Top 10 Sci-Tech Stories Of The Decade

Jan 11, 2010 By Jason Socrates Bardi, Chris Gorski, Devin Powell, and Phillip F. Schewe

Discoveries, devices, and developments that have changed the way we view our world over the past ten years.

1. DNA, Genomes, and Stem Cells

The hope and excitement surrounding "genomic" research, which is aimed at decoding DNA, has been almost boundless this decade. Even before the drafts of the human appeared in 2001, the amount of work that went into decoding it was being compared to landing a man on the moon. The promise of all those carefully counted billions of letters of DNA was that among them would be found fundamental biological secrets, helping scientists discover genetic markers of human disease, and perhaps revealing new drug targets for those diseases.

Humans were not the only creatures to have their DNA decoded in the last few years. Also solved this decade were the genomes of dogs, cows, chickens, horses, cats, mice, moths, chimps, mosquitoes, , puffer fish and pigs. Joining them in the scientific databases were the sequences of the , rice, corn, grape, and more species of virus, yeast, mold, algae and fungus than most people would care to count.

Many of the biggest headlines coming from the field of biology were captured by . These cells hold tremendous promise to treat diseases like Parkinson's and cancer because they have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. While debates in the last decade have often focused on the ethical uses of stem cell research, researchers have made tremendous strides in the field, finding ways to program and reprogram cells in the test tube, for instance.

2. Large Hadron Collider

The most powerful ever designed was constructed over the last decade and is now online. Located far underground in Geneva, the features a 16-mile circular tunnel, through which two separate beams of protons shoot around at close to the speed of light. At several spots around the tunnel the two beams are made to collide, providing the high-energy impact needed to produce new kinds of particles. Physicists hope that these particles will help to push forward our basic understanding of matter -- especially the Higgs boson, which is the most important of these and is supposed to confer mass on many of the known particles.

At the very end of 2009, scientists and engineers succeeded in getting protons to collide for the first time in the LHC tunnel. In the process they set a new record for the highest energy ever achieved for a smashup between two particles, almost 2.4 trillion electron volts. In the coming year, LHC scientists hope to reach even higher energies and to produce much more intense beams.

3. Climate Change

Climate change has been discussed in the scientific community for decades. A 2001 National Academies panel recognized a "paradigm shift" in the scientific community, acknowledging the possibility of decade-scale climate change. The science has also shown that ocean basins are warming -- endangering the world's coral -- and that levels of carbon dioxide have passed 380 parts per million for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years.

In 2006, NASA scientist James Hansen told the New York Times that his superiors were trying to silence his attempts to speak publicly about man-made climate change, a concept that Al Gore would call an "inconvenient truth" in his documentary, also released in 2006. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency moved towards regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, acknowledging that gases like carbon dioxide pose a threat to public health and the environment. As the decade closed, the international meeting of climate scientists and policy makers held in Copenhagen in December 2009 proved to be inconclusive, disappointing many of the participants.

4. The Proliferation of Personal Technology

Twenty years ago, few people had ever sent an e-mail or owned so much as a mobile phone, let alone a hand-held device that could access the Internet, send e-mail and show movies in high-definition. What personal computers and faxes were to the 80s and 90s, smart phones, laptops and social networking were to the past decade.

How did people ignore each other on mass transit in 1999? There were no iPods (launched in October, 2001). People lacked the capability to poke, tweet, or any of a host of other new verbs that were incomprehensible just 10 years earlier. Facebook meant a book with pictures in it. Second Life meant reincarnation. Even after the dot-com bubble burst at the beginning of the decade, portable devices and their exciting, convenient technologies exploded, helping to change the previous decade into an ever more connected world.

5. Exploring Other Planets

When the ancients looked out into the night sky, they saw thousands of fixed points of lights, which we now know as stars, and a few others that moved quickly from night to night. When Galileo turned his new telescope on these wanderers (the origin of the name "planet"), he revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. This revolution continues.

In the last 10 years, a series of versatile spacecraft have fanned out across the solar system to visit or photograph the planets. These craft include Galileo's mission to Jupiter, Cassini's mission to Saturn, Messenger travelling to Mercury, and a handful of craft dispatched to Mars. Major findings have included water on Mars and our moon, a large thin new ring around Saturn, Titan's hydrocarbon lakes visited by the craft Huygens Titan, and sections of Mercury's surface that were previously unmapped.

