By Damien Gayle † The capture of the most wanted sub-atomic particle in physics was today named as Science journal’s Breakthrough of the Year. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson, nicknamed the ‘God particle’ for more than four decades. In July the team from the European nuclear research facility at Cern in Geneva announced [...]

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The year’s ten biggest scientific breakthroughs

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By Damien Gayle †

The capture of the most wanted sub-atomic particle in physics was today named as Science journal’s Breakthrough of the Year.

Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson, nicknamed the ‘God particle’ for more than four decades.

In July the team from the European nuclear research facility at Cern in Geneva announced the detection of a particle that fitted the description of the elusive Higgs.

The boson is believed to give matter mass via an associated ‘Higgs field’ that permeates space. Without the property of mass, the universe we live in could not exist.

Scientists used the world’s biggest atom smashing machine, the £2.6billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, to track down the missing particle.†Finding the Higgs topped the list of most important discoveries of 2012 released today by Science, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.
The particle was first proposed by a British physicist Professor Peter Higgs almost 50 years ago when he was a 34-year-old scientist working at the University of Edinburgh.

But until this year, no-one had been able to prove that his theory was right.†Science news journalist Adrian Cho, who wrote about the discovery in the journal’s latest issue, said: ‘Mass must somehow emerge from interactions of the otherwise mass-less particles themselves. that’s where the Higgs comes in.
‘Just as an electric field consists of particles called photons, the Higgs field consists of Higgs bosons woven into the vacuum. Physicists have now blasted them out of the vacuum and into brief existence.’
Science also lists nine other pioneering achievements from 2012.

The Denisovan Genome: Scientists sequenced the DNA blueprint of the Denisovans, an extinct species of human that lived alongside Neanderthals and the ancestors of people living today.†Making Eggs From Stem Cells: Japanese researchers showed that embryonic stem cells from mice could be coaxed into becoming viable egg cells.

Curiosity’s Landing System: Mission engineers at the American space agency Nasa safely and precisely placed the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. They used a ‘sky crane’ that dropped the 3.3 ton rover to the surface from a hovering platform on three cables.

X-ray Laser Provides Protein Structure: Researchers used an X-ray laser, which shines a billion times brighter than traditional synchrotron sources, to determine the structure of an enzyme required by the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness. The advance demonstrated the potential of X-ray lasers to decipher proteins that conventional X-ray sources cannot.

Precision Engineering of Genomes: The revision and deletion of DNA in higher organisms has generally been hit-or-miss. In 2012, a tool known as TALENs, which stands for ‘transcription activator-like effector nucleases,’ allowed scientists to alter or inactivate specific genes in animals such as zebra fish and toads, and cells from patients with disease.

Majorana Fermions: The existence of Majorana fermions, particles that act as their own antimatter and annihilate themselves, has been debated for more than seven decades. This year, a team of physicists and chemists in the Netherlands provided the first solid evidence that such exotic matter exists, in the form of quasi-particles.

These are groups of interacting electrons that behave like single particles.†The ENCODE Project: A decade-long study reported this year in more than 30 papers revealed that the human genetic code is more functional than researchers had believed. Although just 2 per cent of the genome codes for actual proteins, the Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements, or ENCODE, project indicated that about 80 per cent of it is active in ways such as helping to switch genes on or off.

Brain-Machine Interfaces: Scientists showed that paralysed human patients could move a mechanical arm with their minds and perform complex movements in three dimensions. The technology is still experimental, and costly, but the team is hopeful that one day it will help patients paralysed by strokes, spinal injuries and other conditions.

Neutrino Mixing Angle: Hundreds of researchers working on the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment in China found the last part of the jigsaw describing how particles known as neutrinos morph from one strain or ‘flavour’ to another as they travel at near-light speed. Neutrinos may someday help researchers to explain why the universe contains so much matter and so little antimatter.

© Daily Mail, London




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