Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2013

In November 2013, astronomers made a startling announcement: The Milky Way galaxy hosts at least 8.8 billion stars with planets the size of Earth. Those planets, the researchers said after studying NASA’s Kepler data, revolve around their suns in a so-calledGoldilocks zone. That zone is where life, as we know it, can exist.

“Just in our Milky Way galaxy alone, that’s 8.8 billion throws of the biological dice,” said Geoff Marcy, one of the study’s authors [source: Borenstein].

The Kepler telescope, which experienced technical problems in summer 2013, was gazing at a thin slice of the Milky Way to see how many Earth-like planets might be out there. The astronomers then did some math homework and extrapolated that figure to the rest of the galaxy. The next step is to see if these Earth-like planets have atmospheres. The right kind of atmosphere is a good indication that life might exist on the planet’s surface [source: Borenstein].

That finding is just one of many scientific discoveries that made headlines in 2013. Wait until you hear the other 10.

After announcing the discovery of King Richard III’s remains in September 2012, archaeologists were able to confirm in 2013 that they had indeed unearthed the old boy.

© Darren Staples/Reuters/Corbis

10: King Richard III Confirmed

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

That’s our favorite tyrant in Act V, Scene IV of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.” He’s on the battlefield about to take a tumble. He’s in power, but alone.

The end came soon enough for Richard, the reviled (and occasionally revered) English monarch, on Aug. 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth. After the battle, a group of friars buried Richard, naked, and with no marker or any other identifying papers. They jammed his skull into the grave so hard that it sat crooked against the wall of the shallow grave some 20 miles (32 kilometers) or so from the battlefield. Later on, someone built a parking lot over the king [source:Burns].

Thanks to the skeletal evidence, radiocarbon datingand a mitochondrial DNA match, archaeologists concluded in February 2013 that the remains unearthed in the parking lot a year before were those of Richard. Later, the researchers from England’s University of Leicester even were able to discern that the king had a bad case of roundworm. The king was 32 when he died at Bosworth, the last battle of the War of the Roses, which ended with Henry the VII taking the throne [source: Ford and Smith Park].

Like that, except the one developed in 2013 by Harvard University scientists can perch on the head of pin.

© Yuya Shino/Reuters/Corbis

9: Minuscule Lithium-ion Battery

In June, Harvard University scientists announced the creation of a seriously tiny lithium-ion battery that could one day power Lilliputian robots or mini medical devices. Created with a 3-D printer, the battery is so small that it can rest on the head of a pin.

Three-dimensional printers, headline makers in their own right in 2013, make objects by piling layer upon layer of material on top of each other. Most 3-D printers manipulate plastic, but the one that fashioned the midget battery relied on a new type of material crammed with lithium-metal-oxide particles.

The petite power source is less than a millimeter in size. It weighs less than 100 micrograms but is able to store as much energy per gram as the larger lithium-ion batteries that power items such as laptops and electric cars [source: Powell].

Was this the year of the bionic eye? Several major developments occurred in the so-called cochlear implant for the vision impaired.

William West/AFP/Getty Images

8: Bionic Eye

Meanwhile, over in Australia, a bunch of engineers and designers unveiled one of the world’s first bionic eyes in June. Using a microchip embedded in the skull and a digital camera set on a pair of glasses, the bionic eye has the potential to help 85 percent of people who are legally blind see the outlines of their surroundings [source: Hall].

Here’s how this bionic eye works: Mounted on thesnazzy glasses is a camera similar to the one on aniPhone. The camera captures an image, and a sensor inside the glasses directs the camera’s field of vision as a person turns his or her head. A digital processor modifies the captured images and then sends the signal wirelessly to the chip implanted at the back of the brain. The chip sends electrical signals through tiny electrodes that stimulate the brain’s visual center. Over time, the brain interprets these signals as images [source: Hall].

These funny-looking eusocial rodents could wind up teaching humans a lot about cancer.

© Wolfgang_Thieme/dpa/Corbis

7: Cancer-free Naked Mole Rats

Small and hairless, naked mole rats are so ugly that they’re cute. Unlike many rodents though, these subterranean creatures have unusually long lives (30 years!) and don’t get cancer. In June, researchers at the University of Rochester announced why that is. They said naked mole rats have a natural substance in between their tissues that keeps cancerous tumors away. This substance, known as hyaluronan, may one day lead to cancer treatments in humans.

How did researchers find this out? When they removed the hyaluronan from the tissue of the mole rats, the rats began to grow tumors. Apparently, the naked mole rats have a lot of hyaluronan that keeps tissues flexible, which is essential for burrowing and making sure their skin remains unscathed. Humans produce hyaluronan, too, but in much smaller quantities [source: Chow].

Artist’s concept of the wondrous and wide-ranging Voyager spacecraft in flight

Image courtesy NASA/JPL

6: Voyager I Makes It to Interstellar Space

It’s going, going, gone.

