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The Biggest Science Stories of 2014

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From black hole debates to comet landings to bird genetics, here is our mostly chronological outline of the top scientific discoveries, disputes and disgraces of 2014:

January: Hawking’s Black Hole Bombshell

Science hit the ground running at the beginning of 2014, when Stephen Hawking declared in a paper that “there are no black holes”—or, rather, that our current conception of black holes as things with event horizon boundaries is incompatible with quantum mechanics. What Hawking was saying in 2014 was an attempt at slicing a tricky Gordian knot that he himself had tied 40 years previously, when he formulated the theory of Hawking radiation.

Hawking radiation—the light predicted to be radiated by black holes—solved the problem of black holes seeming to violate the laws of thermodynamics (without radiating light, a black hole’s temperature would be absolute zero, which can’t happen). But it sparked a new frustration with black holes called the “firewall paradox”; analyses of black holes that took into account quantum mechanics said that a black hole’s event horizon, instead of being an invisible boundary, would be an incredibly energetic region or “firewall.” But this model, in turn, didn’t jibe with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. To solve the problem, Hawking proposed that black holes just don’t have event horizons, only apparent horizons, keeping everything nicely square with thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and general relativity.

Not all scientists agreed with Hawking’s proclamations, though. And there might not be any firewall paradox in the first place, depending on how Hawking radiation actually works. The description of the firewall paradox and Hawking’s solution assumes that Hawking radiation exists as a “pure” pair of entangled particles; but if that radiation is “impure,” caused by two pairs of entangled particles, black holes might be able to emit Hawking radiation and maintain event horizons while still remaining compatible with quantum theory.

BLACK HOLE

Image credit: Flickr CC / Roxanne Ready

March: Ripples from the Big Bang—or not?

In March, the team manning the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole released what looked like an amazing find: A swirling pattern in the cosmic microwave background radiation, possibly created by gravitational waves in the fabric of spacetime. If confirmed, the find would be the best evidence yet that our universe underwent a rapid period of inflation soon after the Big Bang. But only if confirmed.

Even at the outset, some scientists were skeptical of the team’s confidence that the pattern was generated by gravitational waves. The debate was one highlight of the 2014 World Science Festival, where Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt voiced his criticisms directly to BICEP2 scientist John Kovac at the program “Ripples from the Big Bang.” In September, a new analysis of data from the Planck telescope aired the possibility that the swirling pattern seen by BICEP2 was entirely due to polarized dust in the Milky Way, not gravitational waves after all. The debate isn’t over yet, but a new batch of Planck data expected in the new year might settle the dust once and for all.

BICEP2

Image credit: Wikipedia CC / Amble

May: Young blood teaches old bodies new tricks

Despite the vampiric undertones, the idea that blood from younger organisms could help rejuvenate older flesh seems to have a solid scientific underpinning. This year, two separate teams of scientists found that delivering blood from younger rodents into older ones kept elderly mice and rats spryer than normal, with tissues that looked much younger than their years would suggest. It’s still unclear what exactly in young blood is the key ingredient to this fountain of youth, but there’s at least one possible contender: A growth factor called GDF11, which by itself was enough to rejuvenate the hearts of old mice and breathe new life into elderly mouse muscles.

May: Adding new building blocks of life

All life on Earth is a story written with four letters: A, C, T, and G. This year, scientists increased this biological alphabet by 50 percent, adding two new synthetic building blocks of life—X and Y—to a living cell. The Scripps Research Institute-led team created a new pair of genetic base pairs that persisted in E. coli cells and were passed down to new generations in the lab. Someday, scientists might be able to use microorganisms carrying this enhanced DNA to create biological circuits, or produce proteins previously unknown to nature.

DNA molecules

Image credit: iStock / Svisio

July: Stem cell scandal

Six months previously, the journal Nature had published two papers from a Japanese research team describing a radical new way of creating embryonic-like stem cells from mature cells. Called STAP, or Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency, the method promised to be transformative. The papers described how scientists were able to turn spleen cells in mice into pluripotent cells, which can transform into any cell type, by applying physical pressure or exposing the cells to acids.

But soon, other researchers began poking holes in the paper, which turned out to contain manipulated and duplicated images. Scientists were also having trouble replicating the results. By July, the evidence had mounted high enough for Nature to retract the two studies, with the agreement of all the coauthors. One of the lead researchers was found guilty of scientific misconduct by her institution; another committed suicide.

October: Nobels Awarded

The research lauded by the Nobel Prizes is never the most cutting-edge, but the prizes do offer a valuable chance to review major sea changes in science and technology.

In 2014, the medicine and physiology Nobel went to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, all of whom unlocked secrets of the brain’s GPS system, managed by special nerves called ‘place cells’ and ‘grid cells’ that allow organisms to figure out where they are and navigate from one place to the other.

The chemistry prize was awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner for their work in pushing microscope resolution further than anyone thought possible. Hell, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, developed a method called stimulated emission depletion microscopy, or STED, which uses two laser beams to sweep across a sample.  Betzig, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Moerner, of Stanford University, developed a technique called single-molecule microscopy, which exploits the ability of researchers to switch the fluorescence of individual molecules off and on, taking multiple pictures of a few molecules at a time.

And Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura captured the physics prize for their invention of the blue light-emitting diode (LED), which led to advances like Blu-ray discs. Blue LEDs were also the missing piece needed to create white LED lamps, which are more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional incandescent bulbs.

BLUE LED

Image credit: Flickr CC / Gussisaurio

November: Touchdown, Comet!

In November, the European Space Agency’s 220-pound Philae lander went where no spacecraft had gone before: Landing lightly (after bouncing a few times) on the surface of a comet. Scientists are still sifting through the data Philae has gathered on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which might contain clues to the history of our solar system and our planet. Although the little lander is currently hibernating, thanks to it’s shady resting place, the ESA expects it to wake up and get back to work in 2015.

December: Redrawing the bird family tree

The year closed out with one of the biggest evolutionary biology finds in recent memory: the most comprehensive genetic analysis of an animal group to date, derived from genetic studies of 48 bird species. Researchers in the avian genomics group have used the data to 1) discover that gene activity related to birdsong bears a resemblance to patterns seen in the speech areas of human brains, 2) determine when birds’ ancestors lost their teeth (116 million years ago), and 3) get a better handle on just when modern bird groups started splitting off from non-bird dinosaurs.

BIRD DNA

Image credit: Flickr CC / Laura D’Alessandro

All year: Fighting Ebola

The Ebola epidemic that raged across west Africa and gained minor footholds inside Europe and North America actually got its start in December 2013, when the 2-year-old boy scientists are pretty sure was “patient zero” fell ill. But the disease reached a never-before-seen zenith in 2014, sickening more than 20,000 people and claiming more than 7,800 lives. There were signs of hope, though—patients that managed to get treatment in First World countries made recoveries thanks to a combination of basic hospital care, experimental drugs, and blood transfusions from previous survivors. But overall, the epidemic served as a grim reminder that advanced health care research comes with no guarantee it will easily get to those who need it most.

Featured image credit: NASA / ESA

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