Friday, December 12, 2008

A Stellar Year for Physics

Time Magazine just released its annual collection of top ten lists. Among the editor's rankings of "Late Night Jokes" and "Fashion Faux Pas," they put together a list of the "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries of 2008." Physics dominated the field, taking five of the category’s ten spots!

I do have one caveat though. The term "discovery" is being thrown around pretty loosely here. To me, a "discovery" is observation or determination of something for the first time. I think Noah Webster would be on my side here. Time's list really should be called the "Top 10 Science Things that Happened in 2008."

Take their number one "discovery," the completion of the Large Hadron Collider, as a perfect example. This is a hugely important science experiment and tremendous engineering accomplishment, but it's not a "discovery." If it were, it would be as if hikers along the Franco-Swiss border just happened to find the gigantic completed facility by accident. Its discoveries will come later, after the machine is repaired and back up and running.

But I digress. Time does a good job highlighting some of the important physics stories of the year. Close on the heels of the top spot is the Phoenix Lander's actual discovery of water ice in the Martian polar ice caps. Water ice shows that the ancient history of the Red Planet was likely a lot wetter than previously thought.

Slot number four goes to China's continuing space program, Again, not really a "discovery." China already knew space was there, they just stepped outside for a stroll. Behind door number six are the first photographs of extrasolar planets. This was huge, on November 13th two separate teams working independantly released the first photos taken of planets orbiting stars that aren't our own (Time omits that yet another team released an infrared image from a third star two weeks later).

Rounding out the physics entries at number seven is UC Berkeley's further development of an "invisibility cloak." Using nanotechnology, scientists were able to engineer a fabric that could literally bend light around it, making it appear to disappear. Of course a Harry Potter style cloak is still decades away, but the proof of concept has been established.

So there we have it, the physics stories Time Magazine thinks are the years most important. I'm not sure they got everything though. Not only did this year mark the first time an extrasolar planet was captured on film, but also the first time an electron was photographed as well!

Any others that might have been missed?

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