Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Top 25 Scientific Breakthroughs

In 1982, a human genome was a science-fiction fantasy and the space shuttle was state-of-the-art science. The field of science has stretched ever-more widely into everyday life since then, bringing us cellphones, web browsing and the promise of a biotechnology bonanza.

With help from long-time science observers, USA TODAY's Dan Vergano counts down the 25 top milestones.

1 Accelerating universe (1998)

Exploding stars, receding at an ever-faster pace, stunned scientists by showing that an anti-gravity effect is relentlessly expanding the universe. This expansion still defies explanation.

2 Human genome (1999)

Competing public and private teams declared victory in mapping human DNA’s 24,000 or so genes, ushering in a coming era of gene-based medicine.


3 Climate accord (2001-2007)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change went from finding global warming “very likely” to “unequivocal,” a view that coincides with growing public acceptance.


4 Hubble launched (1990)

The Hubble space telescope overcame early mirror distortions to become astronomy’s most productive observatory and a symbol of scientific achievement.

5 Big Bang fingerprinted (1992)

NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) probe mapped the fiery Big Bang’s aftermath, detecting hot spots in the early universe that coalesced into galaxies.

Mike Groll, AP

6 DNA fingerprinting (1985)

Sir Alec Jeffreys at the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester announced a method of identifying individuals based only on their DNA, now a fundamental forensics tool. Made famous by television’s CSI series, DNA fingerprinting has been used to imprison many convicts, and free others, raising questions about the justice system in its wake.


7 Hello Dolly! (1996)

Ian Wilmut of Scotland’s Roslin Institute led the team behind the birth of the first cloned mammal, a sheep named Dolly, preceding horses, bulls, dogs and others.

8 Worldwide Web (1989)

Physicist Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland unveils a method to link pages through the Internet as a way to share research. And now everything else.


9 Ozone unmasked (1987)

High over Antarctica, NASA scientists confirmed that chlorofluorocarbons — aerosols and refrigerants — were eating stratospheric ozone; a ban promises recovery for this layer of protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

AFP/Getty Images

10 Extrasolar planets (1995)

Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz report the first detection of a planet, named 51 Pegasi B, orbiting a nearby sun-like star. Over 200 “exoplanets” are now known, including one found in a nearby star’s “habitable” zone.

Martin Oeser, AFP/Getty Images

11 RNA interference (1998)

Working with worms, biologists Andrew Fire and Craig Mello report how RNA can selectively shut down genes, a dazzling research and medical tool.

12 Top quark detected (1995)

Atom-smashing physicists at Fermilab, a federal research facility, detect the top quark, a long-sought sub-atomic particle. Confirmation of its existence cements the modern understanding of the structure of matter.

Miami Science Museum, AP

13 Feathered dino found (1992)

U.S. and Chinese researchers find the remains of the first of many feathered-dinosaur fossils, confirming growing paleontological perception that birds are in fact, descended from dinosaurs.


14 Pluto dethroned (2006)

The discovery of Eris, a frozen world larger and farther away than Pluto, spurs the International Astronomical Union to disown the ninth planet.


15 Embryonic stem cells (1997)

A University of Wisconsin team first isolates human embryonic stem cells, master cells that may one day be used to create rejection-free transplant tissues. Destruction of embryos to harvest the cells remains controversial.


16 Water on Mars (2000-2004)

Spurred by a Martian meteorite that might hold fossil bacteria, NASA revs up its Mars program, with satellite images and the rover, Opportunity, finding that salty seas once sat on the Red Planet.


17 Oldest hominid (1994)

A 4.4 million-year-old Ethiopian fossil, Ardipithecus ramidus, presented by a University of California, Berkeley, team, predates all known human species.

Carolyn Kaster, AP

18 Intelligent design suit (2005)

Reaching “the inescapable conclusion that ID (intelligent design) is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science,” federal judge John Jones halts a Dover, Pa., school board’s bid to suggest to science students that an “intelligent designer” created life.

19 Neutrino mass discovered (1998)

Measuring cosmic rays, U.S. and Japanese physicists show that neutrinos — elementary radioactive decay particles — have mass, contradicting a previous belief and offering a surprising hint about a new theory of matter in the universe. The find also spurs searches for leftover neutrinos from the Big Bang.

John McConnico, AP

20 Abrupt climate change (1982-85)

Geologists and paleoclimatologists find evidence that sudden climate shifts, 60-degree temperature jumps and doubling of rainfall in some places, have occurred within the last 600 million years. Some worry manmade global warming will spark similar shifts.


21 Neuroscience explodes (1990-present)

The “Decade of the Brain” premieres new imaging devices that reveal how the brain really works.

22 Quantum teleportation (1998)

European researchers transfer — instantaneously and over distance — one light particle’s characteristics to another, opening a new secure method of communication.

23 Evo devo (1999)

Evidence that evolution alters genes active in infancy to create novel physical structures in species coalesces into a new branch of biology.


24 Golden age of solar astronomy (1996)

The international Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) sun-watching satellites begin operations, opening up solar seismology and space weather forecasting.

Artistic rendering by Peter Schouten via AFP

25 Hobbit discovered (2004)

Still controversial, the discovery on an Indonesian island of Homo floresiensis — an 18,000-year-old, pint-sized human species — by an Indonesian-Australian team stuns paleontologists because of the small brain size of these tool-using hunters.

Source: Compiled and written by William Keck, Karen Thomas, Donna Freydkin, Andrea Mandell, Ann Oldenburg, Lorena Blas, Robyn Abzug and Susan O’Brian. Photo research by Kevin Eans, USA TODAY.


Erik John Bertel said...

The Homo floresiensis find to me is the biggest breakthrough and we’ll know more once the original research team gets back to the caves in Flores and to the other islands. Hard to believe, but their work was halted by the Indonesian government at one point. Why the biggest breakthrough? Because the find questions our uniqueness on this planet. Of course, I have a vested interest in hoping this story has some validity to it, having written a fictional novel on the find. There is more on this ongoing controversy about Homo floresiensis at

Erik John Bertel

carroll atlee hardin cadden said...

Interesting! Obviously, this is USAToday’s take on top-25 issues. More scholarly publications might (would probably?) rank things much differently!


Erik John Bertel said...

This find forces us to ask the question, can we truly separate what we call humanity from our hominid relatives? At what point is a human relative considered a human, commiserate with all the rights and privileges of human? What about a close human species, such as the newly discovered Homo floresiensis? Do we call them animals? Just where in the chain of evolution does a human become human? Or maybe we are talking shades of gray, that we share more with cousins than we want to admit, that we are not separate from our animal relatives, and therefore not unique to God. Yes, we do treat the primates worse than our own, hell we still butcher chimps for food but really what difference does it make if we cannot treat one another with respect?