Older spacecraft launched in the 70s, such as the Voyagers and Pioneers, continue to do important duty. Beyond the orbit of Pluto, these senior citizens of the space age are gathering important information about the boundary area where the sun's influence leaves off and the interstellar medium begins.

By measuring the subtle wobbles in nearby stars, astronomers have also been able to indirectly detect exoplanets -- planets that orbit other stars -- and to measure their mass and their distance from the star, hopefully identifying additional Earth-like planets. Recent exoplanets sightings have included the first visual images of distant worlds and have revealed "super earths" about 5-to-7 times more massive than our own planet.

6. Precision Cosmology

Scientific discoveries have prompted much rethinking over the centuries about the place of human beings in the cosmos. These discoveries include the realization that the Earth is not at the center of the universe; that there might not even be a center; that our planetary system is not the only such system; that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy; and that there might even be parallel universes beyond our own.

Cosmology studies the heavens on the largest scale possible -- the universe as a whole. For many years it was a very imprecise science that lacked the highly sensitive instruments used in terrestrial labs, but this is starting to change. The past decade featured a variety of satellites and specialized detectors -- including the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe -- that have helped to clarify our understanding of the universe. Because of measurements made this decade, we now know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, that the first atoms formed 380,000 years after the Big Bang, that the first stars formed around 400 million years after the Big Bang, and that most likely about 73 percent of the energy in the universe consists of mysterious dark energy. Astrophysicists believe that dark matter, a form of nonluminous material, is another important ingredient in the dynamics of galaxies. Recently, some direct evidence for dark matter from particle interactions in sensitive detectors located far underground may have been uncovered, but researchers need more data before they can be certain.

7. New Materials

The awarding of the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics to scientists making discoveries leading to digital cameras and optical-fiber communications underscores the idea that fundamental research is vital to the development of important technology -- even when the practical application of that research lags behind by decades. This is especially true of scientists studying the properties of condensed matter.

Two new forms of carbon were uncovered and explored over the last several years: thin carbon tubes, or nanotubes, and graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms. These two forms of carbon have useful properties that include great strength, electrical conductivity for integrated circuits, and interesting thermal and optical features.

Metamaterials is another important substance that was recently-discovered. Constructed from tiny arrays of rods and rings, they have bizarre optical properties that may one day be adapted for a variety of practical applications such as cell phone filters, thin lenses, and cloaking applications.

8. Vaccines and Emerging Infections

From the Spanish flu of 1918, to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, history is often inexorably linked to the diseases that plague mankind. The previous decade was no different, and some of the biggest stories in science sprung from infectious sources. Malicious anthrax-laced letters arrived in 2001, the deadly SARS epidemic appeared in 2003, and the 2009 swine flu that created long lines for people waiting to receive vaccination against the H1N1 virus -- the first bona fide influenza pandemic in 40 years.

A number of vaccines made the news in the last 10 years. In 2006 and 2007, human papillomavirus vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent cervical cancer. And after many years of laboratory and field research, the first successful clinical trial for an AIDS vaccine was reported in late 2009. Not every vaccine story was positive. The international effort to eradicate polio ran into difficulty when rumors of vaccine toxicity spread in a few of the countries where the disease remains endemic. Fears over the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine spread in the U.S. and Britain after an article in a medical journal linked it to autism -- a link that numerous studies and an exhaustive review by the Institute of Medicine and other organizations later discredited.

9. China's Emergence

China is finishing up the first decade of the 21st century showing signs that it could be the next scientific superpower. By 2008, it was producing more Ph.D. candidates than any other country in the world. In 2006, Margaret Chan became the first Chinese citizen to head a U.N. agency when she was elected director-general of the World Health Organization. After the first successful spacewalk by a taikonaut in 2008, China now hopes to build a base on the moon.

Not all the science and technology stories about China over the past decade have been positive. The tainted pet food and toxic toys made major headlines as did the fact that China now produces more carbon dioxide than any other nation -- though still far less than the U.S. per capita. Projects like the Three Gorges Dam have drawn criticism for their effect on the local environment, and the emergence of SARS in 2003 brought international scrutiny of China's public health response.

10. The Expanding Understanding of Human Ancestry

Many people trace their own genealogy as a hobby to better understand their roots. At some point the trail of records ends. The question of what came before remains. Understanding where we humans came from as a species is a more complicated puzzle, requiring all the tools of science and the reasoning evolution helped us develop.

