Top Science Stories of 2013

Like a lot of people, I always look forward to reading as many end-of-year Top Ten lists as I possibly can.  I’m especially interested to learn what scientists and journalists regard as the previous year’s biggest science stories.  For example, editors at Nature not only ranked the top science stories of the year, but also provided a list of their website’s most-clicked science stories of the year.  Discover MagazineScientific American, and CNN also annually publish end-of-year lists ranking the top science stories of the year.

Now that 2013 is long gone and there is zero demand for yet another Top Ten list, I figured it was time for me to enter the fray.  After all, no one appreciates yesterday’s news more than historians.  The following rankings, which I’ve cobbled together from more prestigious lists, are based on my own subjective opinions…

ChinasMoonLander

10.  China lands a rover on the moon
The United States is not the only nation interested in exploring space. Although NASA’s Curiosity rover (which landed on Mars in late 2012) generated most of the headlines this past year, China also successfully landed a rover on another heavenly body last month.  Named Yutu (which means “Jade Rabbit”), the rover began exploring the lunar surface on December 14, 2013.  China is just the third nation to ever successfully execute a soft landing on the moon (following the United States and the Soviet Union), and the first to do so since 1974.  China clearly has plans to send humans to the moon, probably sooner rather than later.

LabGrownMeatNPR9.  Scientists create (and eat!) first lab-grown hamburger
Last summer, scientists in London ate a hamburger that was different from any hamburger that had ever existed before it.  The hamburger in question was not sliced off the body of a cow in the traditional way, but was instead cultivated from stem cells in a laboratory.  I’ve noticed that many people are kinda freaked out by the prospect of eating lab-grown meat, but this development obviously has the potential to transform the way humans eat, to say nothing of its potential impact on the world’s edible animals.

ReaperDrone8.  The rise of drones
Although drones were not invented last year, they entered the public consciousness like never before in 2013.  Unmanned aerial aircraft have not only transformed how the military operates, but have also transformed our basic understanding of privacy and, soon enough, commerce.  It’s not yet clear whether drones are really cool or really terrifying, though they are probably some combination of both.  In any event, there is little doubt that drones are not going anywhere, and will only become more deeply integrated into our lives as time goes by.

Fracking7.  United States now the world’s top energy producer
The United States has been the world’s largest consumer of energy for the past several decades.  As a result, the nation has long relied on imports to meet most of its energy needs.  Now, thanks to the amazing (and somewhat controversial) process known as “fracking,” the United States is also the world’s top energy producer.  What’s more, projections indicate that the United States will only widen its lead over the next few years.  This brand-new development will clearly have a profound effect on the nation’s economy, environment, and, no less important, its approach to foreign policy.

SupremeCourtBuildinginDC6.  U.S. Supreme Court rules that human genes cannot be patented
Every year, politics and science get mixed together in unforeseen ways, and 2013 was no exception.  Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that naturally occurring human genes cannot be patented because isolating specific genes is not the same as inventing them.  This ruling probably seems obvious to most of us, though it should be noted that intentionally modified genes remain patentable.

HumanEmbryoCloned5.  Scientists successfully clone a human embryo
Considering all the attention that Dolly the Sheep once garnered, last year’s revelation that scientists had successfully cloned human embryos did not generate as much attention as one might otherwise expect.  Even so, this development represents a major scientific breakthrough, and may eventually be used to develop patient-specific embryonic stem cells for treatment purposes.  Of course, the technique is not without controversy.  As biotechnology continues to accelerate, the debate surrounding the appropriate use of cloning and stem cells will only intensify.

3DprintedVaderLampShade4.  Rise of 3-d printing
I confess that I had never even heard of 3-d printing until President Obama mentioned the technology in his State of the Union Address last February.  Not long thereafter, several of my students began asking me about 3-d printing and its potential applications.  It is now clear that we are on the precipice of a major revolution.  As with any new technology, however, there are pros and cons.  3-d printing promises to transform the manufacturing process on a global scale, and will soon be commonplace in the biomedical sciences.  Even so, enthusiasm has been slightly dampened by the revelation that 3-d printers have already produced a working gun that is made of plastic but shoots real bullets.

DresserFossils3.  Oldest signs of life on Earth
The origin of life on Earth remains one of the biggest mysteries in science, but researchers are slowly learning more all the time.  This year, for example, scientists announced that they had discovered 3.4-billion-year-old microbial fossils in western Australia.  These fossils represent the most ancient evidence of life on Earth to date.  What’s more, since the Earth is itself thought to be approximately 4.5 billion years old, the findings indicate that life first appeared on the planet relatively early in its geological history (within the first billion years, give or take).

Exoplanets2.  Water found on exoplanets
Scientists have known about the existence of exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) for more than two decades, but 2013 featured a number of important milestones.  Researchers have now verified the existence of more than 1,000 exoplanets, and they estimate that our home galaxy, the Milky Way, may contain more than 10-billion Earth-like planets.  Perhaps most significantly, NASA has also identified several exoplanets that fall within the “habitable zone,” and which contain liquid water.

BrainNIH1.  Major advances in brain research
In 2013, scientists made enormous strides in understanding the most complex, most mysterious object in the universe: the human brain.  In March, scientists announced that they had created the first wireless, implanted brain-computer interface.  In April, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative, which challenges researchers to probe the deepest mysteries of the brain, and which many observers have compared to other federally funded science initiatives, including the Apollo program and the Human Genome Project.  And finally, late last summer, scientists announced that they had used stem cells to create brain “organoids” in a laboratory.  You read that correctly: brain organoids.  These developments are fascinating, a little terrifying, and destined to eventually change our lives forever.