At the end of each year, COSMOS publishes a rundown of the top stories and biggest moments in science for that year. It may only be August, but this week I found myself mulling over just how difficult it will be to write that list for 2012.
It’s been a year with higher highs and lower lows than most years. Perhaps the biggest high so far was when the world gathered to watch NASA’s Mohawk Guy and his blue polo shirt-wearing team land a plutonium-powered robot the size of a Kombi Van on Mars.
But that moment was in close competition with the announcement on July 4 that, after 50 years of boundary-pushing physics and engineering, they’d found the Higgs boson. (You know it’s a big science story when seasoned political commentators like Annabel Crabb write about it… even if she did avoid getting her hands dirty with any actual science.)
The announcement came from CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research physics), in Geneva, Switzerland, which hosts 10,000 visiting scientists every year, representing 113 nationalities and half of the world’s particle physicists. It leaves no doubt the globalisation of science is well underway, and particle physics is the closest field at the moment to what we might truly call a ‘global science’.
Both of these moments have gone through what’s quickly becoming a Generation Y ritual, and now have quirky and memorable YouTube music videos: the Mars rover rap, “We’re NASA and we know it”, and an a-capella physics parody, “Rolling in the Higgs”. Science has never been this, um, harmonic.
These two highlights have happened against the daily, run-of-the-mill mind-boggling discoveries, like the fact that baboons can read, or that scientists have sequenced the genomes of close human relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans – not only is it from ancient, degraded DNA, but they’ve with better precision than the ‘gold standard’ human genome that was first published in 2003.
Continuing to push boundaries, Titanic director James Cameron reached the floor of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, in March as part of his underwater solo submarine mission. And in May, SpaceX became the first commercial outfit to launch its own craft to the International Space Station.
Like I said, it’s already a year packed with highlights.
But these highlights have occurred against a backdrop of budget cuts. The U.S. will likely cut 21% from NASA’s planetary-science budget, and 38% from its Mars projects, an announcement that prompted planetary scientists across the U.S. to host a bake sale to raise awareness.
European science institutes are also being dealt budget blows. Most notably, the Italian physics institutes, which play key roles at CERN, were told of devastating budget cuts just days after the announcement of the Higgs boson discovery. These budget cuts will hit young researchers hard. They do most of the grunt work for the large missions and experiments, and many will now have to watch their career prospects dry up.
This week, we also passed another historic milestone as Neil Armstrong, died, aged 82. We have lived in a remarkable time, a time when the first man who walked on the Moon still walked among us. And I can’t help but think to a future, 10 or 20 years from now, and wonder whether there will be any person alive who has stepped foot on a heavenly body other than Earth.
Despite his reluctance to talk to media, Armstrong filmed an interview in Australia last year to tell some of his story. YouTube clip still pending.