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Bob McDonald: My personal list of top science stories of 2013

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By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

1. Climate Change

The United Nations held another in its series of international climate talks (this year in Warsaw Poland), where nations come together to agree on reducing carbon emissions. As the Earth crossed a record-setting atmospheric level of 400-parts-per-million for carbon dioxide, Canada, as usual, is failing to meet even its own targets. Emissions in this country continue to rise rather than fall.
 
At the same time, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that the human influence on warming the planet is more certain than ever. It also explained some of the mechanisms involved in the changing climate, such as the supposed "decline" in warming over the past decade. 

What has really been happening is that the rate of warming has slowed down - which means the planet is still getting hotter, but not quite as fast as predicted, because of the influence of the oceans. That's like saying this boat isn't sinking as fast as we thought ... but it's still sinking and we can't ignore it.  (Here's the Quirks' take on it.)

2. Curiosity on Mars

After a year on the surface of Mars, the Curiosity Rover has found that Gale Crater, where it landed, contained a lake more than three billion years ago. This suggests that Mars was once a warm, wet world. Whether life appeared there during that time is still unknown, but life was taking a foothold on Earth during that same period. (Here'show Quirks covered it.)

3. Nobel For Higgs

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was given to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, who independently proposed the Higgs boson in the 1960s. 

Higgs, notoriously shy, immediately took a holiday out of the country to avoid media attention. 

Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider last year proved the existence of the Higgs particle and the field that goes with it, which is believed to have been responsible for converting pure energy into mass during the early moments of the universe.  (Here's our best interview on the Higgs particle.)

4. China on the Moon

China's Chang'e 3 space probe touched down on the moon, carrying a sophisticated six-wheeled rover named "Jade Rabbit" that will roam around for three months, analyzing the surface for minerals. 

This is a tremendous step forward in the continuing Chinese space program, which has already launched men and women into space, performed space walks and begun the construction of its own space station.  

At this rate, it is possible that a Chinese astronaut, or "taikonaut," could be on the moon in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first "small step for man," taken by American Neil Armstrong.

5. Comet of the Century ... Not!

Skywatchers were excited about the arrival of Comet Ison, which was speeding in for a one- time swing past the sun before returning forever to deep space. Because it was already showing signs of brightening a year earlier, out near Jupiter, some predicted it would grace our skies like no other. Sadly, the comet did not survive a close encounter with our star and broke apart at closest approach.

6. Surprise in the Skies Over Russia

Thanks to the popularity of dash cams on Russian cars, a meteor the size of a house was spotted exploding in the skies over Chelyabinsk, shattering windows for many kilometres around. Scientists were able to use the videos taken from different angles to determine the object's size, speed, direction and amount of energy released, which was considerably more than expected. (Here's our interview with the Canadian scientist who led the study of the meteorite.) 
 
7. Canadian Satellites

Several Canadian satellites were sent into orbit this year. NEOSAT will look for asteroids - similar to the one that fell in Russia - that could pose a threat to our planet. CASSIOPE will study the interaction between the sun and the Earth's upper atmosphere. And a small swarm of micro-satellites, called BRITE, will study the brightest stars in the sky - which, surprisingly, have been largely neglected, as astronomers chase dimmer, more distant objects. (Here's our interview about BRITE.

8. It's Outa Here

Since leaving Earth in 1977, Voyager 1 swung by the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, which gave the spacecraft enough gravitational energy to leave our solar system altogether. This year, with only a few instruments still operating, the intrepid robot officially entered interstellar space, where it will continue to wander among the stars for hundreds of millions of years ... unless aliens spot it.

9. Quirky Sleep

This one just caught my eye. Researchers told us that they had found that fur seals can sleep with half their brain while swimming. The other half of the brain, and one eye, remain alert for predators. Whales and dolphins can do the same thing. If we could do this, it could come in handy on long flights - you could sleep and watch a movie at the same time. 

10. Canadian Commander

The International Space Station got its first Canadian Commander, as Chris Hadfield took over the controls. Not only were Chris and his crew responsible for more than 100 science experiments, as well as maintenance of the $100-billion outpost, but he also brought spaceflight down to Earth with his countless tweets, videos and links to the ground during his five months in orbit. His road to space is chronicled in his new book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, which he talked about on our program.