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2009 Was a Solid Year in Science

Some of the hottest papers in science didn't make headlines, says David Pendlebury of Thomson-Reuters, the news and business information firm based in New York, whose analyses regularly appear on the Science Watch website.

Tops in being cited by other scientists in references made in their own papers, for example, was a 5-year Astronomical Journal survey by NASA's 2001 WMAP space probe of the cosmic microwave background, the relic glow from the period a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago, when the cosmos cooled enough to form atoms.

Also unheralded by news reports: Materials science advances in iron superconductors and graphene, single-atom thick sheets of carbon shown to act as high-speed transistors, were highly-cited by researchers.

"It was a very solid year for science," Coontz added, looking back at 2009. "We're hoping next year will be even better."Swine flu made headlines and a climate change conference capped the year in 2009. Science mattered more than ever this year, alongside the news of wars, politics and natural disasters. Scientific research scored headlines with news in human origins, space science and synthetic biology, or man-made life.


Remains of Ardi, a 110-pound female, were first discovered in 1994 and have been analyzed ever since by an international team led by Tim White of the University of California-Berkeley. The remains suggest that humanity's ancestors may have looked less chimplike than once supposed.

Instead, the research suggests that the common ancestor of humans and chimps was a walking forest forager. Ardi herself was a "careful climber" of trees, small-brained and flat-footed.T. rex discoveries(AT)

For a critter dead 65 million years, T. rex had a pretty good year as relatives turned up in study results almost weekly. In September, researchers led by Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago reported discovery of Raptorex kriegsteini, a pocket-sized tyrannosaur from 125 million years ago. A peculiar horned tyrannosaur about 70 million years old, Alioramus altai, was announced in October.

And in December, a team led by Sterling Nesbitt of the American Museum of Natural History in New York unveiled Tawa hallae, a 6.5-foot-long precursor to T. rex from 215 million years ago.

Darwin anniversary...

The science world celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth this year with widespread Darwin Day events. Many involved reading from his 150-year-old book, On the Origin of Species, which made famous evolution's central principle, natural selection. Scientists have increasingly used their knowledge of genes, the mechanism for transfer of traits across generations, to find how natural selection works, say researchers including University of Wisconsin biologist Sean Carroll, author of Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species.

Creating life from scratch took a leap forward in 2009. Scientists led by Harvard's George Church unveiled a synthetic ribosome, the machinery inside cells that translates genes into proteins that build tissues and organs. Scientists hope to create cells, the building blocks of life, from scratch by cobbling together such cellular machinery, part of a burgeoning field of "synthetic" biology.

Hubble repair...

In a daring mission in May, NASA astronauts used raw muscle to turn balky bolts and rip off an interfering railing, giving new life to the Hubble Space Telescope. "It's like we received two brand-new Hubbles," said Astronomy for Dummies author Stephen Maran.

"We are restoring science to its rightful place," President Obama said in a speech in April to the National Academy of Sciences members. He called for increased private and public spending on research, better science education and more decision-making influence from researchers. Stimulus spending flooded scientific coffers, sparking a mad rush of university grant-writing.

The administration lifted Bush-era limits on human embryonic stem cells, approving 40 lines (each line represents a colony of cells grown from one embryo) for federal research this month; announced an Environmental Protection Agency "endangerment" finding for greenhouse gases that will give the administration power to control carbon emissions; and asked the public for opinions on whether all federally funded research results should be made freely available to the public.

Science-fiction fans could take heart from NASA's $79 million Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which smashed into the moon's shaded Cabeus crater in October at 6,000 mph with the goal of kicking up enough lunar soil to detect usable water on the moon's surface.

The impact disappointed astronomers hoping for a glimpse of a plume, but all was forgiven the next month: Mission scientists revealed measurements showing water in "significant amounts" in the dust of the moon's south pole craters, said mission science chief Anthony Colaprete of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

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