The October 2009 release of numerous scientific papers interpreting a 4.4 million year old fossil, Ardipithecus ramidus, culminated an eventful 10 years of hominid research. Scientists spent 17 years painstakingly gathering, reconstructing, and interpreting A. ramidus fossils found in Ethiopia before formally announcing their findings to the public, including the oldest known skeleton of a human ancestor.

In 2003, another team of researchers found Homo florensis, informally referred to as hobbits, in a cave on Flores Island in Indonesia. They are understood to be a separate lineage from modern humans, one that broke off from our species and endured until about 12,000 years ago. Their demise is more recent than even the Neanderthals.

Numerous findings and fresh interpretations forced anthropologists to reexamine their understanding of the relationship of Neanderthals to modern humans. The previous decade recovered and sequenced Neanderthal DNA, promising a host of research opportunities. Included in that bounty was an important gene connected to our own language skills, called FOXP2, adding another clue to a complicated debate over the level of language skills Neanderthals possessed. Throughout the decade, anthropologists and others continued to track the footprints our species' ancestors, even as legal and philosophical battles raged between those who would teach evolution and those who would teach alternative ideas for the origins of both Homo sapiens and life on earth.

Explore further: Study shows more than half of peer-reviewed research articles published during 2007-2012 are now open access

4.3 /5 (12 votes)

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User comments : 24

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stealthc
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 12, 2010
I don't agree with #3, everyone here already knows that global warming is a scam, just look at nasa giss data and observe how by cherry picking non-urban stations one gets a clear picture that we are not warming.
Simonsez
1 / 5 (4) Jan 12, 2010
I thought the same thing, stealthc, although I would go a step further and say that the article should have specified "man-made" global warming vs. natural global warming/cooling cycle. The latter we know to be true (see: ice ages), the former we now know to be debunked.
COCO
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2010
how about the amazing lack of response by the science community to 911 Truthers? - I see constant articles and blogs on the issue yet no definitive voice or section of the science community e.g. civil engineer Profs supporting the government's 911 commission - this is a scandal - we must not let the media and a few whackos infect and distort the facts. The War on Terror and Freedom must not abate - we should pray that the success exhibits even half of the success as the War on Drugs and Freedom has been. THis is a huge science story - Climategate remains a distraction.
chaman
5 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2010
NASA satellite survey reveals dramatic Arctic sea ice thinning. (http://www.physor...2.html).

Something, possibly 'bad', is happening that we don't quite understand.

Even if "we are not warming" (stealthc), should'nt we worry?
Phelankell
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2010
how about the amazing lack of response by the science community to 911 Truthers?

Science also had very little to say about the 2012 end of the world hypothesis.

Somethings are too ridiculous for science to care about, but in this case the science was clear cut. Just because you can't find the engineering statements doesn't mean they don't exist.
marjon
1 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2010
The decade is not over.
There was no year '0'.
The top story should be the efforts to suppress research that does not support AGW.
Phelankell
5 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2010
The decade is not over.
There was no year '0'.

Ehem, 200'0'?
marjon
1 / 5 (4) Jan 12, 2010
The decade is not over.
There was no year '0'.

Ehem, 200'0'?


That is 2000.

decade 1: 1-10
decade 2: 11-20
decade 100: 991-1000
decade 200: 1991-2000
decade 201: 2001-2010
Phelankell
5 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2010
All counts start with zero.

Decade one was 0-9.

You didn't celebrate turning two years old one year after your birth.
marjon
1 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2010
All counts start with zero.

Decade one was 0-9.

You didn't celebrate turning two years old one year after your birth.

There was no zero year. If you must insist, then the first 'decade' was nine years, the first year to the end of the ninth year.
Otherwise the first full ten years were 1 through 10.
Phelankell
5 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2010
There was no zero year. If you must insist, then the first 'decade' was nine years, the first year to the end of the ninth year.
Otherwise the first full ten years were 1 through 10.


Why do you post on a science site if you have no understanding of things as simple as discreet math and calendar history?
marjon
1 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2010

What happened during year '0'?
The first year began at the beginning of 1 BC and ended 1 year later.
The second year began at the end of the first year and ended 1 year later.
The tenth year began at the end of the 9th year and ended 1 year later.
The first ten years are numbered 1-10 AD.
Complete decades, 10 full years, end on years ending with 0: 10, 20,....2010....

