News 2009

The year in which …

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H1N1 swept the planet

Credit: L. SENG SIN/AP PHOTO

The first influenza pandemic in 40 years propelled the globe onto a roller coaster of panic and complacency. In March, a new H1N1 virus — a mongrel containing genes from swine, bird and human flu viruses — emerged in North America and spread rapidly, sparking fears of a severe pandemic. The new virus was particularly dangerous for younger adults and those with underlying diseases, but most patients had mild symptoms. The low severity cut the world some slack, as a vaccine took months to produce and some manufacturers fell behind schedule; the United States, Australia and Europe didn't start vaccination programmes until October, and poorer nations months after that, if at all. As of mid-December the flu was continuing to intensify across central and eastern Europe and parts of Asia, but its second wave had peaked in North America and parts of Europe. More than 10,580 people have died.

The LHC broke a world record

The high-energy physics crown has passed from the United States to Europe. On 30 November the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, became the highest-energy accelerator in the world, breaking the record long held by the Tevatron at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. Europe's proton-pummelling behemoth had spent most of the year in recovery after an electrical failure during its first run in September 2008 caused massive damage. By December 2009, head-on collisions at the LHC had reached 2.36 teraelectronvolts; physicists plan to begin science at this energy level in 2010, with the hope of finding evidence of the long-sought Higgs boson and dark matter.

Climate e-mails were hacked

In what climate-change sceptics are calling the scandal of the decade — and many climate scientists are calling a meaningless nuisance — more than 1,000 e-mails between top researchers were hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, UK, just weeks before the Copenhagen climate summit began. Some of the e-mails revealed frustration with data and a cavalier attitude towards sceptics, but they did not discredit the solid body of evidence showing that the world is getting warmer, probably at the hands of humans. The e-mails did, however, embolden sceptics, who interpreted them as evidence of a global conspiracy. CRU director Phil Jones, who composed most of the more controversial e-mails, has stepped aside while an independent panel investigates.

The Moon was found to be damp

A decades-long debate has been resolved: water ice can accumulate in frigid craters on the Moon. On 9 October the rocket booster of NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) slammed into a lunar crater that receives no sunlight, kicking up a plume of dust that was disappointing to spectators but exciting for scientists. Just before LCROSS crashed, its instruments detected water in the dust, suggesting that vapour had frozen into the crater floor. Other spectra hinted at other molecules, such as carbon dioxide, mercury and methane. Researchers hope to explore the ice for clues about the Solar System's history.

Obama boosted US science

Credit: MCNAMEE/GETTY

"We will restore science to its rightful place," said US President Barack Obama in his inaugural address in January. On 9 March, Obama signed a memo supporting scientific integrity in federal decision-making and an executive order lifting the prior administration's limits on human embryonic stem-cell research. The latter move greatly expanded the number of cell lines eligible for federal funding for research, and by mid-December, 40 such lines had been approved. Obama has also appointed top scientists to key positions, including physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy (see page 978), physicist and climate expert John Holdren as science adviser and marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Science weathered the recession

The global economic downturn forced tough choices on research funding. Crashing endowments struck top institutions such as Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which halted construction on a new science complex, and California's formidable budget deficit drove its state university system to force faculty members to take unpaid leave. But some governments, seeing research as a driver of the economy, made significant efforts to bolster basic science. The US Congress awarded $21 billion in stimulus funding to research. German chancellor Angela Merkel signed off on €18 billion (US$26 billion) over the next decade to universities and research organizations. French president Nicolas Sarkozy promised to spend €19 billion on research and higher education. And Japan allocated ¥1.6 trillion ($18 billion) for low-carbon technologies. But rich countries looked out for their own: much of African science is hurting after foreign investment and donor funding were slashed.

