As 2013 draws to an end, a look back reveals a busy year in science. Archaeologists excavated ancient civilizations; rocket scientists explored far-flung corners of the solar system; and physicists peered into the very fabric of reality.
From dinosaurs to viruses to life beneath ancient ice, discoveries abound in the world of science in 2013, making it tricky to highlight just a few. The tales that follow are the ones that perked up the imagination in the past year — and those that offer the promise of intriguing and life-altering discoveries in the year to come.
Read on for the best science stories of 2013.
1. Richard III Rediscovered
Britain’s “king in a car park” was the biggest archaeology story of the year. In February, University of Leicester archaeologists announced that bones found in a hasty grave beneath a parking lot belonged to Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485. The medieval king’s bones bore the scars of the battle that killed him, including eight wounds on his skull. He also had a curved spine, which may have contributed to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as a cruel hunchback.
2. Higgs Boson Confirmed
After months of rumor and speculation, physicists announced in March that they’d really, really done it: They had glimpsed the Higgs boson, sometimes called the “god particle,” which is theorized to explain how other particles get their mass.
Physicists experimenting at the Large Hadron Collider atom smasher on the border of France and Switzerland had first said they’d almost certainly discovered the Higgs in 2012, but they needed to analyze the full year’s data before they could be sure. The analysis left them certain. Continuing work suggests the particle conforms to what was expected from the Standard Model of physics, the main theory that explains particles and their interactions. Read more
3. Oldest Known Human DNA Analyzed
The list of mysteries surrounding the first humans continues to grow. In December, researchers announced their analysis of the oldest human DNA ever found had revealed a mystery human lineage. The DNA might belong to an unknown ancestor, or perhaps to the mysterious Denisovans, an extinct human species known only from a few scraps of bone. [In Photos: Possible New Human Ancestor Found in Spanish Cave]
The DNA came from a hominid thighbone found in Spain that dates back 400,000 years. Before this analysis, the oldest human DNA ever sequenced was 100,000 years old.
4. Billion-Year-Old Water Discovered
Water discovered in a mine 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below the Earth’s surface turned out to be a staggering 2.6 billion years old, researchers announced in May. The pocket, sampled in a mine in Ontario, is older than multicellular life.
Being a good scientist, lead researcher Barbara Sherwood Lollar of the University of Toronto, couldn’t resist a little sip. How does billion-year-old water taste? Terrible, apparently. It’s saltier than seawater with the consistency of light maple syrup, Lollar said in June.
5. Life in Antarctic lake thrives
A massive effort to drill into an iced-over lake in Antarctica paid off this year when scientists announced they’d discovered a life in the frigid waters.
Lake Whillans, first sampled by scientists in January, is home to a thriving community of microbes that eat carbon dioxide, iron, sulfur and ammonia, according to microbiologists. The finding, announced in December, is likely only the first volley of news from the lake. Scientists are still searching the water samples for signs of single-celled animal life, and they hope to drill beneath the ice again during the next Antarctic summer. [Antarctic Album: Drilling Into Subglacial Lake Whillans]
6. New T. rex relative found
Eighty million years ago, a narrow-snouted T. rex relative roamed Laramidia, an island continent created by an interior seaway that split North America in two. This year, scientists announced the discovery of this ancient beast, dubbed Lythronax argestes, in Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
The dinosaur is closely related to T. rex, despite more than 10 million years separating the two. The close relationship suggests the tyrannosaurid lineage split earlier than believed, paleontologists said. Thus, there may be many tyrannosaurus missing links awaiting discovery.
7. BRAIN initiative mapped
An ambitious plan to map the human brain came into focus in 2013. The National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is set to begin in the upcoming year. The goal is to improve understanding of brain circuitry, an achievement that scientists hope will lead to better treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
President Barack Obama announced the project in April. Planning is underway, and $232 million of government and private money has been pledged to the initiative, as of November. In December, the NIH announced six funding opportunities for scientists working to develop tools to map the brain. A long-term funding plan is expected in June 2014.
10. Coldest place on Earth pinpointed
Back on Earth, scientists found the most frigid spot on the planet. Unsurprisingly, it’s on Antarctica, between two summits on the East Antarctic Plateau.
Spots along a high ice ridge between Dome Argus and Dome Fuji regularly get down to a teeth-chattering minus 136 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 93.2 degrees Celsius), according to detailed satellite measurements. The coldest temperatures were measured on Aug. 10, 2010, when the snow on the surface in these spots was colder than dry ice.