"Passim, i.a. Spencer, Donald D. 1989. Invitation to number theory with Pascal. Ormond Beach: Camelot. 46: "The first decade is from 1 to 10 inclusive, the second decade from 11 to 20 inclusive, and so on.""
Phelankell
not rated yet Jan 13, 2010
And this source of yours is very much incorrect as well as out of date.

The first decade had 9 years. 1-9, the second decade had 10, 10-19. Just as the millenium began on 2000, so the decade begins in 2010. It's already well understood and standardized.

And as for your statement on whether there's a year zero, there is, just not by the julian calendars as zero was a fairly new concept to those cultures.
marjon
1 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2010
And this source of yours is very much incorrect as well as out of date.

The first decade had 9 years. 1-9, the second decade had 10, 10-19. Just as the millenium began on 2000, so the decade begins in 2010. It's already well understood and standardized.

And as for your statement on whether there's a year zero, there is, just not by the julian calendars as zero was a fairly new concept to those cultures.

Where and what is the standard? ISO? NIST?
croghan26
1 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2010
FWIW - and I rarely agree with marjon - but she is correct in this instance .....

The year 2000 was the last year of the last century, not the first year of the 21st.

In 2001 the decade began - and will not end until this year ends ...

The 20th century years all began with the numbers '19' ...
Phelankell
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2010
Incorrect, ISO data handling standard is beginning with 0 ending with 9 hence why the 60's are 1960-1969, not 1961-1970.

The reason Marjon, and most Americans think otherwise is due to an old edict by Pope Leo the 13th concerning the calendar start coinciding with the birth of Jesus, which we know now to be utter fantasy as Jesus cannot be proven, but if he could, the Bible states specifically that he was born while men were "registering" which in Jerusalem was in the month of September.

As for your century comment, it's of no relevance as the First century started with the year 0001. Just as you were zero years old for your first year of life.
marjon
1 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2010
Incorrect, ISo 9001 standard is beginning with 0 ending with 9 hence why the 60's are 1960-1969, not 1961-1970.

The reason Marjon, and most Americans think otherwise is due to an old edict by Pope Leo the 13th concerning the calendar start coinciding with the birth of Jesus, which we know now to be utter fantasy as Jesus cannot be proven, but if he could, the Bible states specifically that he was born while men were "registering" which in Jerusalem was in the month of September.

As for your century comment, it's of no relevance as the First century started with the year 0001. Just as you were zero years old for your first year of life.

ISO 9001 is a quality standard.
What is the ISO standard for what you claim?
Phelankell
3 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2010
ISO 8601. Try quoting the completed post. There are multiple ISo standards for date and time. It's contained either there or in one of the multiple othere reference to other ISO codes contained within.
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2010
Where and what is the standard? ISO? NIST?
No it's FOAD I believe.
Koen
not rated yet Jan 18, 2010
Large Hadron collider? Stem cells? Smart phones? Climate gate? What a huge economic benefit from all this!

What about 'solar energy costs dropped dramatically below grid parity for sunny countries', despite of the fact that the global budget for solar research & development is down to nothing compared with the budgets spend on other areas of technology such as military applications ???
Szkeptik
3 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2010
It didn't use to be this bad, but now this page is totally overrun by GW deniers. There are no such things as conspiracies. Get over it already and face facts! There are thousands upon thousands of papers on global warming and who ever thinks that all that can be faked is nothing short of an idiot.
Simonsez
3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2010
Global warming is real, man-made global warming is a ploy to sell a bunch of unnecessary technology. If you are too ignorant to follow the money, I posit that it is in fact you, sir, who are the idiot.
marjon
not rated yet Jan 18, 2010
It didn't use to be this bad, but now this page is totally overrun by GW deniers. There are no such things as conspiracies. Get over it already and face facts! There are thousands upon thousands of papers on global warming and who ever thinks that all that can be faked is nothing short of an idiot.

There are thousands upon thousands of novels written every year.
What is disappointing about those in science is how so many 'follow the leader' instead of being independent and thinking for themselves. That is one severe flaw in the peer process.
Phelankell
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
There are thousands of papers on cold fusion submitted each year, that doesn't make cold fusion any more valid as the basic science necessary to consider it is flawed. Similarly most of the AGW science is based on a temperature scale that was dubiously aligned by the CRU and Hadley centers.