The six most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014

 
Sarah Spickernell
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How did our galaxy form? This is one of the questions scientists helped answer in 2014 (Source: Getty)
From medicine to space exploration and the history of life on Earth, almost every aspect of science has been touched by an important discovery this year.
New ways have been developed for treating some of the world's deadliest diseases, while physicists have delved even deeper into the subatomic world to enhance our understanding of the most basic building blocks of life.
Only last month, researchers at the European Space Agency landed a spacecraft on a comet as it hurtled through space – a first for humankind
But of all the achievements made, it is these six that top of our list of the best, biggest and most important scientific discoveries in 2014.

1. COMET LANDING

A close-up view of the comet (Source: ESA)

Scientists landed a spacecraft on a comet for the first time ever in November, thanks to the European Space Agency and its Rosetta spacecraft.

After spending the last ten years travelling through the solar system to get ready for this moment, Rosetta finally touched down its philae, or landing probe, on on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The moment led to many sighs of relief at the mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany – the project was extremely expensive and there was no guarantee that touch down would work out.
The purpose of the mission is no small piece of scientific research. Named after the code-breaking Rosetta stone which helped archaeologists decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 1800s, it is hoped Rosetta will translate some of the secrets of the universe into explanations for the origin of comets, the solar system and possibly even of life on Earth.
It will spend the next year following the comet as it hurtles towards the sun, catching and analysing debris in order to determine the composition.

2. NEW SUBATOMIC PARTICLE

The particle was discovered at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (Source: Getty)

While it's name might sound boring, particle meson Ds3*(2860)'s existence could help us understand how the most fundamental particles in our universe are formed.
Discovered by scientists analysing data collected at CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the subatomic particle is thought to hold explanations for the natural forces that bind the nuclei of atoms.
In October, over 800 authors teamed up to release their findings of the meson Ds3*(2860), and the research now taking place is expected to “transform our understanding” of the strong interaction – the fundamental force found within the protons of an atom's nucleus.

3. AN ENZYME THAT CAN EDIT OUR GENES

Editing DNA is a controversial topic (Source: Getty)

It's one of the most divisive subjects in science – should humans be able to edit the genes of other humans? There are clear medical benefits of being able to do this, the main one being that people with genetically-linked disease could be cured.
On the other hand, some people fear the power this will place in human beings' hands. People might be able to design their babies exactly according to how they want them, for example, which could be viewed as “playing God”.
Nonetheless, the American scientist who invented a new gene-editing software called CRISPR/Cas9 has been praised for her contribution to the field of genetics, and there is speculation that she may receive a Nobel Prize.
By studying a group of bacterial enzymes, Jennifer Doudna found that each had a short template inside that could attach to a specific string of letters in viral DNA. She considered whether she could modify the template to recognize any DNA sequence, including those found in humans.
This led to the invention of CRISPR/Cas9, which is not just able to recognize a human DNA sequence – it can modify it, too.

4. BIG BANG COSMIC BACKGROUND RADIATION

If the big bang happened, there must be cosmic background radiation (Source: Getty)

The big bang: it is supposedly the cause of our existence, the scientific explanation for everything that is and everything that isn't.
One of the concepts at the heart of the big bang theory is that of cosmic inflation, which says that the universe experienced exponential growth in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of existence, and that it has continued to expand ever since.
To test out the theory out, a group of scientists went to the south pole on a mission called the BICEP2 collaboration, where they used a telescope to detect the oldest light that can be observed from anywhere in the world.
If cosmic inflation is indeed how the universe started, it means that there must be cosmic background radiation in the sky: waves of gravitational energy that offer clues about what happened in the ancient past.
Earlier this year, the scientists said that they had found the signal they had been looking for: a pattern in the sky, caused by radiation, which was indicative of cosmic inflation.
There has since been some doubt over the validity of the results and the method used to them, but research is ongoing.

5. CANCER VACCINE

The amount of vaccine used would normally be able to protect ten million people against measles (Source: Getty)

In May, researchers at the Mayo clinic in America managed to cure a woman of what was, up to that point, considered to be an incurable form of blood cancer.

How? By giving her a huge dose of measles viral vaccine. So high was the concentration of the virus in the sample that it could be used to protect ten million people from measles.
Soon afterwards, doctors found that her body was completely free of the cancer that had seemed like it would end her life prematurely. The lead researcher, Stephen Russell, described it as a “landmark”.
“We've known for a long time that we can give a virus intravenously and destroy metastatic cancer in mice. Nobody's shown that you can do that in people before,” he said.
So, if one virus-based vaccine can cure one type of cancer, it's likely that there's more in store for this therapy in the battle against cancer.

6. NEW BIGGEST DINOSAUR

Dinosaurs have intrigued humans since their bones were first discovered (Source: Getty)

Huge, terrifying and a world away from anything found on Earth today, it's no wonder that dinosaurs have fascinated humans since their bones were first unearthed.

That's why the discovery of the Dreadnoughtus schrani – now thought to be the biggest dinosaur to have ever lived – is so important.

Weighing 59.3 metric tonnes and stretching 26 metres from head to tail, the Dreadnoughtus would have dwarfed the terrifying T. Rex.

The 77 million-year-old skeleton was unearthed nine years ago by an excavation team working in Patagonia, Argentina, but it took the team quite a while to analyse the skeleton because there were so many different parts to look at.

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports in August, the dinosaur was described as "the largest land animal discovered for which a body mass can be calculated."

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