Japanese science got budget whiplash

Japan's first new government in five decades jolted scientists to attention. In November, a cabinet-level working group chaired by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama recommended slashing funding for many prominent science projects, including the SPring-8 synchrotron in Harima, the country's deep-sea-drilling programme and a supercomputer at RIKEN, which would become the world's fastest. Leading Japanese researchers and Nobel laureates rallied the scientific community and appealed to Hatoyama, and in December the country's highest science-policy-making body proposed continued support for the projects. Final budget decisions will be announced by the end of the year.

Climate negotiations faltered

The warmest decade on record concluded with the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, where international climate negotiators failed to craft a treaty to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (see page 966). Deep fissures remained between developing nations, which will probably be affected most by global warming, and developed nations, which have historically emitted the lion's share of greenhouse gases. However, both sides offered some concessions. Rich nations pledged to speed up the delivery of clean-energy technology to the developing world, and developing nations such as Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and South Africa promised major emissions cuts.

Plagiarism scandal hit Iranian ministers

A series of Nature investigations uncovered plagiarism in papers co-authored by high-level officials in Iran. Science minister Kamran Daneshjou, who oversaw the disputed June presidential election, and transport minister Hamid Behbahani, among others, were co-authors on multiple plagiarized papers, most of which have now been retracted by the journals involved.

US human spaceflight was in limbo

Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA may have to lower its ambitions. A commission headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine concluded that the US human-space-flight programme has nowhere near sufficient resources to meet the goals laid out by former US President George W. Bush, including returning to the Moon by 2020 using the next-generation Ares rocket (pictured). Under the agency's current budget, the panel said, astronauts won't even make it beyond low Earth orbit. The report suggested tabling the Moon mission, increasing the role of the private sector and extending the life of the International Space Station, which NASA had planned to abandon in 2015. President Barack Obama met with NASA administrator Charles Bolden on 16 December to discuss the agency's goals, and is expected to announce a decision soon.

They said it …

"It's sort of sad isn't it that you criticize government policy and you get sacked?"

Psychopharmacologist David Nutt after being dismissed from the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He had advised that alcohol is more harmful than both ecstasy and cannabis.

Source: Nature News

"I think the population is losing half of the human brain power by not encouraging women to go into the sciences."

Chemistry Nobel prizewinner Ada Yonath, in what turned out to be a record year for women winning the prize: five took the award.

Source: AFP

"I have two passions. Space exploration and hip hop."

Buzz Aldrin, who made the hip hop video Rocket Experience in the year of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings.

Source: http://buzzaldrin.com

"In England there has been almost a fashion recently for suing scientists for libel."

Journalist Simon Singh, who was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, has become the focus of a campaign to keep UK libel law from stifling scientific debate.

Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

"A high level of serious hysteria."

Physicist Gordon Kane describes a workshop on a mysterious dark-matter signal (see page 967). The signal was "inconclusive, sadly".

Source: New York Times

"The bird escaped unharmed but lost its bread."

CERN statement after the Large Hadron Collider had an electrical short circuit when a bird dropped a bit of baguette.

Source: CERN

"I don't want to use a word like 'breakthrough', but I don't think there's any doubt that this is a very important result."

Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci on a clinical trial that combined two failed HIV vaccine candidates to produce a moderate result.

Source: New York Times

"I'd like to go back to studying cancer epidemiology and aetiology. They're my thing."

Health researcher and former prostitute Brooke Magnanti discusses her future after 'outing' herself as author of the famous sex blog Belle de Jour.

Source: Times Online

"We didn't pay 37 million zlotys ($11 million) for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there."

Michal Grzes, a councillor in Poznań, Poland, protests that 'Ninio the gay elephant' will not help the zoo's breeding programme.

Source: Reuters

"Darwin was wrong."

This cover line in New Scientist magazine, in an issue marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, caused much ire.

"I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate."

Gary Goodyear, Canada's minister of state for science and technology, declining to answer the question 'do you believe in evolution?'. His rationale triggered much criticism.

Source: Globe and Mail

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Buchen, L. News 2009. Nature 462, 962–963 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/462962a

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