The Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2008

It took a long time but the sun is finally rising as our most promising source of clean, sustainable energy.

Cells, a New Beginning

Scientists achieved several goals in what was once thought impossible -- reprogramming adult cells to act as stem cells, morphing into new cells. That progress, labeled by Science magazine as the "breakthrough of the year," could potentially solve two huge problems.

It now appears much more likely that scientists will be able to reprogram cells to fight a wide range of diseases, including muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's disease, as well as many others. And it eases the ethical problem of using embryonic stem cells, which results in the destruction of the embryo, because mature cells may be reprogrammed to do the job. Furthermore, it is likely that a patient's own cells can be reprogrammed in the near future, thus lessening the need to introduce foreign cells.

It is, put mildly, a new day in medical research.

But the road ahead is still bumpy. The process is not well understood and there is some concern that reprogrammed cells might not always act the way they are supposed to. But many researchers around the world are working to solve those problems.

A Really Big Machine

The grandest new toy to go online in 2008 is the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile-long, ring-shaped particle accelerator on the French-Swiss border meant to recreate the conditions during the first instant after the Big Bang. The machine, built by 26 nations for $8 billion, gives scientists their best chance yet to find the postulated Higgs boson or so-called "God particle," which is believed to be the particle that gave mass to all other particles. But every new accelerator, erroneously referred to as atom smashers, seems to come with its own agenda. Who's to say, at this point, what the Hadron will tell us about the beginning of the universe?

Unfortunately, the collider had to be shut down after operating a few days in September because it sprang a helium leak. It is scheduled to be operational again in June. But, fortunately, it didn't do what some folks feared it might -- create black holes that could destroy the earth. Physicists have tried to dehorn that myth, noting that particle collisions happen naturally all the time and the planet is still here.

Social Media

Here's a newcomer to the annual year's top 10 list, and it slipped in so quietly that a lot of lists missed it entirely.

Some of its components have been around for awhile -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. -- but during 2008 they took center stage, changing the way many of us interact and providing vital information during disasters ranging from fires to warfare to terrorism.

Social Networking Here to Stay

This year, it helped President-elect Barack Obama make history, raising enough money from millions of citizens to finance a successful campaign for the presidency. Obama used the new kid on the block, Twitter, to keep his followers informed and, of course, to lift a little change out of their pockets.

Social networking is here to stay and several sites remain the hottest on the Internet. Earlier this month. Google reported that four of the 10 "fastest-rising" search terms in 2008 were for social-networking sites, including three in Europe -- Facebook login (3), tuenti (4), nasza klasa (7) and wer kennt wen (8).

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