Discovery Files

2006: Year in Review

A look back at some of the NSF-supported activities highlighted last year

From the far reaches of space to inner workings of molecules, discoveries resulting from National Science Foundation (NSF) investments in research and education enable the United States to remain at the forefront of science and engineering knowledge and also enhance the nation's economic strength in the face of global competition. Here are some of the NSF-supported activities highlighted in 2006. Also, listed separately are the stories that visitors to our Web site selected most often.

Discovery of a Planet Close to Earth's Mass Shows the Promise of Gravitational Microlensing
Using a relatively new technique that can spot planets one-tenth the mass of the Earth, researchers announced the discovery of a potentially rocky, icy body--OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb--that may be the smallest planet yet found orbiting a star outside our solar system. The discovery suggests gravitational microlensing may be exceptionally useful in finding distant planets with traits that could support life. Discover magazine included the discovery in its list of the Top 100 science stories for 2006.
January 25, 2006
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Scientists Issue Unprecedented Forecast of Next Sunspot Cycle
The next sunspot cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the last one, and begin as much as a year late, according to a breakthrough forecast using a computer model of solar dynamics developed by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. The researchers, supported by NSF and NASA, expect that predicting the Sun's cycles years in advance will lead to more accurate plans to anticipate solar storms, which can slow satellite orbits, disrupt communications and bring down power systems.
March 6, 2006
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'Computer Virus' Gets New Meaning as Researchers Produce First Computer Simulation of a Living Organism
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of California at Irvine have completed the first computer simulations of the workings of every atom in a virus. The team tapped the high-performance power of the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications processors to accomplish the task. The computer simulations provided an unprecedented view into the dynamics of the virus and someday could help researchers devise improved strategies to combat viral infections in plants, animals and even humans.
March 14, 2006
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Single-molecule Diode Raises Possibility of New Era of Miniaturization
Using the power of modern computing combined with innovative theoretical tools, an international team of researchers has determined how a one-way electrical valve, or diode, made of only a single molecule does its job. Created by a research team at the University of Chicago, the diode is merely a few tens of atoms in size and 1,000 times smaller than a conventional transistor. Theorists from the University of South Florida and the Russian Academy of Sciences have explained the principles that make the device work. The technology may allow computer designers to sustain "Moore's Law"--a prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965--which suggested technological advances will allow a doubling every 18 months in the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip.
April 3, 2006
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This Fish Was Made for Walking?
Working in rocks more than 375 million years old, NSF-supported paleontologists unearthed a remarkable new fossil species that could fill in the evolutionary gap between fish and early limbed animals. The new species, named Tiktaalik, has a skull, neck, ribs and parts of a fin that resemble the earliest limbed animals, called tetrapods. But Tiktaalik also has fins and scales like a fish. Scientists collected the fossils during four summer explorations on Ellesmere Island in Canada's Nunavut Territory, far above the Arctic Circle. The journal Science has named the discovery a runner-up for Breakthrough of the Year, and Scientific American called it one of the most important science stories of 2006.
April 5, 2006
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Waterproof Superglue May Be Strongest in Nature
The glue one species of water-loving bacteria uses to grip its surroundings may be the strongest natural adhesive known to science. Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington and Brown University in Providence, R.I., studied how much force they needed to tug the tiny, stalked Caulobacter crescentus off a glass plate. The researchers reported that the bacteria grip with a force of 70 newtons per square millimeter--roughly 5 tons per square inch; equivalent to the downward force exerted by three cars balancing on a spot the size of a quarter.
April 11, 2006
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Redesigning High-School Advanced Placement Work in Math and Science
Researchers for the College Board are using a $1.8 million grant from NSF to redesign Advanced Placement (AP) program courses in biology, chemistry, physics and environmental science. Studies have shown that, in general, U.S. high school students continue to slip further behind other nations in their ability to apply scientific concepts and skills, and also that the percentage of American undergraduates earning degrees in science and engineering is far below that of other competitive nations. AP students are an important exception. Research indicates that AP math and science courses enable their students to achieve a level of proficiency that exceeds that of students from all other nations.
