June 6, 2020

2011: The Year in Science.

No matter what your field or discipline was, 2011 stands as an amazing year for the history books. Change and transition seems to be the watch-word as regimes have been overthrown, the US space program sits at a crossroads, and cultural and social change has taken place worldwide.
Is 2011 the climax, or merely the beginning of a decade of change? What follows is a list of the 12 biggest science news stories that crossed our radar in 2012… yes, I know these may be astronomy-biased, by hey, this is an astronomy site!

1. The End of the Shuttle Program: The end of a 30-year era came to a close on July 21st when Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on STS-135 on the final mission of the shuttle program. After the loss of Columbia in 2003, we knew this day would come; one of the recommendations of the committee formed to investigate in the wake of the incident suggested that a date to terminate the program should be set. This puts the space program in a position never envisioned when construction on the International Space Station began in 1998: maintaining a human presence in low-Earth orbit without a workhorse shuttle. All eyes will be on Space X’s unmanned Dragon module set to launch in 2012 on February 7th for a rendezvous with the ISS as well as Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft set to do the same. With the cancellation of the Constellation initiative in 2010, the manned MPCV spacecraft billed as “Apollo on steroids” is set for launch in late 2013.

A forlorn Endeavour sitting in the VAB… (Photo by Author).

2. Its Raining… Satellites!: It seemed like one after another, a large, high profile re-entry occurred over our fair planet this year. First, there was UARS, the Earth-observation satellite that was launched in 1991 and one of the largest objects to re-enter since Skylab in the late 1970’s. Then about a month later, the European ROSAT observatory came barreling in… we saw both in orbit, and ROSAT we saw on its final orbit, really truckin’ along! Is Low Earth Orbit reaching a saturation point of debris? Could a “ablation cascade” of satellite debris be in the cards? And don’t forget, a trifecta of high-profile re-entries is in the offing, as the stranded Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt should be returning to Earth with its hydrazine payload in early 2012. We thought it interesting that while the world watched for both uncontrolled re-entries, no one actually caught them on camera; this shows that despite our reaching 7 billion living souls this year, there are still plenty of wild spaces out there!

3. Interplanetary Launches: Voyager 1, our most distant embassary at a distance of about 11 billion miles or 119 astronomical units from the Sun, has reached a bow shock edge within the heliosheath of the outer solar system where charged particles from our Sun are at a lower level than energetic galactic nuclei. Elsewhere in the solar system, the twin gravity probes Grail-A & B headed towards the Moon, Juno, the 1st non-nuclear equipped mission is headed towards the planet Jupiter, and NASA’s Opportunity rover headed towards Mars. We were honored to be on-hand during the NASATweetup seeing Opportunity on its way! A few other corners of our solar system became just a little more known as well, as the Messenger spacecraft arrived at Mercury this year and the Dawn mission went in orbit around Vesta.

Welcome to Vesta… in 3D! (Credit: NASA/JPL).

4. … and the 2011 Nobel goes to…: This year’s Nobel in Physics was a long overdue and astronomical themed one. The coveted prize in Physics went to Adam G. Riess, Brian P. Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter for work on the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. Such evidence turned up in the late 1990’s and has led to one of the more bizarre realities of our times; that the universe is not only expanding, but said expansion is actually speeding up as time unfolds. This was once called Einstein’s “Greatest Blunder,” a fudge factor that he later discarded. Such a force known as dark energy has now been measured by comparing the luminosity of standard candles known as Type 1A supernovae… said Nobel once again proves what scientists of the past century have come to realize; in a bet on Einstein against the universe, the smart money is always on Einstein…

5. & the 2011 Ig Nobels…: With less fanfare but no less importance, the 2011 Ig Nobel prizes were also awarded at Harvard by the Center for Improbable Research. Billed as science that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think…” the Ig Nobels feature some of the most original and innovative science out there. Among our faves this year;

- The Biology Prize to a team of Australian & US researchers studying the mating habits of beetles with beer bottles;

- The Public Safety Prize to John Senders of the University of Toronto for studying driving and the effects of distraction by constructing a visor that flaps down at random intervals;

- And the award in Mathematics to Dorothy Martin, Pat Robertson and Harold Camping, all of whom incorrectly calculated the end of the world!

