The beginning of this decade, century, and millennium, kicked off with an event that was horrifying when it was approaching but laughable in hindsight. Y2K, or “Year 2000,” was the name given to a predicted global software malfunction. Experts predicted that computers would cease to function properly at the turn of the millennium because of programming limitations. At the time, most computers stored only the last two digits of calendar years. For example, 1940 was ‘40’ and 1999 was ’99.’ Programmers were unsure whether computers would be “smart” enough to make the transition from “99” to “00.” The idea that a problem would arise due to this limitation was put forth as early as 1984. By the 1990’s, our society was dependent on these machines, so scientists were extremely worried that a global computer malfunction would cause global chaos. People were told that there would be no water, electricity would shut down, the stock market would crash, and experts even advocated pooping in plastic bags should the toilets fail to flush. Some were certainly skeptical, but such bold predictions supported by so many experts certainly aroused some degree of fear in everyone. There were some technical difficulties, but if you recall the first few seconds of 2000, a wave of relief swept across every living room when the lights did not flicker out as clocks across the world turned from ‘99’ to ’00.’ Considering the capacities of computers today and the fact that Y2K didn’t really amount to anything, it’s hard to imagine how we allowed such an idea to instigate so much fear.
If you ask your grandparents, they could tell you exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing on December 7, 1941,
the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. When our grandchildren ask us, we will all be able to tell them exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing on September 11, 2001. Most of us were in elementary school, but that moment, regardless of how ignorant we may have been, changed history. To Americans, 9/11 is unarguably the most important date of the decade. It forever changed the way that we ride airplanes, view terrorists, and treat our freedom. Yet, though it has been over eight years since the attacks, scientists and engineers are still unsure how exactly the world trade centers collapsed. Several conspiracy theories have been put forth, although they all lack strong support. The official explanation, put forth by civil engineers is that the fuel from the airplanes was hot enough to melt the steel in the building, and thus caused the entire structure to collapse. Some, however, do not agree with this theory because the fuel could not have possibly been hot enough to melt the steel in such a small amount of time. A popular theory is that bombs were planted in the World Trade Center prior to the attacks, and were triggered as the building went down. The problem with this theory is that if it’s true, a huge number of people must have been involved in it, and it’s hard to imagine that the secret could have been kept.
1973 was an important year for archeologists and paleontologists all around the world. Lucy, an Australopithecus that dates back to approximately 4.4 million years ago, was discovered in Ethiopia. In 2002, scientists discovered an even older hominid fossil—Sahelanthropus tchadensis, or more commonly known as “Toumai.” Archeologists dug this 7-million-year-old fossil up the Djurab desert of Chad. Because of the fossil’s age, it is unsure whether Toumai belongs in the hominid tree. The fossil possesses both human and chimpanzee characteristics, and the scientific community is not in agreement whether Toumai has any direct relationship with modern humans and whether it should be classified as a hominid or an ape; its discovery, however, is significant nonetheless because it provides paleontologists and archeologists with a subject necessary for closer examination of human evolution.
2003- Human Genome Project (HGP) Completed
The idea of mapping out the entire human genome has been entertained since December 1984. However, the magnitude of this gargantuan project, which included determining the sequence of all the bases of DNA in the human genome, on top of identifying and mapping all the genes both physically and functionally, threatened its feasibility. As there are three billion nitrogenous base pairs, and tens of thousands of genes in a chromosome, this project would take an understandably long time—thirteen years. The venture began in 1990, headed by James D. Watson from the U.S National Institutes of Health, only to be completed in April of 2003 after much effort in several different countries' universities and research centers. Researchers dedicated to the project employed various DNA sequencing techniques to complete this task: the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), Yeast Artificial Chromosomes (YAC), Bacterial Artificial Chromosomes (BAC), Restriction Fragment-Length Polymorphisms (RFLP), and Dideoxyribonucleotide Chain Termination Reaction.