May 2, 2006
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Ecosystems With Many Plants Produce More and Survive Threats Better
Based on more than 12 years of work at the Cedar Creek Long-Term Ecological Research site, one of 26 such NSF sites, researchers found that ecosystems containing many different plant species are more productive and better able to withstand and recover from climate extremes, pests and disease over long periods than ecosystems containing only one species. The study was the first experiment to gather enough data--over a sufficient time and in a controlled environment--to confirm a 50-year scientific debate about whether biodiversity stabilizes ecosystems.
May 31, 2006
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Understanding and Preventing Levee Failures
Following an eight-month study of the New Orleans levee system and its performance during and after Hurricane Katrina, a team of researchers led by Raymond Seed and Robert Bea of the University of California, Berkeley, released a draft of the group's findings, allowing engineers to improve plans for repairs. The levee study was one of more than 100 research projects NSF supported in response to the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The studies' results have provided emergency planners, responders and others with key findings ranging from how disasters inflict physical damage to the impact of social factors on evacuation and long-term emotional effects.
May 22, 2006
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U.S. National Science Foundation Celebrates Opening of Beijing Office
Representatives of NSF, the U.S. Department of State, the Chinese government and Chinese scientific societies marked the opening of NSF's research operations office in Beijing. Government officials predict the office will give the United States a better opportunity to work collaboratively and strengthen mutual interests of world-class scientists and engineers. The Beijing office is NSF's third foreign office; the agency also maintains research offices in Paris and Tokyo.
May 24, 2006
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New Wi-Fi Network Brings Eye Care to Thousands in India
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a new technology for low-cost rural connectivity. As a result, thousands of residents from rural villages in India are receiving quality eye care for the first time. Based on "Wi-Fi" wireless networks, the new technology allows eye specialists to examine patients in five remote clinics via a high-quality videoconference using simple, inexpensive software and hardware. The system provides villages with a high-bandwidth connection to computer networks in cities as far as 50 miles away.
June 6, 2006
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Preserving Endangered Languages
Researchers estimate that more than half of the approximately 7,000 currently used human languages are headed for oblivion in this century. NSF and the National Endowment for the Humanities have embarked on a major, multi-year partnership to record and study 60 dying languages so that knowledge will not be lost to humanity. The two agencies announced awards in their joint Documenting Endangered Languages program totaling $5 million to support digital documentation.
July 10, 2006
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Formulating New Approaches for Studying Mind and Brain
Understanding how the brain generates meaningful behavior remains one of the great frontiers of science. Two NSF-organized workshops brought together researchers from across many disciplines to consider significant unexploited opportunities for mutual scientific benefit between brain science and the physical and mathematical sciences, computer science and engineering. Workshop participants focused both on scientific questions where a concerted effort could be expected to yield major advances in the next few years, and on the approaches and technical tools that need to be used in the investigation of these questions.
July and August 2006

Astronomers Announce First Direct Observation of 'Dark Matter'
By observing a rare smash-up of galaxies traveling at 10 million miles per hour, astronomers have made the first direct detection of "dark matter"-- the mysterious, invisible stuff that comprises at least one-quarter of the universe. Because dark matter neither emits nor reflects light and only interacts with ordinary matter through gravity, its existence had been inferred but never observed directly before researchers studied a remarkable cosmic structure called the bullet cluster--actually two clusters of galaxies passing through one another. Discover magazine listed the discovery as the third most important science story of 2006.
August 21, 2006
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Winners of the 2006 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge Announced
NSF and the journal Science announced the winners of the 2006 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. Currently in its fourth year, the contest recognizes outstanding achievement in the use of visual media to promote understanding of research results and scientific phenomena. Winning entries for 2006 communicated information about complex mathematical concepts, the intricacies of the human body, air-flight patterns, the latest scientific imaging technologies to analyze Leonardo da Vinci's art and more.
September 22, 2006
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Analysis Shows Research and Development Adds to Economic Growth
New calculations from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis suggest research and development (R&D) accounted for a substantial share of the resurgence in U.S. economic growth in recent years. Using data from NSF's annual surveys of government, academic, industry and non-profit R&D expenditures, the bureau determined R&D contributed 6.5 percent to economic growth between 1995 and 2002.