6. Those Pesky FTL Neutrinos: All throughout the year, the story that kept bubbling up around the Web was the report from an experiment run at CERN of neutrinos that apparently travelled faster than the speed of light. Is this a testing error as some have suggested or is there something fundamental about the universe that we’re missing? It should be noted that although the implications of such a discovery would be staggering, neutrinos are also very weakly interacting with normal matter, and the speeds aren’t drastically different. Then there’s the dilemma of supernova 1987a; at a distance of 168,000 light years, said FTL neutrinos should have arrived at Earthly detectors at measurably different times. We prefer to sit on the relativistic fence on this one… for now.

Lowering of one of the ATLAS muon “small” wheels… (Credit: Claudia Marcelloni/CERN/ATLAS).

7. CERN closes in on the Higgs: The science story that everyone held up their 2011 retrospectives for, physicists at CERN running the ATLAS experiment continue to close in on the elusive Higgs-Boson particle. This is the predicted “God-Particle,” a fundamental particle that gives you, me and the Kardashians structure. Predicted to exist at energies around 125GeV, this year’s run narrowed the range down to between 115 and 130 GeV, jibbing well with predictions… what would really leave physicists scratching their heads would be if the Higgs didn’t exist at the energies predicted!

8. New elements named: Time to change those periodic tables; three new elements were named this year, Darmstadtium, Roentgenium and Copernicium. These sit at atomic numbers 110, 111, and 112 respectively and were formally named in November at the General Assembly of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics in London. Two are named after a person (Copernicus and Wilhelm Röentgen) and one after the place of discovery, namely the Society for Heavy Ion Research Laboratory in Darmstadt, Germany. All are synthetic and are not to be found in nature.  Also this year two more elements where given the tentative names of livermorium (Atomic number 114) & flerovium (116). The honor of having a element named after you is a very selective club, more prestigious (but lower paying) than a Nobel prize. Perhaps we’ll be reporting landfall on the “Island of Stability” sometime soon?

9. Of Tsunamis, Natural Disasters and Global Warming: 2011 was a hard-hitting one in terms of natural disasters. One of the worst in recorded history occurred this year in the form of a 9.0 undersea earthquake and tsunami off of the coast of Japan that resulted waves up to 133 feet high and over 15,000 causalities. The disaster also resulted in shut down and damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant and an ongoing disaster as the area surrounding the plant was evacuated. Far less damaging but of note was a rare US East Coast earthquake of magnitude 5.8 that occurred on August 25th. 2011 was also a record year for tornadoes across the US as 1,560 confirmed tornadoes touched down for the season. And some interesting signals that the reality of global warming may finally be seeping into the main-stream consciousness as insurance companies are now making record pay-outs and refusing new coverage policies.   

10. Crowd-sourcing Science: As connections get faster and more reliable, more and more science is moving to the keyboards, not just in the sharing of data but in its gathering and crowd-sourcing. One of the biggest pioneers of this is Galaxy Zoo, a platform that allows followers to sift-though and classify galaxies in their spare time. This has already produced real scientific discoveries via avenues that no one could have predicted previous. Galaxy Zoo has branched out into Ice Hunters, Moon Zoo, and Planet Hunters, just to name a brief few. Other programs have sought to data mine earthquake or flu outbreak activity via social media sites, often with better accuracy than traditional data. We’ve even heard of a recent study that saw a link between measles outbreaks in Niger and night-time light activity!

Launch of the ill-fated Glory satellite… (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls).

11. Species Diversity and Earth observing satellites: NASA’s NPP Earth observing satellite was successfully placed in orbit this year, and none too soon. Its successful launch followed a string of losses for the Earth-monitoring community, including the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009 and Glory earlier this year. Again, the position that global warming “isn’t occurring” or is solely caused by “natural cycles” has become increasingly untenable as the reality in terms of the loss of bio-diversity and dollar damage becomes apparent… perhaps we’re finally becoming mature enough for the hard work as a species ahead?

12. 2011: A Beginning for Social Change? : One final thought as 2011 draws to a close. This year has been one of drastic social upheaval, as the Arab Spring, UK riots, and Occupy movements in the US have demonstrated. Folks are dissatisfied, and one can only wonder if 2011 was a climax or an opening act. Science does not operate in a vacuum, and will play no small part in the kind of future that we ultimately want to have. Scientific and skeptical thinking are also tenuous gifts that have not been the normal state of affairs for most of human history.  If we want to, we can establish a world where at least the baseline guarantees of education, safety and medical care are available for all… that’s what we mean when we say the “Land of Opportunity,” right? Or we can give in to greed and slide back into ignorance, it’s our choice; just don’t forget the spirit of our ancestors that gave us this hard won knowledge and a chance to rise above… so what do you say, ready to start the hard work of building a brave new enlightened civilization in 2012?

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