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2012 Physics Year in Review


A lot of great news stories in 2012, but the top of the list is easily the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC.

Higgs Boson Discovery at the LHC

Easily the biggest science story of the year (and dubbed 2012 Breakthrough of the Year by the journal Science and given the distinction of "Particle of the Year" by Time magazine) is the evidence from the Large Hadron Collider that suggested they may have found the elusive Higgs boson, sometimes called "The God Particle" fondly by journalists (and irritatingly by physicists).

This particle is the last component of the Standard Model of Particle Physics to be discovered, and the July 4 announcement from the LHC researchers swept the physics community. The big question is whether the discovered properties of the Higgs boson would be a springboard into new physics, such as the theoretical supersymmetry property that many physicists (especially those studying string theory) have long been hoping to discover. Unfortunately, so far nothing about the Higgs boson (or some other research from the LHC) have pointed at real evidence of supersymmetry, leaving physicists to wonder if this idea may not need to be rethought.

Curiously, evidence released in mid-December 2012 hinted that the LHC data might be actually showing two versions of the Higgs boson, not just one. This comes from the fact that the ATLAS experiment is showing decays at two different energies: 123.5 GeV and 126.6 GeV. This is happening just on the ATLAS experiment, though, and the CMS experiment is still showing just a single result around 126, so there's a good chance that these two energies are a technical glitch of some kind with ATLAS, and physicists are very tentative about it. However, there's another result that is unexpected and showing up in both ATLAS and CMS, which might also hint at something unusual going on. Put very simply, the particle is "decaying into two photons more often than it should."

All of these open questions about the Higgs boson should become much clearer over the course of the next year, as more data is obtained from the LHC, meaning that there's a very good chance the Higgs boson will show upon 2013's list of top physics stories as well.

Majorana Fermions Discovered

Another discovery this year is of Majorana fermions, a theoretical type of particle predicted back in 1937. If this bears out, these particles - which act as their own antiparticles and are stable even in response to environmental influences - might provide a key insight into how to build functional qubits, a crucial element in the design and creation of quantum computers.

Curiosity Descent and Landing on Mars

It was great to see the excitement generated over the Mars Curiosity Rover. One of the key elements to generate this excitement was the amazing landing system they used, where the launch capsule collided with the atmosphere and use friction and heat shields to slow down, then hover in the air and it lowers the rover down (while hovering, mind you!) to gently touch down on Mars. The fact that it worked pretty much exactly as planned is probably one of the greatest engineering achievements in the history of mankind, though sadly too fleeting to be memorialized in the same way as the pyramids or other such engineering feats of the past.

If you haven't seen the videos of this, then check out the NASA Curiosity website for more information.

Brain-Machine Interfaces

In an amazing advance in cybernetic technology, engineers have vastly improved mind-body interfaces this year. The technology has advanced to the point where paralyzed individuals can operate cybernetic limbs with the power of their thoughts, which is a vast improvement over previous interfaces, which could allow individuals to move computer images, such as cursors, by thought. (Which, in itself, was a pretty cool achievement!)

Transforming Neutrinos

Physicists have discovered neutrinos (electron antineutrinos, actually) that transform into other particles. This behavior had previously been expected, but now that it's been detected, physicists are finding that the rate of the transformation is different from what was expected. Increased study of this phenomenon could help understand the relationship of the matter-antimatter symmetry in our universe.

Big Year for Einstein's Brain

In perhaps one of the stranger physics-related stories, it's been a really big year the brain of Albert Einstein. See, it turns out that sections of his brain were "stolen" (for lack of a better word) after his death. Honest. This is charmingly recounted in the book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti, about the journalist who returned Einstein's brain pieces to his family.

This year, we saw two related pieces of information. The first was the appearance of Einstein's brain in an iPad app: Einstein Brain Atlas (read a review at Wired magazine). And, if that weren't enough, research published in the journal Brain showed that Einstein's brain had "extra folding in his brain's grey matter," including "much more complicated folding across the cerebral cortex, which is the gray matter on the surface of the brain responsible for conscious thought. In general, thicker gray matter is tied to higher IQs," as reported at Live Science.

Speed of Light Limit Unbroken

In 2011, there was some talk that the speed of light might have been broken in a CERN experiment. In a big win for the scientific method, scientists discovered in 2012 that this actually was not the case and actually found the equipment failure that was causing the false results. In science, anything that expands our understanding of the universe -- even if it's just confirming what we already knew to be true -- is considered a success.

2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for Quantum Measurements

Every year, one of the big stories is who gets the Nobel Prize in Physics, even though it's almost always for work performed years ago. This year, the prize went to two researchers who discovered precise ways to measure quantum systems without knocking them out of quantum superposition. When taken in conjunction with the earlier research about Majorana fermions, these quantum insights might well be laying the groundwork for a whole new form of computing technology: the quantum computer.

2012 Physics Books

Every year, some great science communicators come out with books to explain the way our universe works ... and 2012 was certainly no exception. Physicists and authors such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss show up once again on this year's list, with books ranging from pragmatic explanations of space policy and energy policy to explaining the theory of how our universe came into existence.
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