Our top 5 physics moments of 2012

2012 has been a busy year for physics. With the impending end of the world (only a day to go now!) we thought we’d better get our round up of the year’s top physics moments in before it’s too late.

No physics round up of 2012 could start with anything other than… we found the Higgs! In particle physics speak, CERN scientists found a particle that is “consistent with” the long-sought Higgs boson. The news was announced via press conference from CERN on 4th July, and live-blogged by the Guardian. The detection was at a five-sigma level, which roughly means that they are 99.9999% sure that the results are not just down to chance.

But there are still a few kinks to iron out. Last week, CERN announced some new data concerning an anomaly spotted in the July results, which could indicate that they have found not one, but two Higgs bosons. Or the anomaly could just be a statistical fluctuation in the data.The next data release from CERN is expected in March. Until then, the jury is out. But, that hasn’t stopped TIME naming the Higgs their Particle of the Year.

And the remaining four, in no particular order:

London was overtaken this summer by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, and physics took centre stage for the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. Stephen Hawking starting proceedings, saying, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Our own outreach officer, Henry Lau, felt his two worlds collide when he danced in a gravity-themed section of the show. And of course the athletes themselves, such as sprinter Oscar Pistorius with his carbon-fibre prostheses, use technology to compete in the games. You can still watch the full Paralympics Opening Ceremony at Channel 4.

In August, Nasa successfully landed a one-tonne rover on Mars. After its seven minutes of terror, Curiosity landed safely and quickly got to work zapping rocks with lasers. Since then we’ve had the results of a full analysis of the first scoop of Martian soil that Curiosity picked up, and news that Nasa plans to build a new rover, based on Curiosity and using some of its spare parts, to head to the red planet again in 2020.

Faster-than-light neutrinos do not, we learnt in February this year, actually exist. In late 2011, the OPERA experiment based in Gran Sasso, Italy, reported that they had spotted some of these sub-atomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light, and breaking Einstein’s laws of special relativity in the process. But, after months of theorists working to explain the anomaly and experimentalists trying to work out where they went wrong, it turned out to be down to a dodgy cable in the experimental set up. Well, at least we won’t have to re-write the laws of physics.

This year we also gained a new neighbour. European astronomers found a planet orbiting a star, Alpha Centauri, in the closest star system to us, just 4.3 light years to Earth. The planet is not in the habitable zone around its star, and its surface is likely to be so hot that rock has turned to lava. A year on the newly discovered planet lasts just 3.2 Earth days.

But it is the planet’s close proximity to us that makes it interesting, and it suggests that rocky planets are commonplace in the Milky Way. This conclusion was bolstered this week by the news that astronomers have found five planets, two of which are in the habitable zone, around another nearby star just 12 light years away.

Stephen Hawking in Orbital glasses, a new particle, a new neighbour and plenty more alien planets further afield, and a newly landed rover on Mars – not bad for just twelve months.

See you in 2013!


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