SPECIAL ISSUE - SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGHS OF 2007 - PART 1

This article is a combined effort of JYI's

Science Journalists (names listed below the article), Features Editors (Emma Wear, HoiSee Tsao, David Metcalfe, Ben-Griffin Smith) and the Senior Features Editor Pooja Ghatalia.

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Focus on the cold zones

We loath Christmas without snow, but we don't think much of the icy polar zones as a vacation spot. We hardly understand the poles. However, the International Polar Year 2007-08 made sure we realize how the Polar Regions are changing, and how such changes are impacting the health of our biosphere.

Is it getting hot in here? Global Warming in 2007

Former US President Al Gore made it his mission to publicize the aftermath of global warming. In his 2006 documentary, Gore highlights the dangers of climate change and how man-made greenhouse gases are harming the Earth. Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were awarded for their dedication to the issue of global warming with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

The IPCC was formed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The IPCC has released a series or reports that provide essential scientific information that policymakers utilize to answer the problem of global warming.

Although there are critics to the thought of global warming, the work of the IPCC and Al Gore will have an impact on what the next step in the fight against climate change. - By Jeremy Fagan.

Antarctic Biodiversity Sheds Light on Marine Evolution

An international team of researchers reported the discovery of hundreds of new bottom-dwelling invertebrate species in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica, possibly shedding light on the evolution of marine organisms. The biologists with the ANDEEP (ANtarctic benthic DEEP-sea biodiversity) project found over 700 previously unknown mollusks, crustaceans, and worms, as well as such unusual organisms as carnivorous sponges, as reported in Nature in May 2007.

Although the area sampled, at depths between 700 and over 6000 meters, with temperatures hovering around freezing and in complete darkness, may seem inhospitable to life, the expedition found an unexpectedly high level of biodiversity.

The detailed survey of Weddell Sea life also offers new evidence in the debate over whether deep-sea organisms adapted to live in shallower coastal waters or vice versa. The researchers believe that expanding Antarctic ice may have forced shallow-water species into deeper areas over millennia, where they now co-exist with species that evolved in deeper waters, suggesting each scenario may be correct for different taxons. - By Emma Wear.

Lights

It's that time of the year when our trees, streets and homes are festooned with lights. That reminds us of the sparkling discoveries of May 2007 bringing into light the brightest star explosion, the shortest light pulse, and the outshining Northern lights (Aurora Borealis).

The Energy Source of the Aurora Borealis

Scientists have long suspected that the cause of the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights as this brilliant display of color is sometimes called, is the release of solar energy stored up in Earth's magnetosphere. The relationship between the magnetosphere and the aurora has been recognized since the eighteenth century, but the nature of this relationship was unknown until this year.

On the THEMIS mission that commenced in February 2007, NASA launched five satellites assigned to map the structure of the Aurora over North America. By May, these satellites found evidence of "magnetic ropes," or twisted bundles of magnetic fields, connecting the Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the sun. NASA scientists confirmed that charged particles from the sun travel along these ropes, acting like a conduit for solar wind and providing energy for spacestorms as well as the aurora.

While scientists have hypothesized the existence of these ropes for some time, only with the recent 3D technology in THEMIS' five satellites were they able to map their structure. Still to determine on this two-year mission is what exactly triggers these colorful phenomena, but that is a breakthrough for another year. - By Veronica Phillips.

Ultra-short light pulse achieved

In May, Italian scientists created an ultra-short light pulse that lasts only 130 attoseconds - the shortest artificial light pulse yet reported. 130 attoseconds is to one second as one second is to approximately 243 million years - roughly the time that has passed since the first dinosaurs walked the Earth.

The ultra-short light pulse can reveal structural details of atoms and molecules. The light pulse may also have industrial applications as the breaking of bonds in complex molecules can be controlled.

When the electrons from the laser strike a jet of gas, high-energy photons are created that make up a train of attosecond pulses. The pulses are then isolated using optical techniques to create and shape a single pulse. These pulses are predicted to allow scientists using the lasers to change chemical reactions by probing the electron waves inside atoms and molecules.

- By Kate Liebers.

Brightest Stellar Activity Recorded, Ever

In May 2007, Astronomy made history when it recorded the brightest explosion of a star that it has ever recorded. The leader of the observation team, Nathan Smith, comments, "This was a truly monstrous explosion, a hundred times more energetic than a typical supernova. That means the star that exploded might have been as massive as a star can get, about 150 times that of our sun. We've never seen that before."

Attempting to imagine the sheer amount of energy that was released from this explosion is simply beyond our comprehension, and even more interestingly, this star probably resembled those of the early universe, when stars were much more massive. Were we around then, and actively observing the skies, we would have seen the death of stars in this fashion constantly.

Most importantly, this observation has aided in astronomers' age-long debate over whether a star of this type would collapse into a black hole due to its mass and time of explosion, making the observation of the supernova, SN 2006gy, one of the most important scientific efforts of the year. - By Jeffrey Kost.

Breaking the norms

Is there a second Earth? Is there a second Universe? Was Einstein's cosmological theory complete? Is Darwin's theory explaining evolution? Scientists this year did challenge a number of theories, suggesting alternate explanations and extensions to justify observed phenomena.

