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Published: Sunday, 12/26/2004

2004's top science stories

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

We've found the water; can the discovery of life be far off?

Science magazine said growing evidence of Mars watery past is the Breakthrough of the Year.

There was a lot to chose from in a search for top science stories. This year brought the creation of the first human embryonic clone. It included two successful flights of a private rocket, making the notion of space tourism look a bit more plausible. And it introduced a tiny prehistoric human who managed to make tools even though her brain would fit in a chimpanzee skull.

Not all agree that water on Mars was the clear winner in the Top Science Story contest. Discover magazine, in fact, gave that place to the mounting evidence of global warming. It put the Mars water discoveries at No. 3 in its Top 100 list.

Two space rovers were behind the unveiling of Mars soggy past. The rover Opportunity found a salt flat that indicated an ancient shallow sea, and, on the other side of the planet, Spirit found water-rotted rock.

For Discover, the bigger question may be, how long will there be life on Earth?

Southern species are moving north. Around the world, spring blooming occurs earlier in the year and plant ranges are shifting in response to changing weather patterns. In March, a team of researchers looking at historic data including ice cores and tree rings, said that the summer of 2003 was Europe's hottest in 500 years.

In some places in Antarctica, records show an increase in air temperatures of as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Huge ice sheets are breaking loose, and others are threatened, including one 750,000-cubic-mile slab that could drown south Florida if it melted.

Global climate change gets a nod in the No. 7 ranked Science story, which notes declines in species diversity all over the globe. Amphibian species are disappearing, with more than 30 percent of the 5,700 known species are in trouble. There's a 40-year trend of declining butterfly species, with 71 percent of the species losing ground. Native plant species are also disappearing. In the meantime, birds are changing migration patterns due to warming temperatures.

No. 2 in the Science countdown was the discovery of a diminutive new species of prehistoric humans. The new species, Homo floresiensis, lived on the Indonesian island of Flores amid dwarf elephants and giant rats about 18,000 years ago. Although the species had brains less than one-third the size of a modern human, they made sophisticated stone tools. Discover magazine rated this story No. 30 on its list.

No. 2 for Discover is the first signs of hope for the development of a commercial space tourism industry.

When privately designed and funded Space Ship One reached an altitude of 367,400 feet twice in two weeks in October, it not only won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, it set off a series of other promising space ventures. Space Ship One was the first private craft to reach what the X Prize developers defined as "space" - 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The achievement was followed by the creation of a $50 million prize to the first private craft to achieve Earth orbit. The X Prize announced an annual series of rocket competitions, and Space Ship One's creators signed a deal to create the first commercial rocket service.

The other top 10 stories include:

No. 3 in Science: A Korean team clones the first human embryo and derives stem cells from it while nations debate the ethics of both cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Discover ranks the stem-cell/cloning story No. 6.

No. 3 Discover: Evidence of water on Mars.

No. 4 Science: Advances in the science of condensates - In 1995, scientists chilled atoms until they behaved like one superatom. This year, the exploration of these strange "condensates" revealed more about their behavior. Discover magazine ranks this development No. 36.

No. 4 Discover: The flight of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft gave the best glimpse yet of Saturn and its moons, sending back images "nothing short of stunning.

No. 5 Science: No junk DNA. Researchers who decode genomes have long wondered why only 10 percent of our DNA make the proteins that carry out the work of the cell. The rest of the genome seemed to be no more than discards, imperfect leftovers in evolution's quest for the next-best thing. Now, it's clear that what looked like a landfill is actually a playground of information. Turns out, the genome is a lot richer than we originally conceived.

No. 5 Discover: The incubation of the avian flu in Asia that killed a Thai woman and her daughter raises fears that a "killer flu may be on the verge of mutating into a form that can easily pass from human to human."

No. 6 Science: The discovery of paired pulsars - neutron stars spinning in tandem in space - was called a "watershed event." Neutron stars are the very dense cores of massive stars left over after a supernova explosion. The pulsars reveal surprising behaviors, and will eventually provide a way to examine details of Einstein's general theory of relativity. "If any deviations from Einstein's theory exit, they are more likely to arise within the superstrong gravity of a neutron star or a black hole."

No. 6 Discover: Stem cells and cloning.

No. 7. Science: Declining biodiversity.

No. 7 Discover: A new generation of cancer drugs is gradually changing the face of disease treatment. The new drugs, target specific molecules on the cancer cell. Eribitux targets a protein on the cell surface that promotes cancer growth, while Avastin turns off a signal to attract a blood supply to the tumor. Older cancer drugs are far less specific, simply killing dividing cells. But the change in cancer treatment is still in its infancy. Most of these drugs cost between $4,000 and $6,000 a month, yet add only months to patient lives.

No. 8 Science: Just when you think we understand something clearly, scientists decide to rip up the text books and start over. This year, new discoveries about the structure of water "could reshape fields from chemistry to atmospheric science." The research looks at things such as how water molecules hold onto each other, how water interacts with charged particles, and how water binds to surfaces.

No. 8 Discover: When Americans turned to low-carb diets, farmers felt the pinch. Consumer demand for wheat dropped 4 percent in the last four years -- about 38 million bushels. Potato farmers were hit even harder, with Americans dropping 6.5 pounds of potatoes from their annual diet.

No. 9 Science: Public-private partnerships bring new energy to global health initiatives, by uniting the "traditional patchwork" of foundations, government, pharmaceutical companies, academics, and charities. An International AIDS Vaccine Initiative is just one of 92 partnerships. Other partnerships are looking for treatment for dengue fever, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and malaria.

No. 9 Discover: We're not quite ready to beam anyone to the surface of Mars yet, but scientists have managed the trick of teleportation on a much smaller scale. Using laser pulses, researchers transferred information from one atom to another in a different location.The distance of this quantum leap? About 200 micrometers, or 0.00787th of an inch.

No. 10 Science: Researchers are discovering millions of new genes by deciphering genomes from the ocean and deep underground. Water samples from the Sargasso Sea revealed 1 million new genes, many designed to deal with the lack of phosphorus in the Sargasso. Analysis of a microbial community six-tenths of a mile under ground in an abandoned mine led to new genes for energy production.

No. 10 Discover: A massive asteroid impact crater off Australia's northwest coast may provide an important clue to a massive extinction event 250 million years ago. Just as an asteroid impact in Mexico is often blamed for the end of the dinosaurs 185 million years later, the creation of the Australian crater seems perfectly timed for the disappearance of 80 percent of land species and 90 percent of sea creatures.



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