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Decade of science highs and lows

From left: NASA, Seoul National Univ., CERN
The milestones of the past decade in space and science include the 2003

Columbia tragedy, stem cell research and the debut of the Large Hadron Collider.

Some may call the decade that's ending the "aughts" or the "noughties," but you could also think of the 2000-2009 time frame as the double-oh decade. In the world of science, the past 10 years have brought us plenty of "Oh! Oh!" moments – and a few uh-ohs as well. In honor of the decade's denouement, we present a triple scoop of scientific highlights.

First up is our own list of the top 10 science stories of the decade, stretching from the unveiling of the human genome in 2001 to this year's revelations about water ice on the moon.

Between those bookends is the decade's biggest scientific downer: the catastrophic breakup of the shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven astronauts aboard and forced a two-year suspension of shuttle flights. It's ironic that Columbia's flight in 2003 was the last human spaceflight mission totally devoted to scientific research.

The Columbia tragedy also nearly led to the doom of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is one of the greatest scientific instruments to come around in the last couple of decades. NASA initially decided mounting a mission to upgrade Hubble one last time was too risky.

After some pressure from the politicians and the public, as well as a big personnel change at the space agency, the Hubble servicing mission was put back on the schedule. This year, astronauts on the shuttle Atlantis paid Hubble a final visit and spruced up the space telescope, ensuring that the "Oh! Oh!" moments will continue long after its 20th birthday next April.

Check out the top-10 timeline for more key moments - including the Mars rovers' landings, SpaceShipOne's flight, intelligent design's fall from grace, 2007's climate change Nobel and the ups and downs of the Large Hadron Collider.

Here's a slightly different top-nine roundup, which is part of the 50-year science timeline drawn up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing next year. These highlights start and end the same way, but the difference is that the entries in between focus more on the research than the headlines. 


42. Human genome decoded: The publicly funded Human Genome Project and privately funded Celera Genomics simultaneously publish the first working drafts of human genome in the journals Nature and Science, respectively. The genomic code was refined in succeeding years, providing a rich resource for studying the genetic origins of disease as well as tracing linkages in evolutionary biology.

43. Age of the universe: Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Boomerang balloon flight and other data, astronomers determine the age of the universe to be 13.7 billion years — an estimate further refined by data from the space-based Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

44. Targeted cancer therapy: The Food and Drug Administration approves imatinib, marketed under the name Gleevec, as the first in a class of drugs that target the chemical mechanism behind the spread of cancer.


45. Titan revealed: Europe's Huygens lander descends through the smoggy atmosphere of the Saturnian moon Titan and sends back the first pictures of Titan's hydrocarbon rivers as well as its icy and possibly tarry surface. Huygens rode to Titan aboard the international Cassini orbiter, which continued to study Saturn and its moons. Another highlight of the Cassini mission was its observations of Enceladus' geysers of water ice, which led scientists to suggest the ice-covered moon possessed a subsurface liquid ocean and perhaps marine life forms as well.

46. Planets realigned: Astronomers discover an icy world in the Kuiper belt that is larger than Pluto, forcing the International Astronomical Union to draw up a much-debated definition of the term "planet" a year later. The definition reclassified Pluto and the newfound world (later named Eris) as dwarf planets, distinct from the solar system's eight major planets.

47. T. rex tissue: Paleontologists recover soft tissue from within the fossilized bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex, upending assumptions about the limits of fossil preservation. Analysis of the tissue turns up the signature of proteins similar to those found in the bones of chickens and ostriches, solidifying the linkage between dinosaurs and present-day birds.


48. Invisibility shield: Building on a formula proposed a year earlier, two teams of researchers announce the creation of "cloaking devices" that can cancel out the radiation reflected by an object and shield it from detection. Such devices are not as all-concealing as Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility, however. They are made from metamaterials that must be tailored for specific wavelengths and dimensions.


49. Tasting Martian water: NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander touches down in Mars' north polar region and samples the planet's water ice for the first time. Mission scientists say images of the probe's own lander legs appear to show droplets of liquid water stirred up during the landing. Phoenix's findings furnish the latest chapter in the decades-long scientific assessment of Mars' potential for life in ancient times.


