Top 12 in 2012

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Credit: Benjamin Deverman/Caltech

Gene therapy for boosting nerve-cell repair

Caltech scientists have developed a gene therapy that helps the brain replace its nerve-cell-protecting myelin sheaths—and the cells that produce those sheaths—when they are destroyed by diseases like multiple sclerosis and by spinal-cord injuries. Myelin ensures that nerve cells can send signals quickly and efficiently.

Credit: L. Moser and P. M. Bellan, Caltech

Understanding solar flares

By studying jets of plasma in the lab, Caltech researchers discovered a surprising phenomenon that may be important for understanding how solar flares occur and for developing nuclear fusion as an energy source. Solar flares are bursts of energy from the sun that launch chunks of plasma that can damage orbiting satellites and cause the northern and southern lights on Earth.

Coincidence—or physics?

Caltech planetary scientists provided a new explanation for why the "man in the moon" faces Earth. Their research indicates that the "man"—an illusion caused by dark-colored volcanic plains—faces us because of the rate at which the moon's spin rate slowed before becoming locked in its current orientation, even though the odds favored the moon's other, more mountainous side.

Choking when the stakes are high

In studying brain activity and behavior, Caltech biologists and social scientists learned that the more someone is afraid of loss, the worse they will perform on a given task—and that, the more loss-averse they are, the more likely it is that their performance will peak at a level far below their actual capacity.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Eyeing the X-ray universe

NASA's NuSTAR telescope, a Caltech-led and -designed mission to explore the high-energy X-ray universe and to uncover the secrets of black holes, of remnants of dead stars, of energetic cosmic explosions, and even of the sun, was launched on June 13. The instrument is the most powerful high-energy X-ray telescope ever developed and will produce images that are 10 times sharper than any that have been taken before at these energies.

Credit: CERN

Uncovering the Higgs Boson

This summer's likely discovery of the long-sought and highly elusive Higgs boson, the fundamental particle that is thought to endow elementary particles with mass, was made possible in part by contributions from a large contingent of Caltech researchers. They have worked on this problem with colleagues around the globe for decades, building experiments, designing detectors to measure particles ever more precisely, and inventing communication systems and data storage and transfer networks to share information among thousands of physicists worldwide.

Credit: Peter Day

Amplifying research

Researchers at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed a new kind of amplifier that can be used for everything from exploring the cosmos to examining the quantum world. This new device operates at a frequency range more than 10 times wider than that of other similar kinds of devices, can amplify strong signals without distortion, and introduces the lowest amount of unavoidable noise.

Swims like a jellyfish

Caltech bioengineers partnered with researchers at Harvard University to build a freely moving artificial jellyfish from scratch. The researchers fashioned the jellyfish from silicon and muscle cells into what they've dubbed Medusoid; in the lab, the scientists were able to replicate some of the jellyfish's key mechanical functions, such as swimming and creating feeding currents. The work will help improve researchers' understanding of tissues and how they work, and may inform future efforts in tissue engineering and the design of pumps for the human heart.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Touchdown confirmed

After more than eight years of planning, about 354 million miles of space travel, and seven minutes of terror, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory successfully landed on the Red Planet on August 5. The roving analytical laboratory, named Curiosity, is now using its 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras to search Mars for environments that either were once—or are now—habitable.

Credit: Caltech/Michael Hoffmann

Powering toilets for the developing world

Caltech engineers built a solar-powered toilet that can safely dispose of human waste for just five cents per use per day. The toilet design, which won the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, uses the sun to power a reactor that breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen. The hydrogen can be stored as energy in hydrogen fuel cells.

Credit: Caltech / Scott Kelberg and Michael Roukes

Weighing molecules

A Caltech-led team of physicists created the first-ever mechanical device that can measure the mass of an individual molecule. The tool could eventually help doctors to diagnose diseases, and will enable scientists to study viruses, examine the molecular machinery of cells, and better measure nanoparticles and air pollution.

Splitting water

This year, two separate Caltech research groups made key advances in the quest to extract hydrogen from water for energy use. In June, a team of chemical engineers devised a nontoxic, noncorrosive way to split water molecules at relatively low temperatures; this method may prove useful in the application of waste heat to hydrogen production. Then, in September, a group of Caltech chemists identified the mechanism by which some water-splitting catalysts work; their findings should light the way toward the development of cheaper and better catalysts.

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In 2012, Caltech faculty and students pursued research into just about every aspect of our world and beyond—from understanding human behavior, to exploring other planets, to developing sustainable waste solutions for the developing world.

In other words, 2012 was another year of discovery at Caltech. Here are a dozen research stories, which were among the most widely read and shared articles from Caltech.edu.

Did we skip your favorite? Connect with Caltech on Facebook to share your pick.

A New Tool for Secret Agents—And the Rest of Us

Caltech electrical engineers have developed inexpensive silicon microchips that generate and radiate terahertz (THz) waves. These high-frequency electromagnetic waves fall into a largely untapped region of the electromagnetic spectrum—between microwaves and far-infrared radiation—and can penetrate a host of materials without the ionizing damage of X-rays.

Point of Light

As technology advances, it tends to shrink. From cell phones to laptops—powered by increasingly faster and tinier processors—everything is getting thinner and sleeker. And now light beams are getting smaller, too. Engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have created a device that can focus light into a point just a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) across—an achievement they say may lead to next-generation applications in computing, communications, and imaging.

3-D Dentistry

A Caltech imaging innovation will ease your trip to the dentist and may soon energize home entertainment systems too.

One Metal Scoop, Slightly Used

On November 20, 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean paid a visit to JPL's Surveyor 3, which had landed on the moon two and a half years earlier.

Seeing the World in a Grain of Sand

José Andrade has got the dirt on dirt. An associate professor of civil and mechanical engineering at Caltech, Andrade will discuss how the actions of a few grains of sand can affect landslides, earthquakes, and even Mars rovers. He will be speaking at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 28, 2012, in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. Admission is free.

Knowing When to Fold 'Em

Electrical engineer Azita Emami is an expert in the 21st century technology of analog and digital circuits for computers, sensors, and other applications, so when she came to Caltech in 2007, she never imagined that she would be incorporating in her research an art form that originated centuries ago. But origami—the Japanese art of paper folding—could play a critical role in her project to design an artificial retina, which may one day help thousands of blind and visually impaired people regain their vision.

Nano Insights Could Lead to Improved Nuclear Reactors

In order to build the next generation of nuclear reactors, materials scientists are trying to unlock the secrets of certain materials that are radiation-damage tolerant. Now Caltech researchers have brought new understanding to one of those secrets—how the interfaces between two carefully selected metals can absorb, or heal, radiation damage.

Diving Into the Unknown: An Interview with Andrei Faraon

This fall, Andrei Faraon (BS '04) returned to his alma mater to take a position as an assistant professor of applied physics and materials science. In his work, he builds devices that attempt to use light to manipulate single quantum systems in solids. Faraon recently answered some questions about his research and returning to Caltech.

Caltech Mourns the Passing of David G. Goodwin

David G. Goodwin, professor of mechanical engineering and applied physics, emeritus, passed away at his home in Pasadena on Sunday, November 11, 2012, after a five-year battle with brain cancer and a struggle with Parkinson's disease that began in 1998. He was 55 years old.

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