Why was the Higgs Boson considered the most significant scientific breakthrough of 2012? Read this article and find out why.

Scientific Breakthroughs of the Year 2012

By George B. Kauffman

George Kauffman
George Kauffman

We humans love to make lists: the best or worst—of the year, decade or century.

In the Dec. 21, 2012, issue of Science magazine, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), editor Bruce Alberts (www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6114/1511.full) listed and summarized the top 10 scientific accomplishments of the year, which are discussed in detail on pages 1524–1532 of that issue. I’ll highlight these breakthroughs for Community Alliance readers.

Breakthrough No. 1: The Higgs Boson

Since the 1960s, international teams of scientists have been smashing atomic particles in a series of ever-more-sophisticated colliders and found all but one of the 12 fundamental particles predicted by the standard model of physics (SM), which describes how elementary particles and a set of forces between them lead to all matter and most higher interactions, thereby providing a basis for understanding much of physics and chemistry. A key prediction of the SM—that the universe is pervaded by a field that conveys mass—was tested and confirmed last year with the discovery of a particle associated with that field, the Higgs Boson, which has earned it the moniker “The God Particle.”

On July 4, officials at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire, CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland, confirmed the discovery of a particle very much like the long-sought Higgs Boson, the last piece of a multi-decade puzzle on which a global consortium of tens of thousands of scientists developed data from two separate, complex detectors housed in its largest and most energetic particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collector (LHC).

The experiments and discovery were made possible by decades of cutting-edge, public-supported science, engineering and construction and a long-term effort by the physics community worldwide. Science magazine declared that the discovery of the Higgs Boson was the No. 1 scientific breakthrough of the year. Time magazine agreed: “Forget Person of the Year—the discovery this summer by the Large Hadron Collider of the Higgs Boson particle was one of science’s greatest achievements” (http://poy.time.com/2012/12/19/the-higgs-boson-particle-of-the-year).

On a personal level, I learned that Time magazine, which had named President Barack Obama No. 1 person of the year, had named Fabiola Gianotti a runner-up for person of the year for leading one of the teams confirming the discovery. Fabiola was a former student of my good friend, colleague and coauthor Lanfranco Belloni, a physicist at the University of Milan. Both Franco and I have reached the age at which we can be proud of the internationally recognized achievements of our best students.

In his book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Search for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, describes the long search for the Higgs, what it is, why it is so elusive and the importance of its discovery for our universe and the future of particle physics.

In the July 13 New York Times, Steven Weinberg, the 1979 Nobel physics laureate, stated, “You can count on physicists to ask their governments for the facilities they need to grapple with these problems. A case can be made for this sort of spending, even to those who don’t care about learning the laws of nature. Exploring the outer frontier of our knowledge of nature is in one respect like war: It pushes modern technology to its limits, often yielding new technology of great practical importance” (www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/opinion/weinberg-why-the-higgs-boson-matters.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).

The big question for the future is whether the current “Higgsteria” will translate into public or political support for further investment in particle physics, or, crucially, in an international machine to succeed the Large Hadron Collider.

The Runners-Up
Majorana Fermions

Physicist Pierre Hohenberg suggested that it is useful to differentiate “between the activity of scientists and the product of that activity by denoting the former as (lower case) science and the latter as (upper case) Science” (physics.nyu.edu/~pch2/What­­_is_Science-December_2010a.pdf). “Science emerges from science as collective, public knowledge…universal and free of contradiction” only after being repeatedly tested by independent scientific investigations.

While the discovery of the Higgs Boson certainly represents big “Science,” having been challenged and refined during the last four decades by tens of thousands of physicists, the discovery of Majorana Fermions, quasi-particles identical to their own antiparticles, formed from the collective motion of many interacting electrons, in hybrid superconductor-semiconductor nanowire devices by a team of Dutch physicists and chemists is an example of little “science” (V. Mourik et al.; www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6084/1003.full). The discovery has already prompted efforts to use the new particles to build a stable quantum computer. However, further work will be needed to make certain that there is no other way of explaining their results. Only then will this new “science” become “Science.”

Neutrino Physics

In March, a crash project by Chinese physicists at the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Project measured the last parameter describing how elusive particles called neutrinos morph into one another as they zip along at near-light speed. The result suggests that, in the coming decades, neutrino physics will be every bit as rich as physicists had hoped. It may even explain how the universe evolved to contain so much matter and so little antimatter.

Making Eggs from Stem Cells

As the three previous breakthroughs involved the physics of particles, this and the following two breakthroughs are biological discoveries. For more than a decade, scientists have been trying to make egg cells in the laboratory. In an important step toward that goal, mice gave birth to the first live pups born of eggs derived from mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells.

