We haven't a breeze about the boson, but what matter?
What were the top science stories this year? Missing ice, a missing boson, a visit to Mars and the biggest science party ever seen in Ireland are all in the mix.
My choice for the top spot would be the “discovery” (almost) of the elusive Higgs boson subatomic article.
The Higgs is all about hugely complex particle physics but somehow the public has engaged with the particle mostly without having a clue what it is all about.
“Ah, the Higgs,” accompanied by a nod, is the usual response when mention is made of it. “Yes, the God particle.”
It has nothing to do with God but everything to do with matter, the stuff of the universe. The boson is a last missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle that forms the “standard model” – a blueprint for how mass should act in the natural world.
It was no more than a theoretical entity prior to the big announcement last July at Cern, the European Centre for Nuclear Research. They declared the discovery of a “Higgs-like” boson that looked very like the theoretical Higgs, acted like the Higgs and effectively was the missing Higgs – except in name.
The conservative scientists refused to take the final step and declare it to be the Higgs, even though most physicists seem to believe it is the missing particle. Instead the research team at Cern decided more data was needed so the final call on this mysterious particle won’t come until next year.
It took a €4 billion machine to find the Higgs, but it took an enormous €2.5 billion to design, build and launch the Curiosity rover and deliver it in one piece on the surface of Mars. It landed on August 5th on a mission that is expected to run at least until 2021 but could go on for 50 years, according to the US scientists who sent it on its way. Its main mission is to prove once and for all whether there are signs of past or current life to be found on the surface of Mars.
The Opportunity rover that landed on Mars in 2003 is still running but its companion Spirit that arrived in 2005 stopped working in 2010. But there is little chance of Curiosity getting lonely, as a “sample and return” rover is due to join it within the next few years.
At the end of August, the big story was all about the loss of Arctic sea ice, which has retreated to a new low. An area of ice the size of Ireland was disappearing each day by late summer, bringing the minimum cover to about 4.1 million sq km. This beat the previous record low of 3.14 million sq km reached in 2007.
The ice was disappearing twice as fast as would have been expected, according to researchers from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This raised the prospect of a summertime ice-free Arctic Sea as early as 2015. While it did not have implications for sea-level change, given this was floating ice, it does indicate that something has changed, with an increased risk to the massive ice stores locked up in Greenland.
It might be parochial but the big story in mid-July 2012 was the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), the largest science meeting ever held in Ireland. It brought close to 5,000 delegates to Dublin’s Convention Centre, including Nobel Prize winners, the heads of Cern, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the European Research Council and other leading lights in science.
It was a party that all of Dublin and the rest of Ireland were invited to and the public came in great numbers.
Aside from the meeting, dozens of City of Science events took place in the capital and around Ireland as we celebrated our engagement with scientific research.
If this year is remembered for anything, it should be for ESOF and Ireland’s scientific coming of age.