The benefits and applications of the knowledge gained from the completion of this project were predictable from the beginning: leaps in medicine due to an increased role of genetics and a better understanding of the biology of human beings. The HGP and its information provided better prevention, diagnosis, and cures of certain ailments or diseases because researchers could determine how certain genes affected these sicknesses. Researchers were also able to investigate how drugs affect certain disease-related genes through the blocking and stimulation of certain genetic pathways; for example, the drug STI-571 was engineered to block the activity of the bcr-abl gene, which produces a protein when a fusion occurs between chromosomes 9 and 22, causing chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). The HGP revealed that there are around 20,500 human genes: it also determined their locations, structure, and organization. By exactingly cataloguing what information we are composed of, the HGP set down a foundation for research to follow.
2004- Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn
Saturn has always captured humanity's curiosity with its beautiful rings and many moons. On October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens probe was launched to sate some curiosities: to determine the structure and behavior of the rings of Saturn, to determine the composition of moon surfaces and the geological history of each moon, to determine the nature and origin of the dark material on the satellite Iapetus's hemisphere, to measure the structure and behavior of the magnetosphere of Saturn, to study the behavior of Saturn's atmosphere at cloud level, to study how Titan’s atmosphere changes over time, and to roughly map out Titan. The Cassini-Huygens mission was a joint mission between NASA, ESA and ASI; 16 European countries and the U.S. contributed to the designing, building and flying of the probe, which finally went into orbit around Saturn—the first spacecraft to do so—on July 1, 2004, almost seven years after its initial launch.
The mission had already produced various high quality pictures of the Moon, Jupiter, and Phoebe (one of Saturn's moons) on Cassini’s way to Saturn. On October 10, 2003, the Cassini-Huygens team announced the results of their tests of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which were completed by using radio waves that were transmitted from the Cassini-Huygens space probe. Because the Cassini-Huygens space probe's measurements were more refined, they were far more accurate than that of earlier tests by the Viking and Voyager space probes. The data at the end of the experiment supported Einstein’s theory. In 2004 the probe discovered three new moons of Saturn, which were named Methone, Pallene, and Polydeuces in 2005. Other highlights were the various pictures of Titan taken on July 2, 2004 and the separation of the Huygens probe from the Cassini orbitor on December 25, 2004 to reach its destination on January 14, 2005. The mission lasted 4 years, but it has been renewed yet again, proving the boundless potential for the exploration of space.
2005- The Death of Terri Schiavo
On March 31, 2005, a 41-year-old woman died. Even though she was not a celebrity, well-known politician, or anyone remotely famous before hospitalization, she became a figure of national controversy. Terri Schindler Schiavo was hospitalized on February 25, 1990 for respiratory and cardiac arrest: the long period of time without oxygen caused brain damage, leading to her persistent vegetative state (PVS). In June of that year, Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, was given guardianship over her and her property, leading to arguments between Michael Schiavo and Terri's immediate family. Tensions rose in May of 1998 when Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, filed a petition to withdraw life support, claiming that Terri Schiavo would not wish to continue living while in PVS. Terri's parents, on the other hand, believed that Terri was still conscious, and that removing her life support was immoral and wrong. Soon, many more people became heatedly involved in the issue; hundreds of people gathered outside Terri's hospital and at least 180,000 people signed a petition to the Governor of Florida to protest Judge Greer’s October 15, 2003 ruling to remove her food tube. The Florida government even attempted to make "Terri's Law," a law that would allow the Governor to reinstate Terri's nourishment by the permission of an independent guardian, but this law was deemed unconstitutional. The date for life support removal was rescheduled to March 18, 2005, and on March 31, Terri died from severe dehydration.
One of the major issues of Terri's death was whether it was ethical to remove her life support. For some, like her husband Michael, allowing her to die was far better than forcing her to live comatose, inhibited by her own body. However, many others, such as Terri's parents, pro-life supporters, disability righters, and even President Bush and the Pope, compared letting her die to murder, an unnecessary euthanasia that was completely unscrupulous. Terri's family, in response to her death, created the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation to prevent any similar occurrence from happening ever again. The controversy surrounding Terri's death epitomizes the difficult ethical questions in regards to science and technology, similar to abortions and taking stem cells from embryos.