October 3, 2006
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NSF Supported Work of 2006 Physics and Economics Nobel Laureates
The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2006 was awarded jointly to John C. Mather and George F. Smoot for their studies of the cosmic microwave background and contributions to a better understanding of the origin of stars and galaxies. NSF supported Smoot's research for more than 20 years. The Nobel Prize in Economics for 2006 was awarded to Edmund S. Phelps for his work that challenged the prevailing view of the relationship between inflation and unemployment represented by the Phillips curve. The Columbia University professor received a number of NSF research grants in the 1970s and 1980s.
October 2006
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Advanced Technological Education Program Brings Two-Year Colleges and Industry Together to Educate Technically Savvy Workforce
To keep up with increasing competition in science and technology, the United States is seeking ways to prepare a technically savvy science and engineering workforce. NSF's Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program is one example of an approach that is achieving solid results, according to the report ATE Centers Impact 2006-2007. By providing collaborations between two-year colleges and industry, the program equips current and next generations of science and engineering technicians with the latest skills and tools to compete in the global marketplace.
November 21, 2006
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Scientists Catch Underwater Volcanic Eruption 'In Action'
Nearly 2,500 meters beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, magma erupted onto the seafloor in January 2006 in a new episode of seafloor spreading, an occurrence never before caught in progress. Scientists aboard the research vessel Knorr confirmed evidence of the volcanic activity in April, when they tracked the locations of 12 ocean-bottom seismometers designed to monitor earthquake activity on the East Pacific Rise tectonic plate boundary, located south of the Gulf of California.
November 27, 2006
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Genetic Archaeology Finds Clues to Pregnancy in Male Pipefish, Seahorses
A gene discovered in the gulf pipefish, a member of the seahorse family, hints that a gene already busy with kidney and liver function may have learned new tricks in the male womb. Male pipefish accept eggs from the females, fertilize them and carry them in pouches. These brood pouches have evolved into complex organs able to nurture and protect the eggs. Researchers at Michigan State University determined that in its early days, possibly thousands of years ago, an atristacin gene--a type of protein gene--likely assisted in kidney and liver function. They think it is possible the gene was drafted into supporting the then-newfangled male brood pouch. Eventually, the gene became productive at its second job.
December 4, 2006
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Volcanic Blast Likely Killed and Preserved Juvenile Fossil Plesiosaur Found in Antarctica
An American-Argentine research team has recovered the well-preserved fossil skeleton of a juvenile plesiosaur--a marine reptile that swam the waters of the Southern Ocean roughly 70 million years ago. The fossil remains represent one of the most complete plesiosaur skeletons ever found and is thought to be the best-articulated fossil skeleton ever recovered from Antarctica. Scientists found the skeleton while working at an elevation of 650 feet amid 70-mile-an-hour winds and freezing conditions on Vega Island. NSF and the Instituto Antártico Argentino funded the expedition.
December 11, 2006
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Multinational Scientific Expedition Kicks Off International Polar Year 2007-2008
An international team of scientists and teachers sailed from Punta Arenas, Chile for a two-week, NSF-sponsored research cruise aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, in one of the first collaborative activities of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008. IPY is a global campaign of research in the Arctic and Antarctic by over 60 nations. Scientists from the United States, Sweden and Chile will conduct a variety of observations, while two classroom educators selected by NSF and a Swedish teacher selected by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat will work alongside a Chilean colleague and the scientists.
December 19, 2006
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These were the most viewed stories by visitors to our Web site in 2006, listed in order of popularity.

1. Accelerating Loss of Ocean Species Threatens Human Well-Being
An international group of ecologists and economists has shown that the loss of biodiversity is profoundly reducing the ocean's ability to produce seafood, resist diseases, filter pollutants and rebound from stresses such as overfishing and climate change.
November 2, 2006
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2. NSF Awards First Partnership for International Research and Education Grants
NSF has awarded the first grants in its Partnership for International Research and Education program. The program is designed to enable U.S. scientists and engineers to build strong, long-lasting international research collaborations and to help the nation develop a new cadre of globally engaged U.S. scientists and engineers.
January 30, 2006
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3. Federal Agencies Partner to Document Endangered Languages
NSF and the National Endowment for the Humanities announced the recipients of 13 fellowships and 26 institutional grants as part of the agencies joint Documenting Endangered Languages project—a new, multiyear effort to digitally archive at-risk languages before they become extinct.
