The Year in Science: The Defining Scientific Achievements of 2014
DNA survives re-entry into Earth's atmosphere
NASA recently found that DNA coated onto the exterior of a TEXUS-49 sounding rocket survived a 13-minute launch into space, remaining functional after exposure to the most extreme conditions. This discovery provides evidence for panspermia, or the notion that life on Earth was seeded from an extraterrestrial source, the plausibility of which was definitively proven in another recent study.
AI passes the Turing Test for the first time
[Credit: Princeton AI]
An endearing chatbot named Eugene Goostman became the first artificial intelligence to pass the Turing Test, which requires the bot to convince other humans that it is human for a certain period of time. This was a groundbreaking moment, as the Turing Test has often been cited as the definitive test for true artificial intelligence, but it also revealed the test's shortcomings. Eugene was not particularly advanced, but rather was able to fool the test administrators because it was posing as a 13-year-old non-native English speaker. So we don't have to worry about a superintelligence explosion just yet, but Eugene still advanced the field of artificial intelligence as these renewed criticisms of the Turing test partially led to the development of the Lovelace Test, a proposed Turing replacement that doesn't rely on tricks, but rather tests for original thought.
Scientists find evidence for cosmic inflation
Gravitational waves, or ripples in spacetime that provide tangible evidence for cosmic inflation, were one of the only missing pieces to Albert Einstein's Big Bang theory. Scientists finally found evidence of gravitational waves in March, although other researchers later felt that the so-called confirmation of the Big Bang theory was premature, and that it's a possibility that the original experiment actually detected space dust. The findings have not yet been definitively proven or disproven.
Researchers erase and restore memories in rats
A team of neuroscientists at UCSD successfully manipulated neural connections in rats to both erase and restore a memory. Using optogenetic stimulation and classical conditioning, the researchers were able to demonstrate that they could remove a fear response to a stimulus and then restore it using only neuroscientific techniques, rather than behavior modification. Although fear memories could easily have different mechanisms than other kinds of memories, this is still a huge step towards memory modification as imagined in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Pilots fly planes using only their minds
[Credit: A. Heddergott/TU München]
2014 has been the year of telepathy (or more accurately, electrode caps that allow people to exert force using their brainwaves); between Iron Man exoskeletons, the first direct brain-to-brain communication, turning genes on and off, and allowing a paralyzed man to move his hand, mind control is getting closer and closer to becoming a part of everyday life. This was never so evidence than when pilots managed to fly planes using only their thoughts (and an electrode cap). Even more amazingly, all of the volunteers flew with enough accuracy in their simulations to pass their pilot's license.
Google releases first prototype for driverless cars
The driverless car has been in the works for a couple of years, but Google didn't release a definitive prototype of a completely autonomous car- complete with no steering wheel or pedals- until earlier this year. Driverless cars are still somewhat controversial, as they present with a bevy of ethical problems, but there's no denying that they would be more efficient in countless ways, with many experts claiming that they'll make the roads safer and some estimating that they will trillions of dollars per year. Either way, it seems to be an inevitability, as other countries are now following suit; Britain will allow driverless cars on the road starting in January 2015.
NASA's Maven enters Mars's orbit
On September 22, NASA's orbiter Maven entered Mars's orbit and became the first spacecraft dedicated to studying the Red Planet's atmosphere. Later that week, India's Mangalayaan landed in Mars's orbit as well after a historic 420 million mile journey.
Trials begin for suspended animation technique
The first human trials for suspended animation began earlier this year, with Pennsylvania doctors attempting a technique in which sufferers of an otherwise fatal injury are "frozen" in order to extend the amount of time that doctors have to save them. The research has not yet been published, but the technique, which involves removing and cooling the patient's blood before returning it to the body, has been shown to work on pigs, and there is anecdotal evidence that the concept of suspended animation would work on humans.
Archaeologists confirm discovery of skeleton of King Richard III
In 2012, a construction crew found human remains that scientists believed to be those of King Richard III during an excavation of a city parking lot. A battery of tests, including DNA testing, revealed the discovered remains to be those of the fallen monarch early this month. According to the researchers, the chances that it is Richard III are "99.999 percent."
Underground ocean discovered on Enceladus
Cassini data demonstrated that Saturn's moon Enceladus is covered with geysers that spew water from the moon's underground sea all the way to its surface. The presence of liquid water under the planet's icy outer shell makes it possibly the best candidate for supporting life.
Philae lands on a comet
Rosetta lander Philae became the first spacecraft to ever land directly on a comet. After a troubled landing, in which one of its harpoons failed to deploy and it "bounced" into a shady area, it was unable to get enough sunlight exposure to extend its battery life, and ultimately powered down after completing its primary science mission. Before it shut down, it sent us the first close-up picture of the surface of a comet, as well as the first evidence of organic molecules on a comet. The event also played a significant role in getting space travel back into the public consciousness; just looks at this live cartooning of the comet landing by XKCD for proof that the entire country was attached to the little lander's success.
NASA discovers signs of life on Mars
This just happened today! NASA's Curiosity rover may have found signs of life on Mars. The rover detected spikes of methane, which are a key indicator of bacterial presence. Though these latest findings don't necessarily confirm the presence of life on Mars, as there are non-biological explanations for the methane spikes, NASA believes that a biological explanation is a distinct possibility. Also, at the very least, the results show that the planet is more chemically active than previously thought, and the more chemically active a planetary body is, the better chance it has of playing host to life.