Breakthroughs of 1998

New Year’s is traditionally a time of looking back at the previous year’s accomplishments. Every year brings a flood of new scientific discoveries, and 1998 was no exception.

Choosing which to mention would is a daunting task; fortunately, the editors of Science magazine already did all the work. Briefly, I want to pass along to you their “Breakthrough of the Year” and nine runners-up.

The Breakthrough of the Year involves nothing less than the fate of the universe. We know the it’s expanding. But will it expand forever, or will gravity eventually cause it to collapse again, so that what began with a Big Bang ends in a Big Crunch?

To measure the rate of expansion, astronomers look for specific supernova that are all of the same brightness. By measuring how bright or dim they appear to us, they can tell how far away they are–and this year, to their astonishment, they discovered that they’re 10 to 15 percent further away than expected.

That means the universe’s rate of expansion has actually speeded up since the Big Bang–which means that some enormous force is at work that until now we’ve known nothing about. It also means all current predictions about the universe’s fate are worthless

Astronomers call this mysterious force “lambda.” That’s the Greek letter Einstein used in his equations to represent a repulsive force he thought had to exist to keep the universe from collapsing. When astronomers found out the universe is expanding, not static, Einstein withdrew the idea, calling it the greatest blunder of his career. Now lambda is back. It’s a shame Einstein isn’t around to help figure it out!

Most of Science’s runners-up are more down-to-earth. Earlier this year I wrote about our built-in biological clocks. By the end of the year, scientists knew how part of the biological clock works: a gene, activated in the morning, turns on other genes that cause proteins to be produced that, as they build up, eventually shut the genes off again. As the levels of the proteins decrease, the genes reactivate. Light destroys one of these proteins, delaying its build-up keeping the clock in synch.

I also wrote about the hopes that the new neutrino observatory in Sudbury might answer the question of whether the millions of neutrinos sleeting through you right now have mass and thus could be part of the mysterious “dark matter” we know makes up most of the universe. Not long afterward, a neutrino observatory showed that at least one type of neutrino does indeed have mass—but alas, it was an observatory in Japan.

I also wrote about quantum teleportation, transmitting information from place to place without the information traversing the space between. It’s based on the fact that two particles can maintain a mysterious connection between them so that an action performed on determines the state of another, no matter how far apart they are in space. By the end of the year, scientists had teleported quantum information from the nucleus of one atom to another. This may eventually lead to quantum computers so fast our current supercomputers will seem like slide rules.

The prevention and treatment of cancer made news in 1998. Developments ranged from the rapid approval of tamoxifen for the prevention of breast-cancer in high-risk women to antibody therapy to angiostatin and endostatin, shown to shrink tumors in mice by starving the tumors of blood. Overall cancer rates continued to drop because fewer people are smoking.

Another medical discovery explain Lyme disease, among others, can have short-lived initial symptoms, but eventually lead to chronic conditions such as arthritis. It appears these infections turn the immune system against the body. Understanding this mechanism may lead to better treatments.

New developments in the analyzing of genetic codes also hold promise. Scientists now have the complete genetic code for the bacteria that cause syphilis, tuberculosis and typhus, among others, and are beginning to discover proteins unique to each, which could lead to new vaccines or drugs.

Science also noted the discovery of one of the mechanisms by which the nervous system transmits signals, the boom in “biochips” (microchips that can do everything from sequencing DNA to screening blood samples for cancer), and new ways to rapidly develop and test exotic new compounds and materials.

In 1999, as in 1998, science will continue to illuminate and counfound us, and I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

It means I’ll never run out of column ideas!

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