Three 2012 Highlights

Ken Tapping, December 26, 2012

In the sky this week…

  • Jupiter rises around 3pm.
  • Mars rises around 10 p.m., and Saturn around 2 a.m.
  • Saturn rises at 4am and Venus around 6:30 am, with the planet Mercury close by.
  • The Moon will be Full on December 28.

Many new, exciting scientific things have emerged during the last year, ranging from the most remote and exotic all the way to familiar stuff. This does not mean 2012 is really special; it is just the latest year in decades of accelerating scientific progress. To a large extent this is being helped along by equally accelerating evolution in the technologies we can use for research. We have more sensitive and more sophisticated sensors, which we can connect to much faster and more powerful information processing systems. The tools we have on our desks for processing and exploring even huge collections of data make sifting out the gems easier than ever before. Moreover, we now have almost the same computer power at home. This in combination with most science data being available on public websites means anyone can explore it.

What must be the most special science result of 2012 is the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Over many years a concept of the fundamental nature of matter has slowly developed. This became known as the “Standard Model.” However, this theory depends fundamentally upon the existence of a strange particle known as the “Higgs Boson.” Numerous experiments aimed at detecting the particle revealed no trace it. Over the last couple of years there was a growing feeling in the science community that the Higgs Boson does not exist and the Standard Model is fundamentally wrong. This was unfortunate, because otherwise that model seems to work. It was likely that the failure to find the Higgs Boson was due to existing particle accelerators not being sufficiently powerful. Then the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator ever, came along and in a series of carefully designed experiments, evidence of the Higgs Boson was found and confirmed. This discovery marks the culmination of two things: persistent scientific effort and technical innovations leading to machines like the Large Hadron Collider.

Another memorable science and technology achievement of 2012 must be Curiosity, the rover now roaming the surface of Mars. Along with the earlier rovers, landers and orbiters we have sent to the Red Planet, Curiosity is helping to turn a red, starlike object in the sky into a place, with geographic and geological features just like the ones we see here on Earth.

Just getting Curiosity to Mars was an achievement. After the shocks, stresses and vibration of launch, the vehicle had to survive months in space, and then to land successfully. This vehicle is by far the largest object ever landed on Mars. The navigation alone was a triumph. One thing that would make 2013 even more memorable than 2012 would be Curiosity finding Martians, even single-celled ones.

A made-in-Canada achievement for 2012 must be WIDAR. Developed and built by the National Research Council, this number cruncher is the information processing brain of the upgraded Very Large Array radio telescope, located near Socorro, New Mexico. The first observational results are now rolling out, and easily living up to expectations. It’s been a good year. Here’s hoping 2013 is too!

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
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