If you sometimes feel as though you struggle to keep up with the pace of scientific developments, it’s not just your imagination. A study earlier this year showed that the rate of scientific developments, as measured by the number of cited papers, is increasing faster than ever before – and is doubling about once every 9 years. In fact the rate has increased almost ten-fold since the mid-18th century – which although high, is surprisingly modest given the huge increase in the number of people conducting full-time scientific research. Nonetheless, 2014 certainly feels like a big year for science – here is my personal top six.
For astrophysicists, the most exciting moment of the year was probably when a team of cosmologists working at the BICEP2 laboratory at the South Pole announced that they had detected the long-predicted but elusive gravitational waves left over from the birth of the universe. Unfortunately the waves may be more elusive than they realised, as further analysis showed that interstellar dust may have confused their results, and at the moment the discovery is still uncertain. But they’re getting there.
Still in the Antarctic, one of the biggest climate change stories was the discovery that the West Antarctic ice sheet, which has been very gradually declining since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, has now passed a tipping point and will inevitably collapse whatever the climate does – raising global sea levels by around a metre – but that it will take several hundred years to do so.
More cheerfully, 2014 saw the remarkable, decade-long Rosetta project culminate in the successful landing of a mini-science lab on a comet – from which it streamed back all kinds of measurements until its batteries died. The science results have already been impressive – we now know that organic molecules are plentiful there (it smells of vinegar and bad eggs), and that a long-mooted theory that comets are the source of water on Earth cannot be right if this comet is typical, because the water on the comet has a very different isotopic ratio to Earth’s water.
We’re all familiar with cave drawings made by our ancestors and by Neanderthals, but the discovery of artistic carvings on an Indonesian sea-shell dated between 430,000 to 540,000 years turned out to have huge implications for those interested in human origins. The early date means that they must have been made by Homo erectus, a hominid precursor to our own Homo sapiens species – assigning ‘human’ behaviour to pre-humans.
A technological advance means that it became possible this year to sequence a genome for less than $1000 – potentially opening the floodgates to all kinds of further discoveries. With this baby, you can sequence 18,000 genomes per year!
Not an auspicious end to the year, but a succession of ‘warmest ever’ months means that 2014 will almost certainly be the warmest year on record. In fact it’s been a year of bad news for climate scientists – a large part of Greenland has been found to be melting faster than thought, the rate of deforestation of the Amazon in 2013 was shown to have increased by more than 29%, and man-made CO2 emissions continue to track the high end of emission scenarios, eroding the chances of keeping global warming within 2C this century.