Top 5 Science Stories of 2013
Editor-in-chief Steve George shares the top 5:
- Stem Cell Work
Stem cell research has been in the news for at least 17 years, since Dolly became public. This year, a research university in Japan found a way to reprogram stem cells into an earlier state, allowing the cells to morph into any type of cell. The research team was able to produce 5mm “liver buds,” which are cells that can function as a liver does. George says this is one step closer to helping individuals with liver failure and other health problems. "This could be used in humans who have liver failure," George says, noting these cells could also be the "building blocks" for other organs as well. "It could save somebody's life."
Although you might not think of privacy issues relating to science, Discover also covers technology and the way it impacts our lives. The magazine focused on the Edward Snowden leaks as well as the NSA's PRISM data surveillance program, which mines through public and private information.
"What was compelling to us was that this system is a huge data-miner and it focuses largely on metadata - the who, what, when, where of our communications and transactions online," George says, "which seems like very innocuous stuff that we don't think twice about. But technology and data-mining has grown to a point where this kind of metadata is content. The way it can be been tracked I think has profound implications not only for our sense of what privacy and private information is, but also for future development of online communications and services and the technology we use to access it or protect it."
George says Discover doesn't get political about privacy issues, but says such concerns will inform the future of technology and how we stay connected.
- Climate Change
One of the year's biggest science stories was about a carbon dioxide reader in Hawai’i that one spring afternoon detected 400 parts per million - the highest detected to date of the green house gas that contributes most to global warming. George says the level hadn't been seen for thousands of years. But he says the media was wrong to label it as a "long-feared milestone" being reached.
"Of course global warming is important and no one's saying going to 400 parts per million is not important, but from a climatologist's standpoint, it's a milestone on the highway," he says. "They knew this was going to happen. We wanted to offer that perspective, of, you know it's not the end times. If it was 800 parts per million, that'd probably be number one (of stories). There'd be no ice on land. The oceans would be up 250 feet, and that would be a big deal."
What was overlooked, however, was the time of year and the location of the reader. Once the season changed and plants started to bloom and grow, the levels of CO2 went down. That said, George says global warming is still "obviously a great issue that we should still be concerned about."
In a far-reaching June decision, the Supreme Court invalidated a number of DNA patents held by biotech companies.
"What the ruling did was said naturally occurring DNA sequences cannot be patented, it's not enough to discover it, it has to be invented or modified in some way that it's not possibly naturally occurring," George says.
This ruling broke apart a virtual monopoly on genetic testing for mutations and genes that contribute to breast and ovarian cancer. The monopoly had made these tests unaffordable to many people, but since the ruling, more people have access to them. Even further reaching is that researchers had been reluctant to work with patented genes. So scientists were shying away from doing important work, George says. Now, more work will be done with these genes.
- Mars Land Rover
Even though the Curiosity rover landed on Mars last year, George says 2013 is when it really began delivering results. Its onboard instruments were able to sample Martian soil, identifying traces of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and all the components you would need to sustain life. George says as Curiosity's research will give us the information to help send a manned mission to Mars by helping scientists create proper radiation shields for astronauts.
"I could go on about the fact that 2013 was really Curiosity's year to shine," George says. "Plus, I just like that little rover."
Steve George is editor in chief at Discover magazine. The national magazine on science and science news is published by Waukesha’s Kalmbach Publishing Company. Discover’s Top 100 science stories of 2013 are counted down in the January/February issue, which is just coming out.