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Devangshu Datta: A big year for science

Higgs Boson, AIDS cures, space research were some big themes of 2012

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Down the line, 2012 will be remembered as the year of the and perhaps, the year when medicine gained the upper hand over AIDS. It was also the year when homo sapiens rediscovered an interest in space exploration. It may also have been the year when quantum computing and communications moved into the realm of the possible.

In all, it’s been a big year for science. So much so that it would be difficult to list all the important discoveries and breakthroughs. In retrospect, such a list is also likely to look quite silly. But these are the big themes worth mentioning.

In terms of fundamental research, the discovery of the Higgs Boson by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is, of course, most noteworthy. Other data from has also cast doubts on the Supersymmetry hypothesis because it ruled out the existence of several particles predicted in Supersymmetry. By eliminating the existence of such particles, LHC has also narrowed down possible avenues of search for Dark Matter.

On the medical side, there have been three certified cures for AIDS. The first occurred almost accidentally in 2007, when Timothy Ray Brown, an HIV-positive leukaemia patient in Berlin, received a bone marrow transplant from a donor who had a rare genetic protection from HIV. “The Berlin Patient”, as Brown is known, has been HIV-free since. This gave researchers a lead to experiment with genetically modified transplants containing genes offering immunity from HIV. In 2012, two more HIV-positive patients received transplants and have since been HIV-free. It was also discovered that certain anti-cancer drugs could target HIV even when the virus is dormant.

Quantum computing could in theory improve number-crunching capacity by magnitudes and also deliver unbreakable cryptography, and it’s now closer to reality. The Physics Nobel was shared by two scientists who have pioneered new methods of experimentally manipulating quantum systems.

A quantum bit, or Qubit, can be in two states at the same time using the principle of superposition. A 250 Qubit system could store more information than there are atoms in the universe. announced a more stable Qubit chip. A University of Waterloo team also achieved quantum teleportation across 143 kms transferring information states from individual particles, using the principle of entanglement. Then, a Heifei University team managed quantum teleportation across 150 metres from one large object to another.

In combination, these are massive breakthroughs. IBM’s chip makes Q-computers possible. The Heifei experiment shows that quantum routers may be developed, while the Waterloo experiments show that transmitting quantum information via satellite is possible. Toshiba’s Cambridge Research Lab also sent encrypted quantum signals along a standard broadband network showing that the internet could graduate to a quantum state while retaining its fibre-optic backbone.

But the sexiest theme of the year has been space exploration, with several private initiatives announced along with more ambitious space programmes from several governments. The exploration of Mars by Curiosity caught the global imagination. NASA’s Messenger probe also found water-ice on Mercury. NASA has a large number of follow up Mars mission plans, including a possible manned mission circa 2030. The European Space Agency has manned missions plans in the 2030s as well. India and China also have unmanned Mars plans on the anvil.

There’s also been a focus on extra-solar planets, or exoplanets. The Kepler Mission has identified 2,000-odd exoplanet candidates and over 850 confirmed planets are now listed. The CHaracterizing ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS) mission should provide more detailed information on exoplanets.

Closer to “home”, the became the first privately built commercial spacecraft to be used in runs to the International Space Station. The Skylon, an experimental design from another private company, Reaction Engines, could be more efficient. Skylon’s combined propulsion system may dramatically reduce the cost per kg of payload. Planetary Resources, an ambitious asteroid mining company, aims to use robotic technologies to survey and extract minerals from near-earth asteroids. Golden Spike is yet another entrepreneurial company with futuristic plans — it’s trying to sell the moon as a tourist destination.

Interstellar travel is another idea out of science fiction that is now being seriously explored. The 100-year Starship Initiative is a project co-sponsored by NASA and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the capacity for inter-stellar travel over the next century. The challenges are insane due to the distances involved. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is over four light years away and most stars are much further from the Earth. In practice, the fastest spaceships reach only a fraction of the speed of light implying that such journeys could take centuries. Research into the issues of interstellar travel could, however, lead to insights applicable in many other fields.

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