2006- The Demotion of Pluto
In August 2006, after years of debate, a two-year struggle to develop an official definition of “planet”, and a vote by 424 astronomers, Pluto was demoted to the status of dwarf planet. The controversial move incited both fury and approval from astronomers over the globe, and was a source of sorrow for the countless schoolchildren who had favored Pluto the most out of the solar system planets.
Pluto’s status had been under scrutiny since its discovery in 1930, but it was not until Michael Brown of Caltech discovered a new planet, Xena, in 2005, that its planet status became seriously threatened. Like Pluto, Xena had an abundance of ice and rocky terrain, and seemed to have potential to become the 10th planet. Yet its discovery caused astronomers to consider more seriously the true meaning of the term “planet”, especially when the Hubble Space Telescope found that Xena was larger than Pluto the following year.
The new requirements for planet status, approved at a meeting of the International Astronomy Union (IAU) in Prague, were that the object must:
Orbit the sun
Be large enough to have formed a round shape by its own gravitational pull, and
Dominate its celestial neighborhood, with an orbit free of space debris such as comets or asteroids.
Although Pluto indisputably orbits the sun, it is of questionable size – only twice as large as its moon, Charon. Also, unlike its other outer-space neighbors, Pluto's orbit is messy with small solar system bodies (a term included in the definition proposal which refers to bodies in the solar system that are not planets or dwarf planets). Based on these observations and the new definition of planet, the smallest of the nine lost its title of planet.
Although the new definition was established by majority vote, the results were met with outrage. Out of 10,000 professional astronomers in the world, only 424 were allowed to participate in the vote. Some astronomers also felt that the definition, with the subjective term “round”, is ambiguous, and that it neglected the cultural and historical significance of Pluto.
Though some strong opponents to Pluto's demotion may still seethe with anger for the dwarf planet's fate, most have accepted the new solar system order. It appears that the eight planets are here to stay, and that Pluto, unfortunately for its many fans, will not be one of them.
2007- Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore may have lost the 2000 presidential election, but he went on to win an Oscar for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for alerting the world to global warming and its consequences. Key efforts such as the agreements made in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoko Protocol occurred before Gore's film, but it was not until the documentary that the public became aware of the predicament. The impact of his work was felt nearly overnight – suddenly, the media and daily conversations were filled with terms such as “greenhouse gases”, “carbon footprint”, and “climate change”. Talk of polar bear drownings, a surge in category 4 and 5 hurricanes, the melting of the ice caps, and environmentally hazardous fossil fuels became widespread and alarming, and it soon appeared that the entire world was aware of the impending global catastrophe and working hard toward a solution.
The scientific causes of global warming also became common knowledge. Gases in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and water vapor trap heat and reflect light, resulting in an increase in the Earth's temperature as solar energy is retained in the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect normally keeps temperatures on Earth suitable to life, but its radical increase is the reason for global warming. Though some dispute that manmade greenhouse gases caused the 0.9º Fahrenheit rise in average surface temperature since 1880, the 1 º Fahrenheit rise since the 1970s, and the 0.29 º Fahrenheit rate of temperature increase per decade, there is no serious scientific dispute of the general problem of global warming, even after some instances of falsification of research and exaggeration of implications were found. The 2000s were recognized as the hottest decade on record. These temperature changes, which were more extreme at the equator and poles, mean rising sea levels as glaciers and polar ice caps melt and more extreme weather, as well as increased prevalence of certain diseases in new areas and population drops in many animal and plant species as they do not adjust to the changes. Carbon dioxide was marked as the primary culprit of global warming for its exceptional ability to trap heat and hover for centuries in the atmosphere, along with methane. People tried to lighten “carbon footprints” and help to avert climate catastrophe, while nations imposed restrictions on carbon emissions and switched to alternative energy sources.