May 5, 2005
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4. Astronomers Announce the Most Earth-Like Planet Yet Found Outside the Solar System
Taking a major step forward in the search for Earth-like planets beyond our own solar system, a team of astronomers announced the discovery of the smallest extrasolar planet yet detected. The newly discovered "super-Earth" orbits the star Gliese 876, located just 15 light years away in the direction of the constellation Aquarius.
June 13, 2005
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5. Device Only Atoms Across May Allow Infinitesimal But Powerful Computers
Using the power of modern computing combined with innovative theoretical tools, an international team of researchers has determined how a one-way electrical valve, or diode, made of only a single molecule does its job.
April 3, 2006
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6. Children, TV, Computers and More Media: New Research Shows Pluses, Minuses
A consortium of researchers has reported that very young children's interactions with TV and computers are a mixed bag of opportunities and cautions, while teenagers’ Internet use has changed so much that the myths of several years ago need to be debunked.
February 11, 2005
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7. NSF Report Reveals Century of Doctoral Education Trends in the United States
A report released by NSF documents trends and patterns that reveal the rapid growth and changing demographics of doctoral education during the 20th century, especially over the last 25 years. U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century reveals many factors about who is educated and where. The report also describes the complex changes taking place in the pursuit of doctoral degrees, many of which are in new interdisciplinary fields.
October 10, 2006
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8. Top Researcher-Educators Receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
The White House honored 20 NSF-supported researchers with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, one of the most prestigious awards given to investigators in the early stages of promising research and education careers.
July 26, 2006
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9. Easy Up, Not-So-Easy Down
Using new fiberglass-polymer materials, contractors in Springfield, Mo., subjected a decaying, 70-year-old bridge to a makeover that was as quick as it was dramatic. Instead of snarling traffic for two to three weeks while they repaired the crumbling deck, girders and guardrails by conventional methods, the workers used prefabricated plates and cages developed by an NSF-supported university-industry partnership to finish the job in a mere five days.
March 2, 2006
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10. Self-Cooling Soda Bottles?
Every day, the sun bathes the planet in energy--free of charge--yet few systems can take advantage of that source for both heating and cooling. Now, researchers are making progress on a thin-film technology that sticks both solar cells and heat pumps onto surfaces, ultimately turning walls, windows and maybe even soda bottles into climate-control systems.
July 11, 2006
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11. Closer to Home
Using a relatively new planet-hunting technique that can spot worlds one-tenth the mass of our own, researchers have discovered a potentially rocky, icy body that may be the smallest planet yet found orbiting a star outside our solar system.
January 25, 2006
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12. Global Warming Can Trigger Extreme Ocean, Climate Changes
Newly published research results provide evidence that global climate change may have quickly disrupted ocean processes and may lead to drastic shifts in environments around the world. Although the events described unfolded millions of years ago and spanned thousands of years, the researchers, affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, say they provide one of the few historical analogs for warming-induced changes in the large-scale sea circulation, and thus may help to illuminate the potential long-term impacts of today's climate warming.
January 4, 2006
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13. A Link Between Rainfall and Magnetism
Two scientists at UCLA and the Santa Fe Institute have gained a deeper insight into rainfall patterns and atmospheric dynamics by using techniques originally developed for magnetic materials. Physicist Ole Peters, of the Santa Fe Institute and UCLA, and climatologist J. David Neelin of UCLA argue that the onset of intense tropical rain can be described by the same mathematics as a piece of iron that is making the transition from unmagnetized to magnetized.
June 29, 2006
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14. 'LouseBuster' Instrument Shown to Kill Head Lice
Biologists have invented a chemical-free, hairdryer-like device--the LouseBuster--and conducted a study showing it eradicates head lice infestations on children by exterminating the eggs, or "nits," and killing enough lice to prevent them from reproducing.
November 6, 2006
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15. Real-Time Traffic Routing from the Comfort of Your Car
Engineers have developed a system for taking anonymous cell-phone location information and turning it into an illuminated traffic map that identifies congestion in real time. The system takes advantage of the steady stream of positioning cues--signals all cell phones produce, whether in use or not, as they seek towers with the strongest signals. It is the first traffic-solution technology that monitors patterns on rural roads and city streets as easily as on highways.
August 30, 2006
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-- Ellen Weir, Editor