Writing a round-up of best science stories of the year is a tall order—it’s kind of like writing a piece about the best and brightest stars in the sky. There are countless stories to choose from, and so many that are inarguably awesome. That in itself says something—if my biggest dilemma as a science writer is sifting through the innovations to find the biggest nuggets of gold, then that’s a pretty great problem.
I’m going to cheat a little. I’m allowed, right? I’ve narrowed it down to categories, with a few stories in each.
2013 has been a great year for medicine, perhaps most notably, for breakthroughs in HIV treatment. Scientists have cured monkey HIV (SIV), cured a child of HIV, and functionally cured over a dozen adults via early treatment. Two other HIV patients received stem cell transplants that initially appeared to cure the disease, but recent tests have shown a recurrence of the HIV. Still, when taken collectively, these strides in HIV treatment contribute to turning what used to be a death sentence into a manageable, treatable, and potentially curable condition. Honorable mentions in 2013 medical breakthroughs include the development of a malaria vaccine, various strides in predicting, detecting, and treating cancer, the curing of Down Syndrome in mice, and, of course, the innovative doctor who saved a man’s hand by attaching it to his leg.
The Red Planet is the celestial celebrity of 2013. The two biggest revelations of the year were the discovery of loads of water in Mars’ surface soil and the likely theory that life on Earth actually began on Mars. Of course, scientists would never have made those discoveries if it wasn’t for the Curiosity Rover, which continues its Mars exploration mission like a champ. Curiosity will soon be joined by some notable technology launched in 2013, namely NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft which will search for answers in Mars’ atmosphere about how and why it has disappeared, prompting the planet’s climate change from warm and wet to barren and cold. MAVEN is due to arrive at Mars at the same time as India’s MOM probe, which will search for signs of methane. And let’s not forget Mars One, which kicked off the selection process for its 2023 colonization effort by drawing applications from over 200,000 prospective Mars pioneers.
2013 saw the usual upgrades on all the existing smartphones and some pretty cool uses for smartphones, as well as a proliferation of smart technology, much of which is kind silly, but never disappointing in its creativity and scope. Samsung’s smartwatch (really just a satellite for the Galaxy phone) seems to have bombed a bit, despite its awesome commercial. Smart bike gadgets such as the smart lock and smart wheel (with a shout-out to the invisible bike helmet), can make bikes feel a little more like cars but are pretty cool nonetheless. One of more impressive and useful advances is an eye-phone that can screen for blindness. And last but not least, there’s the silly smart wig and the even sillier smart bra, which in themselves parody the smart-trend.
What can’t be 3-D printed these days? 2013 answered that question: nothing. This year, we saw a 3-D printed electric motorcycle and a 3-D printed car that will soon take a potentially record-breaking trip across the country. Medicine saw its share of advancements, such as 3-D printed stem cells, 3-D printed skin, a 3-D printed jaw, and the most adorable one of all, a 3-D printed duck foot. NASA’s bringing a 3-D printer into space for myriad uses, including printing robotic spiders that can build spacecraft and printing materials to build houses on the moon. There was some 3-D printing controversy, mainly surrounding guns, and there was some random and fun 3-D printing innovations, such as tiny mini-me figurines and 3-D printed fashions. My personal favorite is the a 3-D printed room, a fully immersive experience that surrounds visitors much as 3-D printed technology has enveloped the world.
We saw a lot of interesting studies in 2013 about brain functioning that affects behavior and decision-making, including the hard-wired differences between males and females, our struggles gauging our own abilities and reasoning processes, and the way we make sense of time. We learned that what we eat affects how we think, and that our ability to think comes in part from tiny microcomputers known as dendrites. In one of the weirder stories this year, scientists managed to use stem cells to grow a human brain in a petri dish. My favorite brain-related story is the brain-brain interface which allowed one researcher to move the finger of his colleague across campus. Given that the human brain project kicked off this year, we’re sure to continue advancing our understanding of the complicated innerworkings of our noggins, as well as advancing our ability to build a supercomputer that can simulate it.
I decided to give robots a rest this year, as it goes without saying that they’re on the list of most important and innovative scientific developments any and every year. Okay, maybe just one video, but that’s it, I swear!