Thursday, April 24, 2014


Features

Breakthroughs Abounded This Year In Science And Technology

Science Museum employee Kerry Law poses for a photograph by an audiovisual display at the Large Hadron Collider exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
Science Museum employee Kerry Law poses for a photograph by an audiovisual display at the Large Hadron Collider exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
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By Antoine Blua
From the award-winning "God particle" to the discovery of the oldest hominid skull, from driverless cars to the world's first lab-grown hamburger, 2013 produced some headline-grabbing breakthroughs in science and technology.

In The Driver's Seat

The rapid pace of innovation in the automotive industry has pushed the arrival of both driverless and hydrogen-powered vehicles into the not-so-distant future.

Self-driving cars promise to revolutionize life with the automobile, saving time and fuel, preventing accidents, transforming urban planning, and improving the mobility of old, disabled, and even intoxicated people.

The so-called autonomous vehicles could also help ease congestion by removing the main factor that causes traffic jams -- the human that decides on turns, speed, and distance from other vehicles.

Larry Page, CEO of Google, one of the top firms working on self-driving vehicles, this year praised the values of the new technology.

"Imagine how self-driving cars will change our lives and the landscape: more green space, fewer parking lots, greater mobility, fewer accidents, more freedom, fewer hours wasted behind the wheel of a car," Page envisioned. "The average American probably spends almost 50 minutes commuting. Imagine if you got all that time back for other things."

Working prototypes of autonomous vehicles are already being tested, but experts expect it to be more than a decade before they are available to the public.

Also making a bit to be the future of transportation were vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells and emit only water vapor.

Refueling stations are scarce and costly to build, but unlike electric cars hydrogen vehicles have a range comparable to a typical gasoline vehicle and can be refueled quickly.

South Korean manufacturer Hyundai has unveiled a hydrogen-powered small SUV that is expected to be delivered to the general public in California next year. Hyundai offers to pay the hydrogen and maintenance costs. Japan's Honda and Toyota, meanwhile, have announced plans to roll out mass-market models in 2015.

Off The Highways

Meanwhile, the world's first lab-grown beef burger made its debut. The $332,000 burger, cultured from cow stem cells in a laboratory in the Netherlands, was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London in August. One of the two tasters, food writer Josh Schonwald, said the flavor was "consistently different."
Josh Schonwald, a U.S.-based food writer, tastes the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London in August.
Josh Schonwald, a U.S.-based food writer, tastes the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London in August.

"The mouth-feel is like meat," Schonwald said. "The absence is, I feel, the fat. It's a leanness to it, but the bite feels like a conventional hamburger."

Scientists believe lab-grown meat could offer a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to raising livestock, which requires a large amount of land and contributes to global greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Dmanisi Skull

In the Caucasus, it was a 1.8-million-year-old skull that got the world's attention. Discovered in September at the archaeological site of Dmanisi in Georgia, the skull attracted wide attention because it has the potential to rewrite the way our early ancestors are classified.

The fossil, called Skull 5, is the world's first completely preserved adult hominid skull from the early Pleistocene epoch, during which early Homo diverged from the extinct hominid Australopithecus.

David Lordkipanidze from the Georgian National Museum and his colleagues say the analysis of the skull suggests the earliest Homo species such as Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis belong to the same species. That's because Skull 5 unites some key features, like the tiny braincase and large face, which had not been observed together in an early Homo fossil until now.

"[The skull] shows very clearly that genus Homo had a big variability inside the group, and it calls for a question: Are we very sure that we have many Homo species in Africa, or do we have just one lineage?" Lordkipanidze says.

WATCH: RFE/RL Georgian Service report on 'Skull 5':
Ancient Skull In Georgia Gives Glimpse Of Human Evolutioni
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October 22, 2013
Georgian scientists have presented a 1.8 million-year-old skull that researchers say could force a reevaluation of current theories of human evolution. The skull, unearthed in the medieval town of Dmanisi some 100 kilometers southwest of the capital, Tbilisi, is the first completely preserved skull found from that period. Professor David Lortkipanidze, the director general of the Georgian National Museum, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in Dmanisi the discovery provides the earliest evidence of human ancestors moving out of Africa and spreading north to the rest of the world. (By RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Marina Vashakmadze and Toma Begiashvili)


Parts And Parts

Meanwhile, the idea that extinct animals could again walk the earth got a new lease on life in 2013.

Some scientists have been seriously considering the possibility and, after deciphering much of the woolly mammoth's genetic code from its hair, some believe it's possible to clone them if living cells are found.

Russian researchers said that prospect got a step closer to reality in May when they announced the discovery of a perfectly preserved female mammoth carcass that died at least 10,000 years ago. The scientists said they found the carcass with liquid blood on the remote Arctic island of Lyakhovsky. Semyon Grigoryev said the carcass and its muscle tissue were in such good shape because the lower part was stuck in pure ice.

Grigoryev's Northeastern Federal University in Yakutsk earlier signed an agreement with South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-Suk, who in 2005 cloned a dog for the first time.

And in an encore for one of 2012's biggest scientific achievements, two scientists this year won the Nobel prize in physics for their work on the theory of the Higgs boson -- also know as the "God particle." Peter Higgs, from Britain, and Belgium's Francois Englert shared the prize.

In the 1960s, they proposed a mechanism to explain how matter attains its mass. The mechanism predicts a particle -- the Higgs boson -- which was discovered in 2012 and has been described as greatest achievements in physics in the last century.

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