It’s that time of the year. In addition to listing the biggest science breakthroughs of 2013, the editors of the journal Science have named their “areas to watch in 2014.”
Here are their four predictions about things to come in the months ahead.
1. A new era of neutrino detection.
If 2013 was the year of the Higgs boson, then 2014 will be the year of the neutrino. The nearly massless particle has no electric charge, but can be found everywhere, passing through our bodies and entire planets every second. Because neutrinos are invisible and interact weakly with other particles, they are hard to detect. But if pinned down, the elusive particles serve as silent messengers for radiation, which can be helpful in the hunt for cosmic rays and possibly monitoring nuclear weapons in the future. This year, scientists at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an underground telescope in Antarctica, detected high-energy neutrinos from beyond our solar system for the first time, an achievement that scientists hailed for opening up a “new era of neutrino astronomy.”
2. A better way to study and treat diseases using genome sequencing.
In 2014, more and more researchers and doctors will use genome sequencing to treat cancer patients, newborns with life-threatening problems, and even healthy patients, an advancement made possible by cheap and faster sequencing machines. Sequencing advances will help us know and understand the genome — the strands of DNA that give our cells the instructions that influence everything from our hair colour to diseases. When a patient’s genome is analysed, the knowledge gained can lead to more effective, customised medical treatments. Knowing what changes to the genome make cells cancerous can help oncologists defeat the tumour with tailor-made chemotherapy.
3. The end of research on chimpanzees.
2013 was a liberating year for chimpanzees, and it’s only going to get better. In June, the U.S. government announced it would release all but 50 chimpanzees used for research to sanctuaries. Around the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that captive chimps be listed as endangered, which would make it harder for labs to use the animals for research and to test new drugs. Both decisions reflect growing public opposition to the use of chimpanzees in experiments.
4. New details about the universe.
How did the universe begin, and then become what it is today? Those are just some of the questions that the European Space Agency’s Planck space telescope aims to answer after more than four years of studying cosmic microwave background (CMB) — radiation from the Big Bang that preserves a picture of what the universe was like when it was only 380,000 years old. Astronomers released the most detailed picture of the universe as baby in March. The telescope was turned off into October 2013, but a new map that could potentially “contain traces of gravity waves that rippled through the universe in the ﬁrst sliver of a second,” is forthcoming.
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