The battle against global warming is far from over. The Earth continues to warm, and the ice continues to melt. Yet in 2009, eight countries agreed to reduce their carbon emissions by 50% by 2050, while environmentally-friendly products are increasing in popularity and controversies arise over the merits and demerit of some alternative energy sources. This is very much due to Al Gore’s efforts in 2007.
For information on how alternative energy is being used to combat climate change, check out Falconium's Summer 2009 issue.
By Murong He, Michelle Kao, Ling Jing, and Sumana Mahata
2008- Synthetic Life
Yeast is most appreciated as a leavener for bread, but scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute also appreciate it for its ability to assemble large DNA strands. With the help of the versatile yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the Venter Institute was able to create the first synthetic genome, of the Mycoplasma genitalium bacterium, getting closer to creating organisms wholesale. J. Craig Venter, president of the company, remarked that they had completed stage 2 of three of creating synthetic organisms with the assemblage of the 582,970 base-pair genome, which dwarfed the previous record-holder for the longest DNA strand, of 32,000 base pairs.
With the complete bacterium genome, the next step is to insert it into a cell and force it to function as a natural genome, thereby creating a genuinely synthetic organism. If a successful method of doing so is developed, genomes can be manipulated to create artificial organisms that could be manipulated into doing and making many things. Scientists are also working to develop a genome with the minimum amount of genes needed for survival; such a bare-bones organism could then lead to groundbreaking replacements for fossil fuels. Even more ambitious is the goal to develop a synthetic human genome, which could be used to study cloning.
The process of genome synthesis as developed by the Venter Institute scientists began with resequencing of the bacterium genome to ensure they had a correct copy. Then, they chemically assembled 5000-7000 lengths of DNA based on this original genome, marking them as synthetic. Next, these sections were joined together in a five-step assembly process to create longer subassemblies of 24,000 base pairs each, then 72,000 base pairs, then 144,000 base pairs (about 25% of the genome). The scientists then used the process of homologous recombination, a natural method of cell repair, in the yeast to create the final complete genome. This product was then sequenced to ensure accuracy.
The Venter Institute scientists are still at work on stage three of the synthetic organism process, but wholly man-made life could very well appear in the next few years. Shortly after the development of the synthetic bacterium genome, Jim Collins, a biomedical engineering professor at Boston University, expressed his confidence that even genomes containing up to million base pairs could be synthesized. Perhaps synthetic organisms will be present in significant numbers by the end of this decade, or perhaps they will prove more challenging than expected. Either way, the Venter Institute brought the scientific world a significant step closer to the possibility with their accomplishment.
2009- Ardi: The Newest Link to Our Past
For decades, Australopithecus (“Lucy”) was the closest link to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. However, in 2009, paleoanthropologists unearthed an older hominid skeleton that had attributes of both chimps and humans and provided significant clues to solving the mystery of bipedality, or the hominid ability to walk on two legs.
Over many years, a team of excavators in Ethiopia found bits and pieces of a hominid, which they recognized as older than Lucy due to its fragility. To determine the skeleton’s age, scientists collected samples of the rock both above and below the layer in which the skeleton were found and melted them with a laser, releasing argon gas from potassium decay. By measuring the amount of argon trapped in various layers of volcanic ash, it was determined that the fossil, Ardipithecus (“Ardi”), was about 4.4 million years old - the oldest hominid skeleton ever discovered.
After examining specific bones, scientists determined that Ardi had been able to walk upright. A theory explaining bipedality is that males were considered good mates if they were capable of searching for food and carrying it to the mother and young, which was easiest to do with the hands. Although sacrificing two limbs allowed early hominids to attract mates, bipedality also had unfavorable consequences. Bipedality used energy less efficiently and reduced the ability to run and climb rapidly, making it easier for predators to target Ardi. Also, using two legs instead of four created challenges in recovery and mobility after injury; if a leg was to be injured, only one other leg would have been available for use instead of three. Because bipedality was so beneficial to mating and reproductive success, however, the trait survived.
Ardi’s discovery brought us closer to solving the mysteries about our hominid ancestors and how they evolved into humans. In a sense, she has replaced Lucy as the “mother” of the human race.
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