Science news highlights of 2012

Higgs boson Physicists announced that they had finally cornered the Higgs in July

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The year in science news was dominated by the discovery of the Higgs boson, ending a 50-year search for the keystone in our best theory of physics.

But 2012 was also marked by the arrival of a one-tonne rover on the surface of Mars, a record low for Arctic sea ice and - of course - a crab called Hasselhoff.

BBC News website science editor Paul Rincon looks back at an eventful year in science and the environment.

January
Roku, Hybrid rhesus monkey The monkeys' cells are derived from more than one embryo

Chimero, Roku (pictured right) and Hex, were unveiled by scientists as the first monkeys composed of cells taken from separate embryos. Such animals, which contain genetically distinct groups of cells from more than one organism, are called "chimeras". They could help the effort to move stem cell therapies from the lab into clinics.

January also saw the discovery by UK scientists of a hairy-chested crab species dubbed "The Hoff" in honour of frequently shirtless US actor David Hasselhoff. The Baywatch star seemed to approve, tweeting: "It used to be a bad thing to have crabs!" He was not the only public figure to receive such an honour in 2012: a new species of fish and an extinct lizard were both named after President Barack Obama.

February

In late 2011, the Opera experiment in Italy reported what might have been the biggest physics story of the past century: it had witnessed particles called neutrinos apparently travelling faster than the speed of light.

But in February, the team found two problems that could have affected their test, eventually narrowing the culprit down to a faulty cable. The affair led to the resignation of Opera's chief scientist several months later.

March
GM protester Anti-GM protesters were met by a police line when they gathered at the site of wheat trials

Nasa's Messenger probe found tantalising evidence for the existence of water-ice at the poles of Mercury. Despite surface temperatures that can soar above 400C, some craters at Mercury's poles are permanently in shadow, creating cold traps where water could stay frozen.

The UK also saw its first experiments with wheat genetically modified to repel aphids get underway. However, the trials in Hertfordshire became a target for anti-GM protestors who marched on the site in May.

April

In a year when physicists were focussed on the search for the Higgs, scientists announced that they had possibly glimpsed another elusive building block of the Universe known as the Majorana fermion - which is its own antimatter particle.

It has been suggested that these particles might play a role in the mystery of the Universe's "missing mass", which is known to exist because of its gravitational influence on the "stuff" we can see.

May

A piece of space history was made in May, as the Dragon capsule, built by California-based firm SpaceX, made the first cargo delivery to the space station by a private company.

Meanwhile, researchers in Switzerland were able to get paralysed laboratory rats to walk again by injecting chemicals into their spinal cords and then stimulating them with electricity. And scientists behind the sequencing of the tomato genome said their work could lead to tastier varieties within five years.

June
Transit of Venus We won't see an event like this for another 105 years

The planet Venus made a rare trek across the face of the Sun as seen from our planet. Skywatchers across the world turned out to witness the astronomical event, which will not be repeated for another 105 years.

It had been just 20 years since the last Rio summit, but the gap between ambition and reality at the UN's 2012 sustainable development meeting was unbridgeable. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on governments to eliminate world hunger and there were pledges on issues such as clean energy. But other politicians and campaigners branded the summit declaration "a failure of leadership".

July

Almost half a century after the idea was conceived, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of a particle consistent with the elusive Higgs boson, which explains why all other particles have mass. Peter Higgs, after whom the particle was named, was at Cern to hear the announcement. He commented: "It's really an incredible thing that it's happened in my lifetime."

London staged the Olympics in July, with a declaration that its Olympic doping lab was the most high-tech ever. But some questioned whether it was time to redefine what's meant by doping and performance enhancement. There was also the revelation that a third of paralympic athletes with spinal injuries could be harming themselves to boost performance.

August
Neil Armstrong Mr Armstrong's family paid tribute to his "boyhood wonder" at the pursuits of aviation and spaceflight

Nasa's huge Curiosity rover survived the seven minutes of terror it takes to land on Mars. The agency used a hovering, rocket-powered crane to lower Curiosity to the ground on nylon cords.

August was also the month that a towering figure in spaceflight was mourned. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, died from complications following heart surgery several weeks earlier. After touching down on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969, Armstrong famously described the event as "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind". President Obama paid tribute to one of the great American heroes "not just of his time, but of all time".

September
Curiosity rover In September, Curiosity turned up evidence of an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater

After breaking the previous record low in August, sea ice in the Arctic reached its minimum extent since satellite records began in September. The ice bottomed out at 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq mi) - 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average.

And an international team of scientists published the most detailed analysis to date of human genome function. Their findings suggest that a far larger chunk of our genetic code is biologically active than was previously thought.

September also saw the first licence issued allowing farmers to shoot badgers in England. The government later announced that it would delay the cull until summer 2013, amid protests.

October
Felix Baumgartner Mr Baumgartner also set the record for the highest ever freefall

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner became the first skydiver to fall faster than the speed of sound. But on the way down the skydiver went into a potentially dangerous flat spin. Fortunately, Baumgartner was able to steady himself before pulling the parachute cord and coasting into the record books.

The Nobels are the most prestigious prizes in the science world, awarded for physics, chemistry and medicine. One of the recipients of this year's medicine prize, Prof John Gurdon, relished the story of a poor school report by his biology teacher, who branded his scientific ambitions as "a waste of time".

November

The most definitive assessment so far of the contribution of global sea-level rise from melting at the poles showed that ice sheets have added 11mm to global sea levels over the past two decades.

In November, a large tanker carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) set off to become the first ship of its type to sail across the Arctic. The owners said that changing climate conditions and a volatile gas market make the Arctic transit profitable.

December

The UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar, established that rich nations should move towards compensating poor nations for losses due to climate change. But environmental campaigners condemned the talks for failing to agree meaningful action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

December was also marked by the passing of a giant in broadcasting. Sir Patrick Moore, who presented the BBC's Sky at Night programme for 50 years, died aged 89 at his home in Selsey, West Sussex. Astronomer Marek Kukula said that "his impact on the world of professional astronomy as well as amateur is hard to overstate".

Paul.Rincon-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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