50. Water on the moon: NASA sends a probe called Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, crashing into the moon. Weeks later, scientists report that an analysis of the impact debris confirms the existence of "significant" reserves of water ice. The mission followed up on indications from earlier probes (Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Chandrayaan 1, Cassini) and even from Apollo lunar samples. Some speculated that the findings could lead to a fresh round of lunar missions, but as the decade came to a close, NASA's plans for future exploration were still under review at the White House.

For the rest of the 50-year timeline, you can revisit the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s separately, or see them all together on CASW's Web site.

Here are five more "Oh! Oh!" and "uh-oh" moments that are worth mentioning in a 10-year science review:

Oh! Oh! The International Space Station! The first expedition crew moves into the space station on Nov. 2, 2000, marking the beginning of full-time habitation that has continued for almost 10 years. The crew receives its first paying passenger in 2001 when millionaire investor Dennis Tito comes aboard. Six more have visited since then.

Uh-oh! Physics fraud! German physicist Jan Hendrik Schon publishes a flurry of papers on nanotechnology and molecular electronics early in the decade, but other physicists question his results. In 2002, a committee at Bell Labs, where he worked, finds that data sets had been fudged and reused. The affair set off a high-profile debate over scientific fraud. By 2003, more than 20 of his papers have been withdrawn.

Oh! Oh! The speech gene! In 2002, researchers identify a gene known as FOXP2 that plays a key role in human speech. The discovery kicks off a series of studies linking genetics with milestones in human evolution. A later study suggests that Neanderthals carried the gene as well and may have been capable of speech.

Uh-oh! Stem cell fraud! In 2004, South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk claims that his lab extracted embryonic stem cells from cloned human cells, and he later reports that the resulting cells could produce tissue genetically matched to specific patients. The experiments couldn't be duplicated, however, and investigators determine that the findings were faked. Hwang left his job in disgrace, and this year he was convicted on charges of embezzlement and other crimes connected to the scandal.

Oh! Oh! Cell reprogramming! There is happier news on the stem cell front in 2007, when two teams of researchers announce that they can create cells as versatile as embryonic stem cells from ordinary adult cells, without having to use human embryos. Studies conducted since then have borne out researchers' hopes that the cells will be useful for medical research.

Now let's move on to the decade ahead: Dust off your crystal ball and tell us what scientific, technological and medical advances you see coming down the road in the next 10 years. If you think we've left any double-oh scientific highlights off our lists, let us know. Just leave a comment below, and we'll gather up a selection of your comments for a follow-up post.

Next week, we'll roll out the last of our year-end science roundups: the Year in Space and the Weird Science Awards.

Update for 8:50 p.m. ET Dec. 18: German science writer Daniel Fischer raises an interesting point in a Twitter update: "Why all those 'decade' reviews now? Since the 3rd millennium began in 2001, its 1st decade ends only on 31 December 2010." The answer is relatively simple: We're not talking about the first 10 years of the third millennium or the 21st century (which would get into that "no year zero" mess). We're talking about the 2000s (or the double-oh decade, if you prefer) in the same sense that we talk about the 1960s or the 1990s. The 1990s ended on Dec. 31, 1999. Similarly, the double-ohs end on Dec. 31, 2009.

Update for 5 p.m. ET Dec. 19: Bill Ralston writes: "Why isn't the falsification of data on alleged global warming one of the top 'uh-oh' stories?  For crying out loud - we just had a global conference agree to spend billions of dollars on a 'problem' based on fudged data!" That is definitely an "uh-oh" moment, showing how even scientists resort to spin control in order to squelch rivals. The hacked e-mails show how data can be massaged to support the desired story. That doesn't mean the underlying story of climate change isn't true, but it does mean climatologists will have to work harder to earn the trust of politicians and the public. My favorite Web site for this kind of debate is Folks on the other side of the question will no doubt have their own favorite resources, and I'm glad to pass them along as comments.

The 50-year timeline was prepared in consultation with CASW's board, of which I am a member. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."