, say The Human Microbiome Project scientists. This research was published in Nature and PLoS ONE - link to the framework for the research.

8. Our genome was unravelled
Far from being junk, the vast majority of our DNA acts in at least one biochemical event in at least one cell type, according to the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project. Analysing the entire genome to map regions of function and modification has expanded our understanding of how our blueprint is modified, and has identified new leads for understanding the genetic basis of many common diseases. ENCODE was published in over thirty research papers in four journals, including Nature. This paper summarises the research.

9. The first embryonic stem cell study in humans was completed
In the first report of embryonic stem cells being used in humans for any purpose, US researchers reported that transplants for eye disease (macular degeneration) in two patients appeared safe and gave them some improvement in vision after four months. This was published in the The Lancet. AusSMC expert reactions

10. Rare transit of Venus returned
In June, the planet Venus passed in front of the Sun for only the eighth time since the invention of telescope, and many onlookers in Australia risked neck-strain to watch the six-and-a-half-hour event. A US astronomer wrote about the significance of the Transit of Venus in Nature, emphasising the important opportunity to improve our methods for studying far-off planets that it represents.

The Most Weird and Wonderful

1. Ribbiting news! The world's tiniest vertebrate was discovered
Smaller than the fingernail on your pinkie, a new frog species discovered in New Guinea, Paedophryne amanuensis, is the world's smallest known creature with a backbone. An adult specimen measures just seven millimeters, a mere one millimeter smaller than the previously known smallest vertebrate, a fish called Paedocypris progenetica. The researchers said that this discovery provides biologists with further information on the physiological constraints that come with extreme body size. The research was published in PLoS ONE (http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=3Dt&rct=3Dj&q=3D&esrc=3Ds&source=3Dweb&c...).

2. Watch out boys! Women can spot a cheater just by looking at them
Women can tell if a male stranger has been unfaithful just by looking at his face, reported researchers from the University of Western Australia. The study found that men with more masculine facial features were perceived as, and were actually more likely to have been, unfaithful. Women are better at judging infidelity from facial cues than men, which the authors say help them to avoid investing in an unfaithful partner. This was published in Biology Letters (http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2012.0908).

3. Hosepipe included: elephant firefighters were mooted
One potential, albeit radical, solution to Australia's out-of-control fires and feral animal population would be to introduce elephants and other large mammals, and to increase hunting pressure, according to an opinion piece in Nature (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v482/n7383/full/482030a.html) by Prof David Bowman from the University of Tasmania. He recommended introducing large mammals such as elephants, rhinoceros and Komodo dragons to help consume flammable grasses and control feral animal populations. AusSMC expert comments are at http://www.smc.org.au/2012/02/round-up-bring-elephants-to-australia-natu....

4. Chimp off the old block: ape midlife crises were revealed
It's not just humans that experience midlife crises. Despite being a lot less likely to blow their savings on a Ferrari, our great ape cousins may also go through a midlife malaise. An international team assessed the wellbeing of 336 chimpanzees and 172 orangutans and found that, much like us, they are happier when young or in their twilight years than they are in the middle of their lives. This study was published in PNAS (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/11/14/1212592109).

5. The cane toad was given a taste of its own medicine
Using cane toads' poison against them is the latest weapon in the fight against the invasive species spreading across the country. University of Sydney and Queensland scientists used the poison as bait in traps to attract cane toad tadpoles. Native tadpoles are repelled by the chemical, so just the unwanted invaders are captured. This was published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B: (http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/06/11/rspb.201...).

6. Another kind of emission: dinosaur farts were linked to climate warming
Enormous sauropod dinosaurs may have produced enough of the greenhouse gas methane to warm the climate many millions of years ago, contributing to the warm Mesozoic environment, according to calculations by UK scientists. Much like modern cows, researchers believe the long-necked herbivores had methane-producing microbes in their gut to help digest their plant-based diet. This was published in Current Biology (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2812%2900329-6).

7. The proof of innocence
After receiving a $US400 fine for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign, a University of California physicist wrote a physics paper to contest the charge. He argued that three physical phenomena combined at the same time, including the police officer approximating his angular velocity rather than his linear velocity, which led to the police officer reaching an erroneous conclusion. The judge to revoked the fine. Here is a link to the paper in the Popular Physics arXiv (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1204.0162v2.pdf).

8. Stand aside Dr Dolittle, animals were talking for themselves
Scientists demonstrated for the first time that whales can imitate human voices and they found an elephant that speaks Korean. Whales typically produce sounds in a manner very different from people, but acoustic analysis showed that a white whale had modified its vocal mechanics to sound like a human. An Asian elephant also modified his usual behaviour to imitate human sounds: he speaks by placing his trunk in his mouth. However, as far as scientists can tell, neither remarkable animal means what they say. Both the whale (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2812%2901009-3) and elephant (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/retrieve/pii/S096098221201086X) studies were published in Current Biology.

9. "Old people smell" but not as bad as you thought
We can identify people's ages based on their smell, and there really is an 'old people smell', according to US researchers. However, contrary to popular belief, it's less intense and rather more pleasant than the bodily odours of the younger generation. Like other animals, human body odour contains an array of chemical components that convey social information, and the compositions of these odours change across a person's lifetime. This was published in PLoS ONE (http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0038110).

10. Mum's the word: fairy-wren passwords were uncovered
Listening to your mother is especially important if you're a baby fairy-wren. For the babies to be fed, they need to chirp a password - a single unique note - taught to them by their mothers from outside the egg, reported biologists from Flinders University. The nestlings incorporate that password into their begging calls, helping parents to detect foreign cuckoo nestlings that have invaded the nest. The findings show that even traits that appear innate may actually be learned. This was published in Current Biology (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2812%2901125-6).

Australian Science Media Centre