With each year that passes, mankind's appetite for discovery helps us to uncover more amazing mysteries of the universe. Sometimes, though, it can be smaller scale discoveries that bring the most cheer and I think that was true in 2008. Certainly, in my opinion, the good news discovery of the year was the revelation that there are twice as many lowland gorillas left in the wild than had previously been estimated. The Wildlife Conservation Society carried out surveys that revealed that there are approximately 125,000 gorillas left in the forests and swamps of the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is great news and hopefully will create further impetus to safeguard one of our nearest relatives.
However, as much as I like good news stories, it's fair to say that there were other bigger stories that dominated the scientific year and it may be that some of these will have more significance in the long-term for our species and our planet.
The biggest of all the scientific news stories of 2008 was undoubtedly the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its subsequent teething problems. The LHC has been dubbed as the Little Bang Machine as it is designed to create (on a small scale) the conditions that existed billionths of a second after the universe was created. It demonstrates a stunning and commendable level of ambition and provoked scaremongering stories suggesting that it would create black holes that would swallow our planet. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you subscribe to the Armageddon hysteria), a helium leak meant that work had to be delayed and is now scheduled for later in 2009. Given, therefore, that it hasn't yet actually revealed any secrets of the universe, I don't think it deserves the title of best scientific discovery of 2008. Discovery to me implies that we learn something new, whereas so far all we have learnt about the LHC is that it needs some fine-tuning. Hopefully it may scoop the best scientific discovery of the year award for 2009 or 2010 once it has completed its initial tests.
So, if we discard the Large Hadron Collider and also the gorillas, what scientific discovery deserves the title of best scientific discovery of 2008? Well, there are a few contenders. My shortlist of three is as follows:
1. Exploration of the North Pole of Mars.
NASA's Phoenix lander made contact with the far north of Mars and set about sampling the environment. The results reinforced the view hat Mars was previously a wet planet and this increases the likelihood that conditions on Mars would once have supported life. This can be seen as perhaps taking us a step closer to proving that there is (or once was) other life-forms outside of our blue planet, with all the implications that would have for the way that we think of our place in the universe.
2. Creation of new life-form.
Geneticist J. Craig Venter had previously mapped the human genome and put his knowledge of genetics into creating a new bacterium. Bacteria are amongst the most simple of life-forms, being comprised of only a few hundred thousand genetic base pairs. However, it is still an amazing breakthrough to have been able to stitch together all the base pairs required to create a brand new bacterium. It's been suggested that this genetic engineering could be used to produce fuels, make medicines, and combat global warming. Venter has suggested that the single biggest breakthrough that his discovery might lead to is an ending of our dependence on fossil fuels.
3. China steps up its space programme.
2008 saw China's third manned mission into orbit and their first ever spacewalk. This is momentous not so much for the achievement in its own right after all it's been done before but rather because it has the potential to spark a second wave of space exploration competition. The first space race (between the US and the Soviet Union) saw mankind take his first steps on the moon, so it will be interesting to see where a second space race might take us. Certainly, the Chinese already have big ambitions, stating that they want to have humans on the surface of the moon by 2020. Undoubtedly, they will see their space programme as an additional means of proclaiming their status as a major world power and the success of their 2008 spacewalk will provide the extra impetus needed to drive these ambitions forward.
Revealing the winner of Best scientific discovery of 2008'!
Hopefully, you will agree that the three discoveries that I have listed all possess the potential to significantly change of world and the way that we view ourselves within our universe. Choosing a winner is difficult but I think it's interesting that these discoveries have come against a backdrop of economic meltdown across so many of the world's markets and at a time when we are increasingly becoming aware of the need to look after our physical world in the face of climate change. For these reasons, I think J. Craig Venter's creation of a bacterium may emerge as the most important scientific discovery of 2008.
Some may be concerned that creating a new life-form is too much like playing God, however mankind has always manipulated his environment to his best advantage and this is just another example. If it can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve all of its potential business applications, then it may improve our lives on Earth considerably in the decades to come. Of course, there is also the potential for Venter's discovery to be misused, with one potential application being the creation of biological weapons.
The other two short-listed discoveries are more concerned with our ongoing quest to explore our place within the wider universe. Answering the question of whether we are alone in the universe is incredibly interesting but we are probably still a long way from an answer and, for the time being, our focus needs to be placed more upon domestic matters.