Science highlights of 2014

As the end of the year approaches, I thought I’d kick-start this blog by sharing the scientific results that most impressed me throughout 2014.

Truth is, I have mixed fillings about such lists. First, as someone working in academia, I know that science often advances in mysterious ways. Those small discoveries, null results, catalog papers that make up the vast majority of peer-reviewed literature and may one day lead to a major advance, are often disregarded by the media (or even by the scientific community itself).
In addition, journalists tend to make things sound more exciting than they actually are, so for a non-expert in a particular field, it is extremely difficult to skim through the humongous body of articles and find those  that are actually, truly important.

That said, some of the discoveries announced in 2014 are truly impressive. Some others are beyond terrifying.  So without further due, here are my personal favourites for the year:

Computer Science

  1. This IBM neurosynaptic processor that mimics the brain. To me, this sounds like the future of neural networks and pattern recognition applications.
  2. FireChat. A messaging App that works even when Internet connection is down, by propagating the message via bluetooth of nearby devices [also, born in the heat of the Hong-Kong protests].

Energy and Environment

  1. This indoor LED farm that yields a 100-fold increase in production, but uses only 1 percent of the water needed by a conventional farm.
  2. The decreasing number of lions in west Africa. Scary.

Biology and Medicine

  1. The Ebola outbreak. 20000 infected, 8000 dead. And those numbers are still increasing exponentially.
  2. The creation of life with a bigger genetic alphabet.
  3. This species of vine that is able to change shape, colour and orientation to match its environment
  4. A paralyzed man uses power of thought to move bionic arm 

Space and Planetary Exploration

  1. The landing of Philae on comet 67P/Chyryumov Gerasimenko
  2. Water and organic molecules in the Solar System. From Mars to Enceladus, water and organic compounds seem to be over-abundant.

Science Policy  

  1. The Athena-Swan and Pleiades Awards in the U.K. and Australia respectively. These are initiatives that aim to support women in STEMM fields.  The idea is that Universities and Institutions can apply for these awards on the basis of their efforts to correct the under-representation of women in STEMM fields. People are taking them seriously, and they seem to work. I look forward to the day that no University or Institution will be able to receive public funding unless it has received some kind of similar award. Also, hopefully in the near future, more actions will be taken to improve the lives of invisible minorities and people with disabilities. For instance, making all campus buildings wheelchair-accessible would be a good start (UofT, I’m talking to you). Also, allowing for flexible working hours or providing part-time jobs to those in need…
  2. Germany pulls out from Square Kilometre Array. Bad news for Germany. Bad news for SKA.
  3. Iranian Mathematician Prof. Mariam Mirzakhani  wins the Fields Medal.

Astronomy and Astrophysics

  1. The discovery of the first lensed supernova. This result opens up exciting new possibilities for precision-mapping of the lensing galaxy’s dark mater distribution
  2. The discovery of a fast radio burst with the Arecibo telescope.
  3. The IceCube detection of peta-eV neutrinos
  4. GAIA begins science operations
  5. Construction of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope has officially begun
  6. The number of new exoplanet candidates found by Kepler

What do you think was interesting in 2014? Let me know in the comments.


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