Busted well: 4.9 million
The number of barrels of crude oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion that destroyed BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. Eleven of its crew died. For three mishap-prone months the company tried, and repeatedly failed, to plug its runaway well. Meanwhile, the crude poured forth, wreaking havoc on deep-water fish, migrating baby sea turtles, and BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s career.
To keep oil off coastal marshes and, some allege, out of sight, BP released 7 million litres of chemicals to disperse and break up the oil at the well head 1500 metres down. Environmentalists balked. The Obama administration imposed a moratorium on deep-water drilling. Yet in Gulf coast communities, where fishers and oil workers may be the exact same people, the “drill-baby-drill” cry grew ever shriller.
With an average consumption of more than 20 million barrels of oil per day, industry and consumers across the US would have gobbled up the entire spill in just a few hours. Some denizens of the Gulf have almost as great an appetite for the oil: many deep-water microbes thrive on the stuff, and are probably still enjoying the unexpected feast.
This is the fated year by which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Himalayan glaciers could disappear. In January, the head of the IPCC was forced to apologise after it transpired that the panel’s prediction for the fate of this crucial source of south Asia’s water was almost certainly very wrong. It had sourced the erroneous date from non-peer-reviewed sources, highlighting the paucity of research on the regional effects of climate change.
Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that closed Europe’s airspace and stumped English-speaking newscasters trying to pronounce its name, is estimated to have emitted between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a day. That’s less than the grounded flights would have emitted, making it the first carbon-negative volcano.
Elegant and stealthy, the Stuxnet computer worm slipped undetected into key nuclear facilities in Iran, inflicting substantial damage. No one has claimed responsibility. The sophistication of the code suggests whoever is behind the worm had significant technical resources, leading Iran to point the finger at the Pentagon and Israel. What seems clear is that the first shot has been fired in a new era of cyber-warfare.
Those cursed climate emails
Thousands of them were hacked off the servers of the University of East Anglia, home to one of the UK’s leading climate research units, in November 2009. In 2010, their content was dissected, re-dissected, and then dissected some more, amid claims that some climate scientists had engaged in fraudulent behaviour. Four independent reviews exonerated them, and data sets were made public that were previously under lock and key. And, finally, the world moved on.
Life from life
Make a genome – check. Transplant it into an emptied cell to create the world’s first synthetic life form – check. Frenzied media coverage accusing the researchers concerned of “playing God” – check. So it was in May, when Craig Venter and his colleagues stitched together the genome of a goat pathogen from bits of synthetic DNA and inserted it into the empty cytoplasm of a related bacterium. The implanted genome booted up and divided over and over to make billions more synthetic cells in the image of the original. To confirm that the daughter cells were of the synthetic species, the researchers added coded watermarks to its genome – including a quotation from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life”.
10 trillion °C
The highest temperature ever achieved in a scientific experiment, some 1013 degrees, was reached on 7 November inside the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland, when it started blasting lead ions together at near light speed. What remained after the smash-up was a quark-gluon plasma, the stuff thought to have made up the early universe. Quark-gluon plasmas had been made before, but earlier in 2010 physicists working on CERN’s CMS experiment recorded a mysterious, never-before- seen signal during the LHC’s proton-proton collisions. They are still scratching their heads trying to work out what caused it.
Microsoft’s hands-free video controller sold over a million units in the 10 days after its 4 November release in the US. The Kinect makes a great toy for sure, but it is also turning out to be more than that. Its sophisticated depth-sensing camera and infrared scanner have made it a honeypot for hackers, who are using it to manipulate 3D images of themselves and their surroundings in mind-bending software applications. Scientists have gotten a whiff of what the controller can do, too, and are enthralled by its possible applications – which range from controlling robots to 3D mapping and video conferencing.
Homo sapiens neanderthalis
The first draft of the Neanderthal genome, extracted from 44,000-year-old bones found in Croatia, revealed that the genome of all non-Africans is 1 to 4 per cent Neanderthal. In other words, humans and Neanderthals had sex and had hybrid offspring. The absence of Neanderthal genetic markers in modern Africans suggests that the interbreeding happened between 100,000 and 45,000 years ago, after the first humans left Africa but before they split into regional populations elsewhere.
All but given up for dead, the Hayabusa space probe finally made it home in June. After a bumpy landing on the asteroid Itokawa and a beleaguered return mission, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency feared the probe had failed in its mission to bring asteroid dust back to Earth. It took five months for the answer to arrive: Hayabusa had snatched 1500 particles of extraterrestrial dust, which will be scrutinised for clues to how the solar system – and our own planet – formed.
Global nation of Facebook
Facebook welcomed its 500-millionth user in July, just six years after it was created in a Harvard University dorm room. The Facebook “nation” now stands as the third most populous in the world, ahead of the US.
Oscar’s new face
“Oscar”, a farmer who accidentally shot himself in the face, became the first recipient of a full face transplant in March. While all 10 previous transplants had replaced sections of a face only, Oscar was given new facial skin, muscles and nerves, nose, lips, palate, teeth, cheekbones and lower jaw by a surgical team at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain.
The images in my head
Hope is dawning for people with “locked in” syndrome. In February, an international team of neuroscientists announced that they had conversed with a 29-year-old man diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. By asking him to picture himself doing two distinct activities and monitoring the different patterns in a brain scan as he did so, they created a code for him to answer yes/no questions. Imagining himself playing tennis meant “yes”; moving around his home meant “no”.
Not just a notepad
Long-awaited, but not as coveted as was expected, Apple’s iPad came to market in April. Within 24 hours, Apple claimed it had sold 300,000 units, but then enthusiasm seemed to wane. By September, 4.2 million of the devices had left the mother ship, falling short of Apple’s 5 million projection.