The technique, developed by researchers in Japan, still requires a mouse to host the developing eggs during a key part of their maturation so it doesn’t achieve the big goal—deriving egg cells entirely in vitro. However, it does demonstrate that ES cells can give rise to fertile oocytes (immature egg cells), and it gives scientists a way to learn more about how these complex and powerful cells develop. The technique doesn’t work yet with human cells, but having a better way to study genes and other factors that influence egg cell development could already help researchers to understand some kinds of infertility.

A Home Run for Ancient DNA

Postdoc Matthias Meyer at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, developed a new method for sequencing the DNA of a girl who lived between 74,000 and 82,000 years ago in Siberia’s Denisova Cave, the first time that researchers had used genomic information to date an archaic human.

Genomics Beyond Genes

A decade-long, $28 million study, called the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE), builds on the Human Genome Project, which deciphered the order of the bases that are our DNA’s building blocks, and found that less than 2% of those bases defined genes. These details provide a much better road map for investigators trying to understand how genes are controlled. Some researchers have already used these insights to clarify risk factors for a variety of diseases.

Brain-Machine Interfaces Start to Get a Grip

This and the next two developments are examples of technological breakthroughs. Neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center reported that a 53-year-old woman paralyzed from the neck down by a genetic neurodegenerative condition had learned to manipulate a robotic arm with her thoughts. These are the most complex movements yet performed by a paralyzed patient using a brain-machine interface (BMI) as such sophisticated prosthetics are called.

Genomic Cruise Missiles

Genome engineers at Harvard University developed some powerful new tools that promise to put the modification of DNA within reach of biologists studying a variety of organisms, including yeast and humans. One of these tools, called TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nuclease), is a protein that cuts DNA in specific places, and the ensuing repair modifies the target gene. One group of researchers used the technique to create a miniature pig useful for studying heart disease, the No. 1 killer, a boom in genetic engineering unthinkable only a few years ago.

First Protein Structure from an X-Ray Laser

Working with the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., researchers from Germany and the United States determined the structure of the inactive “Precursor” form of an enzyme that is the key for survival of the microorganism that causes African sleeping sickness, using for the first time an X-ray laser to determine the structure of protein. This advance shows that X-ray lasers may decipher proteins where conventional X-ray sources fail.

Scary Engineering Tames Martian Terror

On Aug. 5, the massive Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars a mere 2.4 kilometers (1.49 miles) from the center of the crater’s bulls-eye after a 56.3 million kilometer (35 million mile) journey, although the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena had no way to test its EDL (entry, descent, and landing) system under Martian conditions. This spot-on landing reassured planners that they can now send a rover to collect samples on Mars and later land a second mission in the same spot to pick up samples and loft them into Mars orbit for eventual return to Earth. Because this stunning feat of physics and engineering has been so extensively described in the popular media, no additional details are needed here.

Conclusion

The success of Science during the past few centuries has enabled us to reach a remarkable understanding of our natural world, making our lives much more stable and predictable. It is through Science that we know that cigarette smoking over several decades has a high probability of inducing lung cancer, a conclusion fought tooth and nail by the tobacco companies.

Similarly, today, we definitely know that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are causing the climate change that has resulted in catastrophes such as droughts, floods, and most recently, Superstorm Sandy (see George B. Kauffman, “Climate Change—Will Superstorm Sandy Be the Turning Point?”, Community Alliance, January 2013, page 23). Once again, in their misguided attempts to be “fair and balanced,” the media have allowed so-called experts and representatives of the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt on the scientific findings.

According to Alberts, “Individuals, communities, and nations must all make wise long-range decisions based on what scientists do and do not know. Everyone, therefore, needs to understand the difference between science and Science and the critical, evidence-based process of getting from one to the other.

It is deeply discouraging that in the United States, many political leaders feel comfortable denying the Science of climate change. The acceptability of this stance represents a general failure of science education and communication. It is but one grave example that should spur scientists to focus more effort on the critical task of ensuring that students, and the general public, understand exactly how Science is derived from science.”

Those of my generation may remember the Golden Fleece awards (1975–1988) of Sen. William Proxmire (D–Wisc.), which identified what he considered wasteful government spending. What infuriates me is the spectacle of politicians who have flip-flopped within a few days without acknowledging it, yet having the audacity to question the consensual results of our most eminent scientists.

In response to Michael Hainey’s question in GQ, “How old do you think the Earth is?”, Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), who had been shortlisted by the Republicans for vice president, stated, “I’m not a scientist….Whether the Earth was created in 7 days or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries” (http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2012/11/19/im-not-a-scientist-man-is-marco-rubios-science-denial-stupid). A sitting senator who endorses creationism and claims not to know the age of the Earth! He should have stopped at “I’m not a scientist.” That truth is eminently obvious.

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, as well as numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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