Discover Magazine recently put out a “Year in Science” Issue which I have now read cover-to-cover, with jaw dropped. Of course, I heard about some of the stories as they happened, but others passed me by somehow. It is amazing what we can do these days. So, I picked out my two favorite science stories of 2008 to share.
No kidding. It was actually two years ago that a team of engineers announced they had discovered the technology for creating an invisibility cloak, but this year scientists have learned that they can create this material to conceal objects from anything that travels as a wave. That includes light, sound, and even matter (at the sub-atomic level). Also, they found a way to give the material (actually called metamaterial) a thickness and heft so it can be used out of the lab. Here’s how it works: “To cloak something, concentric rings of metamaterial are placed around the object to be concealed. Tiny structures—like loops or cylinders—within the rings divert the incoming waves around the object, preventing both reflection and absorption. The waves meet up again on the other side, appearing just as they would if nothing were there.” So, if you are seated in a concert hall and there is a pillar between you and the orchestra, that pillar could be cloaked in invisibility material and the sound waves would be tricked into going around the pillar as if it weren’t even there (as opposed to bouncing off of it). The sound from your seat would be just as good as an unobstructed seat. The coolest idea for using this new technology, though, is to deflect actual waves in the ocean away from isolated spots like drilling platforms, low-lying islands, or coastal regions vulnerable to tsunamis.
2. Making Progress Fighting AIDS
This year, scientists did further research into individuals known as “elite suppressors.” These are people who have been infected with the HIV virus but maintain a low viral load and never become ill. Previously, researchers thought that these people must be infected with a weaker strain of HIV, but recent research has shown that is not the case. A study published in August provided evidence that certain people have an immune system that is capable of controlling full-strength HIV. The study documented transmission of the virus from a patient with AIDS to his wife. Though she has the same virulent strain of HIV as her husband, the woman has maintained nearly-undetectable viral loads; she is an elite suppressor. Researchers found that some of the woman’s immune cells were particularly good at suppressing replication of the virus. Joel Blankson, the senior author of the study says, “It’s evident that the immune system can, in fact, control fully pathogenic HIV, so a vaccine should be possible. This provides preliminary evidence that one day a vaccine can be generated.”
*A study published in Sweden showed that drummers (and anyone who is good at keeping a complex rhythm) have higher than average IQs.
*Scientists announced in August that they have found drugs that simulate the effects of exercise in the body. The drugs are in trials now and may be available in a few years.
*Geneticists have discovered that blue eyes arose because of a single genetic mutation that occurred in a single individual less than 10,000 years ago. The mutation spread very quickly throughout the European population, suggesting that the mutation originally had something to offer for survival.