Prometheus Bound: Science in 2011

By Giovanni Tapang, PhD

The leading scientific journals usually have a year end issue that summarizes the year that was in science. Science magazine has hailed the AIDS treatment therapy study HPTN 052 of Myron Cohen and collaborators as its Breakthrough of the Year. This clinical study showed lowered infection rates of HIV-1 (by a factor of 20) between partners using a cocktail of antiretroviral drugs. This treatment, described in a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, combined with other promising clinical trials, maybe “The Beginning of the End of AIDS,” as the World AIDS Day (December 1) event last year in George Washington University heralded.

Nature Magazine on the other hand focused on ten individuals that mattered, for better or worse, in science this year. They also had a collection of science news over the whole year which ranged from dealing with new exoplanets, the Higgs boson, Fukushima to a possible malaria vaccine.

There are a myriad ways to categorize the significant science and technology events in the past year. One can start from looking at size: from the small to the large. Starting with small fundamental particles, one of the interesting news that came out around September was the announcement of faster-than-light neutrinos from Dario Autiero of the international Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus (OPERA) team. They measured with great precision how long these neutrinos (particles with no charge and low mass) completed the 730 kilometer distance from CERN to Italy and found that it was faster than light. If confirmed by other experiments, this tells us that there is still new physics waiting to be discovered to explain these results.

Going a little bit larger, 2011 marks the first structural map of an essential plant protein, Photosystem II (PSII), that enables photosynthetic organisms to generate oxygen from water using solar energy. PSII is composed of four manganese atoms, five oxygen atoms and a calcium atom. It forms a cube-like box with a tail that pairs the oxygen atoms into the O2 molecule that we breathe. Without this protein, life on earth would be seen only in chemical vents under the sea.

On the other end of the scale is the discovery of a rocky planet “twin” of the Earth by the spacecraft Kepler. The exoplanet (outside of the solar system) Kepler-22b is 2.4 times the radius of our home and is located at a distance of a little more than five and a half trillion kilometers away. What makes it significant is that it lies in the so-called Goldilocks zone of neither too hot or too cold for Earthlike life. Kepler also discovered two planets (Kepler 20e and 20f) that are similar in size to Earth and Venus. This feat of detection was done at around 9000 trillion kilometers away.

At an even larger scale is the discovery of pristine clouds of hydrogen that maybe the first elements in the universe. These were detected by the Keck telescope from light that have traveled around 2 billion years ago. These gas filaments in between galaxies may be leftovers from the Big Bang.

We can also look at the news in terms of human impact. The AIDS treatment mentioned above is a welcome respite in the light of the tragic Fukushima earthquake that not only triggered a massive tsunami but also caused the meltdown of several reactors in Japan. It took the Japanese government and TEPCO nine months to fully shutdown the site.

This year marked the start of serious discussion on the lasting effects of human activity on the Earth and its ecosystems. Geologists pondered on formalizing the Anthropocene epoch of geological history and countries have met at the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change last December and left empty handed without a replaement to the Kyoto Protocol. We also note how the World Meteorological Organization warned last year that extreme weather events might increase due to global warming.

We also saw reports on the ongoing trial of the RTS,S malaria vaccine in Africa showing that it had reduced by half the incidence of the disease in young children. While this indicates that there is that possibility of creating a vaccine for this killer disease, the long term efficacy of the vaccine as well as its pricing and availability are still unclear.

These stories are but a small part of the increase in understanding of the world that we have made in 2011. There are still more to be discovered such as the Higgs boson, stem-cells and space exploration in Mars and in near earth orbits. The continuing relevance of these discoveries is that it is a testament on how we get to continually understand nature using scientific experimentation and inquiry. Our hope is that our societies would be able to transform this knowledge into useful tools and processes that will contribute to the progress and benefit of the many.###

Dr. Tapang is the chairperson of the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People.

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