Einstein's Cosmological Constant May Exist

An international research team is testing Einstein's long-dismissed theory of a cosmological constant, noted by Einstein himself as being his "biggest blunder." Scientists with the project ESSENCE are studying supernovae to see whether the accelerating force of the universe, known as "dark energy," is related to Einstein's postulation.

Einstein originally theorized that a force opposes the gravitational attraction of matter in the universe, acting to prevent the universe from collapsing, as he described in his famous Theory of General Relativity. He later denounced this theory when Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is not static and is actually expanding.

In 1998, however, a group of scientists discovered that the universe is not only expanding, but this expansion is also accelerating exponentially, a phenomenon they attributed to the driving force of dark energy.

The scientists with the ESSENCE project plan to compare the observed brightness of supernovae with the actual known brightness to determine how far away a given supernova is. To discover the acceleration of the universe's expansion due to the force of dark energy, they plan to look at the supernova's redshift, which is how fast the supernova is receding from Earth. This value of acceleration will then by used to calculate the density of dark energy, which in turn can be used to calculate the w-parameter. The value of the w-parameter must be -1 in order for Einstein's theory on the cosmological constant to be correct, and so far the results of the project have been confirmed to be very close to -1. - By Falishia Sloan.

Cooperative Evolution

Theories of natural selection according to Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, imply that characteristics of certain species are maintained when they allow for the reproduction of the individual and thereby the regeneration of the characteristic. Initially, such theories seemed to support selfish characteristics, as illustrated in survival of the fittest theories developed in lieu of Darwin's work. Yet despite the acknowledged individualistic drive to procreate, cooperative behaviors have evolved.

University of Leicester researchers prepared a yearlong study devoted to investigating the evolution of cooperative behavior within human and animal populations. Andrew Colman, a psychology professor at the University of Leicester and lead researcher on the study, compared the evolutionary principles at work to principles involved in strategic games. In such games, the success of an individual's "strategies" depends on the other players' actions.

Such actions are noted in the parental duties of penguins that coordinate parental duties – one protects the young while the other finds food. They switch roles and repeat the process until the baby is old enough to care for itself. - By Kate Liebers.

Is there another Earth out there?

In October 2007, British scientists participating in the Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) discovered three Jupiter-sized planets orbiting distant stars. These planets, named WASP-3, WASP-4 and WASP-5, orbit far too closely to their suns to support life as we know it, but researchers have renewed hope that earth-sized planets await discovery in distant solar systems.

The WASP planet hunters are able to discover these extrasolar planets, or planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system, using two robotic observatories, one located in each of Earth's hemispheres. Both observatories, or SuperWASP cameras, consist of an array of eight wide-angle cameras which capture images of extrasolar planets transiting, or crossing in front of, their host stars.

Although these Jupiter-sized planets' surface temperatures can reach over 2000 degrees Celsius, the abundance of these similarly sized planets yields new hope that Earth-sized planets exist in more hospitable locations. With time and better technology, scientists hope that these planets will also be discovered: a good goal, perhaps, for 2008. - By Elizabeth Ng.

Giant Supervoid Discovered In Space

One of the biggest findings in astronomy this year was the discovery of a huge supervoid' in the middle of space. This large empty hole is estimated to be roughly 1 billion light-years across, making it about a thousand times larger than the typical voids within the observable universe.

"There is nothing special about this void, except nobody expected to find one this large," says Lawrence Rudnick, a University of Minnesota astronomer whose team discovered the void's existence. Scientists already know that on very large scales the universe has an uneven distribution of matter, where clusters of galaxies are surrounded by large bubbles of empty space. This newly discovered empty space, Rudnick says, just happens to be the largest one yet discovered.

The supervoid has led to some speculation that its existence cannot be explained by standard cosmological models regarding how structure was formed in the early universe. Some scientists have gone farther: physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill has speculated that the void could be an imprint of another universe beyond our own. "Standard cosmology cannot explain such a giant cosmic hole," she says. Mersini-Houghton's hypothesis can luckily be tested, as theoretical indications show there would be a similar supervoid on the opposite side of the sky. Astronomers will need to make additional observations to see if a second such supervoid exists before confirming or dismissing the conjecture. - By Yvette Cendes.

NASA Spacecraft Explores Jupiter

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft passed by Jupiter this year, providing scientists with valuable new information about the planet's atmosphere, rings and moons. New Horizons explored Jupiter between the months of January and June and traveled within 1.4 million miles of the planet, becoming the eighth spacecraft to visit the gaseous giant.

Among the many important observations, the spacecraft documented lightening on Jupiter's poles – the first evidence of polar lightening outside of Earth. It also obtained close-up photographs of Jupiter's ring system and of Jupiter's Little Red Spot, providing information about storm dynamics on the planet.

In addition, New Horizons investigated Jupiter's four largest moons. It observed 11 volcanic eruptions, three which were new to scientists, and one which was over 200 miles high. These investigations also confirmed that the moon Io is the solar system's most geologically active body – its surface had changed significantly since 2001, when scientists last had a close-up view of the moon. - By Lisa Merolla

Former JYI staff members have gone on to win Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholarships, as well as NSF Graduate Research Fellowships and other graduate research funding.
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