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From Deep Dives To The Surface Of Mars: Science And Technology In 2012

A graphic showing a collision at full power in the control room for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). In 2012, CERN announced it may have discovered the elusive Higgs boson particle. (file photo)
A graphic showing a collision at full power in the control room for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). In 2012, CERN announced it may have discovered the elusive Higgs boson particle. (file photo)
From the surface of Mars to the deepest spot on Earth, and from the lush New Guinea rainforests to a sleek 3D-printing lab, this year's science and technology breakthroughs were born in diverse places. But the feature they all shared was their ability to surprise and inspire both researchers and the public at large during the course of 2012.

After a journey of more than eight months, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) 2,000-pound, plutonium-powered Curiosity rover made one of the most complicated spacecraft landings ever attempted when it hit the Martian surface this August.

Packed with cutting-edge instruments to search for evidence of ancient life-sustaining conditions -- and even, perhaps, signs of microbial life today -- the six-wheeled science lab did not disappoint.

The rover captured headlines in September when its analysis of gravel led scientists to conclude that water, a key ingredient for life as we know it, once flowed on the red planet.

"These gravels that we're seeing... [have] one, the rounded shape, but also the size," Curiosity team scientist Rebecca Williams said while making the historic announcement. "These are too large to be transported by wind. The consensus of the science team is that these are water-transported gravels in a vigorous stream."

'The Fabric Of The Universe'

But trumping the Curiosity rover for science-technology story of the year was the dramatic news that physicists had likely discovered the existence of the Higgs boson, a mysterious, theorized particle that might explain how matter attains its mass.

Joe Incandela searched for the Higgs boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research's (CERN) $10-billion atom-smasher in Switzerland. He told the press this July that he and his colleagues had "reached into the fabric of the universe."

"It was in these kinds of [experiments] that we're looking for one of the rarest particles ever made," he said. "So, keeping that in mind, this is a very, very preliminary result, but we think it is very strong. It's very solid, otherwise we wouldn't present it."

Subsequent reviews of the data have both confirmed the findings and pointed toward the particle fitting into the Standard Model of physics.

Even if the Higgs boson is not the particle that could help explain the existence of dark matter, the discovery has been described as one of the greatest in physics over the past century.

Another hot event came when researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States produced the highest man-made temperature ever -- a searing 4 trillion degrees Celsius. Some 250,000 times hotter than the core of the sun, the temperature lasted only a fraction of a second, after scientists smashed gold ions together during investigations of the Big Bang.

Deep Dives

Far from the lab, scientists this year also confirmed the discovery of the smallest known vertebrate -- a new species of frog living in the rainforests of New Guinea. At just 7.7 millimeters long, Paedophryne amauensis is about the size of a housefly.

Also deserving mention in 2012 was "Titanic" director James Cameron's titanic voyage to the Mariana Trench, which, at more than 11 kilometers below the Pacific Ocean, is the deepest point on the Earth's surface. His dive was the first ever solo descent and several previously unknown life forms were spied.

U.S. film director James Cameron emerges from "Deepsea Challenger" after journeying to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in March.
U.S. film director James Cameron emerges from "Deepsea Challenger" after journeying to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in March.

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner took a dive this year too, capturing headlines when he plummeted from the edge of space to the surface of the earth in October. The 4-minute and 20-second freefall saw the 43 year-old become the only human to break the speed of sound without the aid of a supersonic jet or space shuttle.

While Baumgartner fell from space, the SpaceX Dragon rose this year, becoming the first commercial craft to make contact with, and then deliver cargo to, the International Space Station. Some claim it’s the start of a new era in commercial space exploration.

On the health front, 2012 also offered its share of breakthroughs.

In April, scientists in the UK published research based on the largest ever genetic study of breast cancer tissue. They found that the ailment, rather than being a single disease, could be classified into 10 distinct types. The research could lead to more tailored treatment and higher survival rates.

Touch-Screen Advances

Scientists also made progress toward the goal of inducing the human body to build replacement organs. One tissue-engineering study published this summer reported that U.S. scientists moved a step closer to creating an artificial liver after creating an organ template made of sugar for blood vessels to grow into.

The experiment combined the latest in both science and technology, as the template was made by 3D printing. A transplant jaw was 3D-printed recently as well.

According to Brian Barrett, the managing editor of popular U.S. technology blog Gizmodo, the technique, which vaulted into the public spotlight this year, is not just for medical and industrial uses.

"Instead of printing ink onto paper, it takes these little spools of plastic, [usually], and you can feed it instructions and it will use that to form basically any shape that you want, whether it's a utensil or a replica of the White House," he said. "You can go on the Internet, find a design, download it, send it to your 3D printer, and in the course of either several minutes or several hours, depending on how large your order is, it will construct this thing. What's fascinating about it is the limits are only as far as the imagination goes."

Tech insiders say 3D printing will become even more mainstream next year, especially as home-printers drop below the $2,000 mark.

A trend that has already hit its stride is consumers’ increasing appetite for mobile devices and touch-screen capability. This year saw the sale of tablet computers continue to boom, and analysts predict they’ll outstrip personal-computer sales in the coming years.

As a result, software firms are increasingly designing products made to suit mobile devices first, and not as an afterthought.

According to Barrett, foremost among them is the Windows 8 operating system, released this year.

"It's the first really bold reimagining of what a computer interaction should look like in a very long time, and one of the things about it that is so innovative is that it is so focused on the touch experience," he said. "It's great on tablets -- it lends itself very much to swiping and poking -- but it's also ushering in this age of touch-screen laptops."

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