The first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as a decade of breakthroughs in science and technology. “It’s well known that discoveries in science are often drivers for important technological developments; for example, fuel cells,” says Thomas Ellis, director of research at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon, Sask. “Over the past decade, new technological developments — robotics, high-performance computers, microscopes, gene sequencers, accelerators — also ended up being drivers for scientific discoveries.” And with the advent of the Internet as a part of everyday life in the developed world, these breakthroughs reached more people than ever. As we enter into 2010, we look back at 10 innovations we think will make science history.
Decoding the human genome
The submission of a rough draft of our DNA road map in July 2000 opened more doors than any other science story of the decade. Details of our genome and the genomes of several animals followed. That success paved the way for everything from identifying genetic predispositions for illnesses to medicines tailored to a person’s individual genetics, not to mention the myriad ethical grey areas, such as genetic screening in the workplace and designer babies.
Climate-change research wins Nobel Peace Prize
Far more important than Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Nobel win in 2007 was the worldwide efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change. “This decade saw the lowest annual recorded sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean, the continued acceleration of the melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets and shelves and significant population declines of caribou and reindeer in more than half of the circumpolar herds,” says David Hik, executive director of the Canadian International Polar Year and a Canada Research Chair in Northern Ecology at the University of Alberta. “This decade, climate change became part of the vernacular,” he says. “It’s still a huge challenge, but one that we have a much better understanding of in terms of both the consequences and the solutions.”
Water on Mars
Since the days of astronomers Percival Lowell and Giovanni Schiaparelli, we’ve suspected that large amounts of liquid water exist — or once existed — on Mars. Thanks to the Spirit and Opportunity rover discoveries of clues such as hematite (almost always forms only in the presence of water) and live imagery of ice sublimating, taken by NASA’s Phoenix polar lander, we know beyond a reasonable doubt that plentiful amounts of water currently exist on Mars. Perhaps most spectacularly, a September 2005 image from the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor showed more than a dozen swimming pools’ worth of water that had melted and flowed down a gully.
Large Hadron Collider (LHC) searches for “God particle”
After a false start that hearkened back to the early months of the Hubble Space Telescope, the world’s largest, most powerful atom smasher collided its first set of protons on Nov. 23, 2009. The test was the first step toward using the LHC to find the mysterious Higgs boson, more commonly referred to as the hypothetical “God particle” and thought to be present a few moments after the Big Bang. In short, the LHC could be seen as the greatest attempt in history to make sense of just about everything.
By the beginning of the ’00s, researchers had found a way to harvest stem cells, which have the potential to be turned into any tissue for use in innumerable medical treatments. The catch: the only place stem cells could be harvested was from aborted human embryos. After years of emotionally charged debate brought the personal beliefs of millions to the fore, British and Canadian researchers found a way to grow stem cells by winding back the clock on adult skin cells until they are in an embryonic form.
Fall of the gas guzzler; rise of the hybrid
In 2001, the Toyota Prius, which harnessed previously wasted energy and transferred it into batteries that powered its drivetrain, became the first hybrid car to be sold worldwide. Six years later, Honda launched the FCX Clarity as the first hydrogen-fuel-cell production car, and by mid-2010, the Chevrolet Volt electric sedan is slated to be on the lots. “The race is now on for automotive battery systems that can meet the criteria of cost, longevity and performance required for bringing such vehicles within the grasp of everybody,” says Greg Rohrauer, a University of Ontario Institute of Technology engineering professor and hybrid-development researcher.
A multi-year investigation into the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia found that a piece of foam which broke off the liquid-fuel tank during its January 2003 launch punched a 30-centimetre-wide hole into the edge of one of the wings. On re-entry from its 24,000-kilometre-per-hour orbital speed, the Columbia was torn apart when superheated atmospheric gases entered the ship. The lessons learned from the tragedy informed the design of NASA’s Ares moon-Mars rockets and a number of space-tourism craft and resulted in the implementation of a heat-shield inspection system for the existing shuttle fleet.
Spreading sickness: SARS, mad cow (BSE), bird flu (H5N1) and swine flu (H1N1)
While SARS, BSE and H5N1 were comparatively localized, the worldwide spread of H1N1 was seen as a long overdue modern-day pandemic. “SARS taught us about the adaptability of viruses, especially RNA viruses,” says Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s incredible that we’ve been as lucky as we have in this age of mass air travel not to have experienced something like the 1918 [Spanish flu] for most of this decade. You think an event like that happens every 30 years, and we’ve had three close calls in a decade. Now, H1N1 is here to stay as a new seasonal flu strain.”
World Trade Center collapse
Arguably the news story of the century, outside the Second World War and the moon landing, the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shook the world. But the events also highlighted advances in computer modelling. In the aftermath of this tragedy, structural engineers have shown that ignited jet fuel — not the actual impact of the planes — ultimately brought down the iconic New York towers. The revelation informed later computer models, which could help save lives in future disasters.
Things started so brightly with the world’s first true genetic copy of a mammal generated from a mammalian cell, but Dolly the sheep died prematurely in 2003, at the age of 61/2. Although some scientists suggested Dolly had pathologies that suggested accelerated aging, the team that cloned her claimed she died of a respiratory infection. Cats, horses, monkeys, an endangered gaur and a half-dozen other animals were successfully cloned between 2000 and 2009.