Scorecard for 2014
Every year, the Breakthrough staff
picks scientific developments likely
to make news in the coming months.
The numbers of bars show how last
year’s forecasts fared; those for 2015
are on page 1450.
Last year, physicists with IceCube, a massive neutrino detector deep in the ice at the
South Pole, spotted high-energy neutrinos
from beyond our solar system. But could
IceCube track enough to pinpoint their mysterious sources? We predicted the IceCube
team would release search results this year,
and in November, it did—but didn’t nail down
any obvious sources.
Tests that sequence a patient’s protein-coding DNA (the exome) or entire genome
to uncover disease-causing glitches are fast
becoming routine for rare disorders. Whole
genome or exome sequencing to identify
tumor mutations remains largely a research
COSMIC HISTORY, WITH A TWIST
We predicted that cosmologists mapping the
afterglow of the big bang might spot swirls
that would be a telltale sign that in the first
sliver of a second the universe underwent an
exponential growth spurt called inflation. In
March, one team claimed just such a sighting, but by September another had shown
that the signal may be entirely spurious (see
breakdown runners-up, p. 1451).
Chimpanzees still live in U.S. research labs,
but efforts continue to grant them “legal
personhood”—and the right to be free. The
Nonhuman Rights Project lost all three of the
lawsuits it launched last year to try to free
four New York chimps—including two lab
chimps—from captivity. This year, it appealed
each case and now has its sights set on the
state’s highest court.
3 base pairs
The rise of the CubeSat
A decade ago, CubeSats were just educational tools, a way for university students
to place a simple Sputnik in space. Now these 10-centimeter boxes, built with
off-the-shelf technology and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than
hundreds of millions, have taken off. More than 75 were launched this year, a
record. What’s more, the little boxes are starting to do real science.
Increased and affordable access to space is driving much of the boom.
CubeSats can hitch a ride on commercial or government rockets carrying bigger
spacecraft, or they can be pushed out the door of the International Space Station.
The rapid-fire launch rate is encouraging something never before seen in space:
risk-taking. Designers can tolerate a failure or two and quickly get back in the
game. As technology advances, they can also swap in better solar panels, batteries, or processors.
Private money has taken notice, funding companies such as Planet Labs, which
is monitoring Earth with a swarm of perennially replaced CubeSats. Their small
telescopes take pictures with relatively poor spatial resolution—a few meters—but
at frequent intervals. Spy agencies may not be seduced, but Planet Labs’ data are
plenty useful for monitoring deforestation, urban development, and river changes.
Coming up next: CubeSats that talk to one another while taking measurements.
Among other things, such CubeSat constellations will be able to cover more area,
faster, or monitor Earth’s surface in several wavelengths at once. If they work,
CubeSats will have demonstrated not only that small is beautiful, but also that the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts. –Eric Hand
could also serve a more academic
pursuit, enabling researchers to test
whether bacteria equipped with the
excess letters might evolve novel skills
not found in their wild kin. That may
sound like a scenario for a dystopian
techno-thriller, but the researchers
say there’s no need to worry: Because
unnatural DNA letters don’t exist
outside the lab, any bacterial escapees would not be able to replicate
their artificially expanded genetic
instructions and pass them on to their
offspring. –Robert F. Service
Two Earth-observing CubeSats
(dark oblong objects) shoot from a
satellite deployment device on the
International Space Station.