NASA hit the longest home run of its career when Voyager 1, like the Pioneers 10 and 11 spacecraft, said sayonara to the planets of our solar system and the sun‘s gravitational influence. Voyager 1 is now streaking through interstellar space sending information back to Earth. Although the craft said bon voyage in August 2012, it wasn’t until September 2013 that scientists were sure it actually happened.

It was a remarkable event more than 36 years in the making. Voyager 1 left Earth in 1977 for Jupiter and Saturn and scampered past the so-calledheliosphere, the boundary of the solar system where the sun’s gravity has little effect. When scientists made the shocking announcement, the craft was 11.7 billion miles (18.8 billion kilometers) from Earth. Voyager 2 also is headed for interstellar space.

Peter Higgs, the British scientist responsible for starting all of this (Higgs) boson business, poses in front of a photo of the Atlas detector in London on Nov. 12, 2013.

© Toby Melville/Reuters/Corbis

5: Higgs Boson Confirmed

Every so often, there’s a moment in science where everyone stands and cheers. That happened in March when scientists confirmed after decades of research (and some pretty promising July 2012 results) that they had found the Higgs boson. In 1964, a British physicist named Peter Higgs theorized that the tantalizingly elusive subatomic particle was the reason why matter has mass. Scientists working at animmense particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, announced the discovery.

What does the Higgs boson supposedly do? People have used many metaphors to describe how it works. Some say it acts like molasses, dragging on particles as they move through it. Others compare it to a field of snow. Let’s use that metaphor.

Some particles, like electrons, have little mass, while others have more mass. As these particles move through the universe, they interact with a Higgs field full of Higgs bosons, just like a person who moves through a snowy field. Electrons are like downhill skiers. They glide swiftly over the snow. Other particles that have more mass plod through the field like a person schlepping through snow in heavy boots. Still, other particles have no mass, so they don’t interact with Higgs bosons at all. The discovery will help scientists explain how our universe works [source: Holmes].

Curiosity has had a busy couple of months on Mars drilling into rocks and discovering some of the key building blocks for life.

Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

4: Mars and Microbes

Seven months after a NASA rover landed on Mars, scientists announced in March that the rover,Curiosity, found evidence the red planet could have been home to living microbes.

Here’s how that happened: On Feb. 8, Curiosity drilled into a rock and found some of the key ingredients for life, including sulfur, nitrogen and oxygen. The rock was sitting in a part of Mars called Yellowknife Bay, which scientists say, was at the end of an ancient river system or lake bed. The rock contained minerals usually found in clay [sources: WallNASA].

Scientists just can’t leave the idea of the invisibility cloak alone, and 2013 saw a few new advancements on the cloak that Harry Potter made famous.


3: Invisibility Cloak

When Harry Potter didn’t want anyone to see him, all he had to do was pull on a magical cloak and — poof! — he was invisible. Although invisibility cloaks, which work by bending light around an object have been around since 2006, scientists said in June that they made a major breakthrough by building a broadband device that can hide objects at a wide range of light frequencies [source: MIT]. Of course, there was just one teeny drawback: The device made other parts of the object more noticeable.

Here’s how: While a person might not be able to see an object at one point in the light spectrum, it makes another part of the object more visible. For example, the cloak might make an object invisible in the red light spectrum, but if it was illuminated by white light, which contains all colors, that object would become bright blue and stand out like a sore thumb. In other words, it’s impossible to become fully invisible. The device could be used in biomedicine and in the military [source: Pocklington].

He may have been gone more for than 40 years, but he’s certainly not forgotten, as Barbaturex morrisoni attests.

© Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters/Corbis

2: Jim Morrison, the Lizard King

Jim Morrison, the inspiration behind the storied ’70s rock band The Doors, might be dead (is he?), but he still lives on, and not just in his music. In June, scientists named a new species of lizard for the self-proclaimed, hard-rocking “Lizard King.”

Barbaturex morrisoni was a rather large, plant-eating reptile that roamed the planet some 36-40 million years ago. B. morrisoni was as large a Dalmatian [source: Huffington Post]. The king of the lizards lived during a period in Earth’s history when temperatures were skyrocketing, and, indeed, scientists think the warm temps contributed to B. morrisoni‘s unusual success as a big, herbivorous lizard.

A “Divest from climate change” banner is dropped over the Charles River by Boston students who aim to stop climate change by having their schools divest from the fossil fuel industry. Around 150 students from Boston area colleges and universities rallied on Dec. 8, 2013.

© Paul Weiskel/Demotix/Corbis

1: Climate Change Getting Worse

Speaking of rising temps, climate change is worsening, and according to a 2013 draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it will have “widespread and consequential” impacts for the entire planet. According to the report, climate change will make human health problems worse in many regions. Temperature increases will affect food crops such as wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions.

The report also predicts dire political consequences, such as civil war, as climate change diminishes food production, increases poverty and wreaks havoc with the economies of many nations. Moreover, by 2100, sea levels will rise, displacing hundreds of millions of people, particularly for multiple areas of Asia [source:Guillen].

Dr. George E Peck MD
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