Michio Kaku's Top 10 Science Stories of 2011

From Japan to the Higgs boson to the depths of space.

ByABC News
December 22, 2011, 6:08 PM

Dec. 23, 2011 — -- intro: Michio Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at CUNY, the City University of New York, and author of "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Lives by the Year 2100." ABC News asked him to list the most important science stories of 2011.

quicklist: 1category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Fukushima Nuclear Disasterurl: media: 14932681text: 2011 was dominated by the horrendous news that there were three simultaneous meltdowns at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in March, sparked by a gigantic 9.0 earthquake and a monstrous tsunami. It was recently revealed that the accident was much more severe than previously thought.

The uranium core of Unit 1 completely liquefied (the first time this has ever happened) and melted right through the vessel and into the containment, almost setting off a China Syndrome-type disaster (where the core melts down, theoretically all the way to the other side of the planet).

In December, the utility, TEPCO, announced that it finally stabilized the reactor after 9 months of agonizing work, and temperatures inside were below boiling.

Now comes the hard part -- cleaning up the tragedy, which may take 30 to 50 years or more. It took 14 years to clean up Three Mile island. It's been 25 years since the Chernobyl accident, and that reactor is still not stable (the core continues to produce intense heat as it melts into the ground).

Meanwhile, Germany and Switzerland both announced that they are permanently phasing out all nuclear power plants, in light of Fukushima. This is putting pressure on President Obama, who is still pro-nuclear.

quicklist: 2category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Wacky Weatherurl: media: 15205687text: 2011 was haunted by the specter of "100-year storms," i.e. 100-year flooding, 100-year heat spells, 100-year droughts, 100-year forest fires, etc.. Property damage was in the billions and the human agony was often unbearable.

But why is the weather turning so ugly, when you have simultaneous droughts in Texas and massive flooding next door?

The short answer is that scientists don't know for sure. Predicting the weather is a tricky business, even for the best supercomputer. But there are at least two theories.

One is that there are natural fluctuations in the weather, so that random chance can create these disastrous events. For example, much of the weather over the U.S. is determined by cold, Arctic air coming in from Canada, hitting the moist, warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf was hotter than usual this year (meaning that there was more moisture in the air) and the jet stream acted in erratic ways, sometimes bringing down huge storms and at other times causing stagnation and a heat spell.

The other theory says that perhaps the increase in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the erratic jet stream are caused, in part, by global warming. "Global warming" does not mean uniform warming of the earth; instead, it should be called "global swings," with droughts in one part of the country and flooding in the next. So far, there is no smoking gun, but many scientists say that these strange 100-year events are consistent with global warming. If so, then expect more of them.

quicklist: 3category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Higgs Boson Found?url: media: 15144814text: Physicists at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, announced that they are finally closing in on the elusive Higgs particle. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a colossal $10 billion machine 17 miles in circumference, can hurl protons at 14 trillion electron volts to re-create conditions near the Big Bang itself, where particles of the Standard Model of particles can be found.

The Higgs is the last, missing piece of the Standard Model. But this is not the end of physics. The Standard Model only describes 4 percent of the matter-energy of the universe (the rest being dark energy and dark matter), so we are far from a "theory of everything." The next step is to produce dark matter at the LHC and perhaps verify exotic new theories, such as string theory.

quicklist: 4category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Giant Black Holes Foundurl: media: 15216220 text: Black holes, once considered science fiction, now appear all around the universe. Astronomers recently identified the biggest black holes of all time, one weighing in at over 20 billion suns in mass.

Our own Milky Way galaxy has a black hole with about 3 million times the mass of the sun. Such monstrous black holes, found in deep space, exist because they swallowed up billions of stars. (There is no danger that we will be eaten up by one these giant black holes, since our sun orbits around the central black hole in our galaxy at a safe distance.)

quicklist: 5category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Twins of the Earth Foundurl: media: 15095113text: The Holy Grail of planetary astronomy is to find a twin of the Earth in outer space. Astronomers this month announced a new candidate.

