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11 scientific twists from 2011

Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images

Visitors watch an on-screen presentation at the "Universe of Particles" exhibition at CERN, where physicists are trying to track down the Higgs boson as well as faster-than-light neutrinos.

The past year brought us the supercomputer that trounced flesh-and-blood champions on the "Jeopardy" TV show ... genetic discoveries that showed us the tangles in humanity's family tree ... a tsunami that shouldn't have been as catastrophic as it was ... and neutrinos that shouldn't be going as fast as they seem to. Which scientific twist of 2011 do you find most intriguing? Now's the time to cast your vote for the top science story of 2011.

This year's crop of top stories is trickier than usual because they cross so many lines. I've pared them down to a list of 11, but the only reason I'm able to do that is because of the way the lines are being drawn. I've already touched on two of the biggest science stories of 2011 in our "Year in Space" roundup: the end of the space shuttle era and the avalanche of extrasolar planets. Our "Ancient Mysteries" roundup casts a spotlight on the big stories in archaeology, anthropology and paleontology. I'm also leaving out some big stories with technology angles, such as the Arab Spring protests and the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

So what's left? In this list, I'm stressing the twists in science and technology that go against expectations — or set up great expectations for the year ahead. I'm also including some personal favorites that you can feel free to quibble over. Check out this chronological list, review the details by clicking on the links, then cast your vote for the year's top science story:


Japan hit by quake, tsunami, nuclear crisis: The magnitude-8.9 quake that hit Japan in March qualifies as a top story on any scale, but the safety gaps at the Fukushima nuclear facility showed scientifically how nature can confound engineers' best-laid plans. It was just this month that Japan's prime minister announced the facility was in a stable state of "cold shutdown." Fukushima may be an albatross around the neck of the nuclear power industry for years to come. Or maybe not. Check out "After the Wave," msnbc.com's special report about the earthquake's aftermath. 

AIDS virus on the run? An international study finds that people who take antiretroviral drugs — medicine that weakens the HIV virus that causes AIDS — not only benefit from treatment but are far less likely to infect their sexual partners. The finding was so remarkable that the results were made public four years early, and last week the editors of the journal Science hailed it as the year's top breakthrough.

Climate highs and lows: This month, a U.N. climate conference reached agreement on a new plan to control greenhouse-gas emissions, but it's not clear whether the plan will pay off. Meanwhile, a former climate skeptic says he no longer doubts the reality of global warming, the climate issue creates a controversy on the GOP campaign trail, "Climategate 2.0" fails to gain traction, and Arctic sea ice is close to record lows.  

Goodbye, Tevatron ... hello, Higgs boson? After 28 years of service, the Tevatron collider was shut down in Illinois in September, leaving the Large Hadron Collider as the only experiment hunting for the elusive Higgs boson. Discovery of that particle could show scientists how mass arose in the universe. Researchers at the LHC suspect that they've got the subatomic bugger cornered, but the actual discovery (or determination that it doesn't exist after all) will have to wait until next year.

Faster-than-light neutrinos? Physicists at CERN and Italy's Gran Sasso laboratory say they've clocked bunches of neutrinos traveling between the two labs at a speed that's just a bit faster than the speed of light — something that relativity theory contends should be impossible. Most observers are confident that the claim will be proven wrong in 2012, due to some sort of experimental error. But a rerun of the test in November, under somewhat different conditions, came up with the same result. Stay tuned...

Watson wins on 'Jeopardy': IBM programmed a supercomputer named Watson to dominate the "Jeopardy" TV trivia game, and dominate it did. The point of the exercise wasn't to win the $1 million prize, which was donated to charity; rather, the technology behind Watson is being applied to medical diagnoses and other applications. We puny humans can take heart in the fact that Watson is not infallible. After all, it thought Toronto was a U.S. city, and it actually lost a game to U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (although, come to think of it, that might have been a political move on Watson's part).

Gamers untangle protein puzzles: Game-playing humans struck back this year by figuring out the molecular structure of a key enzyme in an AIDS-like virus that afflicts rhesus monkeys. The protein-folding achievement, accomplished by the players of an online game called Foldit, served as further evidence that non-scientists can help conduct valuable scientific research through collaborative software. Foldit's game-playing teams even came up with new mathematical algorithms for solving biochemical puzzles more efficiently.

Genetic family tree gets tangled: Late last year, researchers announced that they found genetic twists in our DNA that pointed to a previously unknown branch of our ancient family tree. Some of our ancestors interbred with creatures in Siberia that were not like modern humans or Neanderthals, but were of a distinct strain now known as the Denisovans. This year, geneticists reported that interbreeding with Denisovans and Neanderthals gave a big boost to our ancestors' immune systems. There's also evidence that our ancestors swapped genes with other now-extinct populations even before they left Africa. "Everywhere you look now, we find a little bit of interbreeding," said University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer.

Personalized medicine really works: Scientists have been saying for years that someday we'll all have our entire genomes sequenced, and that genomic analysis will open up a brave new world of personalized medicine. This year, it really happened. Physicians found a flaw in a California teen's genetic code that guided them to prescribe new medication for her bouts of sudden breathlessness. The success story serves as "the leading edge of what will become, pretty soon, a deluge of such reports," said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Heaviest antimatter created: Researchers at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider reported seeing traces of antihelium-4 nuclei, made up of two antiprotons and two antineutrons. These are the heaviest bits of antimatter ever detected on Earth, and that record's likely to stand for a long, long time. Sorry, Dan Brown: The antimatter bomb you wrote about in "Angels & Demons" will have to remain firmly in the realm of fiction.

Fingerpainting at prehistoric preschool: Here's something completely different: Researchers measured the widths of finger marks  to figure out that kids as young as 2 years old exercised their artistry on prehistoric cave walls, with an occasional boost from the grown-ups. It's amazing how archaeology can bring a 13,000-year-old culture to life.

So what am I forgetting? Space-time cloaking devices? New York's new bee species? Remember that I have a whole 'nother list of top stories for space exploration as well as for ancient mysteries, and that I'm putting the Arab Spring and Steve Jobs' death in a different category. Let me know what else is missing by leaving a comment below, and get ready to take a walk on the wild side later this week when it's time to judge the 2012 Weird Science Awards.

More year-end reviews:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.