So far over 500 extra-solar planets have been identified orbiting distant stars, but only a few seem to be in the so-called habitable zones surrounding those stars, and the one announced this month, called Kepler-22b for now, is the first to be confirmed.

If a planet is too close to its mother star, its oceans will boil. If it's too far, the oceans will freeze. But if a planet is "just right" in the Goldilocks zone, then it might have liquid oceans.

Liquid water is the universal solvent, out of which the first proteins and DNA emerged, so there is hope that perhaps Kepler-22b also has liquid water oceans (and perhaps even microbial life).

Once earth-like planets are identified, this will help to narrow down SETI, the search for radio signals from intelligent life. But don't think that we will be able to visit these planets any time soon. If we take a voyage on a Saturn rocket, it would take several hundred thousand years to reach any of these planets.

quicklist: 6category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Alien DNA on Earth?url: media: 15216210 text: All DNA on earth is basically the same, except that the genes are arranged differently for different plants and animals. So it was shock, late last year, when scientists announced that Mono Lake in California had DNA which had never been seen before, with arsenic as one of its building blocks.

Immediately, other scientists jumped into the fray, arguing that perhaps the DNA was contaminated. But it still means that, in outer space, we have to be open to the idea of alien DNA, which may look quite different from our DNA.

If it holds up, then every biology textbook on earth has to be rewritten. Time will tell if this shocking result holds up.

quicklist: 7category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Last Hurrah for Space Shuttleurl: media: 14030216text: President Obama has altered the mission of NASA. He canceled the return to the moon proposed by President Bush, canceled the space shuttle, canceled the Constellation project to replace the shuttle, and put off any manned mission to Mars.

NASA's manned space program was a victim of the Great Recession. So it was with teary eyes that people watched the last shuttle launch in July.

U.S. astronauts will be hitchhiking rides to the International Space Station with the the Russians for the next several years. People are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that private enterprise will eventually pick up the slack.

quicklist: 8category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Mars Mission url: media: 15028520text: The "Godzilla" of space probes blasted off in November, headed for Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory, a rover nicknamed Curiosity, is five times bigger than any of the previous Mars rovers.

Its mission is to find evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars and then to find evidence of microbial life that might have spawned on Mars billions of years ago.

So far, scientists have found no conclusive evidence of life on Mars. But since Mars once had great oceans (one of them about the size of the U.S.) there is still hope that some form of life may have germinated on Mars.

quicklist: 9category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Tape Recording a Memoryurl: media: 15216200 text: In the movies "The Matrix" and "Total Recall," memories can be inserted directly into the brain. So instantly you can become a karate master or a helicopter pilot. This is all science fiction, but science is catching up.

Scientists at USC and Wake Forest University made a major step in this direction. Memories in rats and humans are first processed in the hippocampus of the brain. These scientists recorded signals in the hippocampus as the rats learned a task. Then they gave the rats chemicals which made the rats forget the task. Finally, the re-injected the taped messages back into the hippocampus, and the rats remembered the original task.

So one day, if all goes well, we too might be able to record certain memories and then have them injected into the brain, so we learn a task instantly. Of course, years of work are needed before we can become instant karate masters. However, in principle, it may be possible.

quicklist: 10category: Top Science Stories of 2011title: Dark Energyurl: media: 15216190 text: The Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 went to three astronomers who have discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing down, and that a mysterious "dark energy" may be responsible.

This is embarrassing, since only a few decades ago, it was widely believed that the universe was mainly made of atoms. Now, we realize that 73 percent of the matter/energy comes from dark energy (the invisible energy of the vacuum), 23 percent from dark matter (invisible matter that surrounds the Milky Way Galaxy), 4 percent from stars, and just a paltry .03 percent from higher elements which comprise our body and the planets. We are just beginning to understand what our universe is really made of, a question asked by the ancient Greeks 2,000 years ago.