Knowledge great for what it can do

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It’s been a good year for scientists, particularly the starry-eyed variety.

Just short of Christmas, astronomers discovered two planets about the size of Earth. Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are both about 1,000 light years away, which means we’ll almost certainly never visit them (more on that later). The significance of this find can’t be overstated, however. It confirms what astronomers have always suspected: that the Earth isn’t a one-off, a freak of nature – that earth-sized planets are relatively common in other solar systems.

The next question one would naturally ask is whether these two planets would be hospitable for life. The answer is probably no. Too hot. But 2011 also saw the discovery of the first ever planet in orbit around a “sun-like” star at a distance comparable to Earth’s from our Sun: Kepler-22b.

Taken together, the case for Earth-sized, rocky planets orbiting Sun-like stars at a distance conducive to the development of life became very strong this year.

And 1,000 light years ain’t what it used to be, thanks to what Discover magazine has named the top science story of the year: European researchers may have exceeded the speed of light. The findings still need to be independently confirmed, but scientists have recorded a result – twice – indicating a sub-atomic particle called a neutrino can exceed the speed of light.

Much closer to home – and on a human scale – Canadian researchers have been given a green light to start human trials of a vaccine for HIV. More than 30 million people worldwide are infected with the virus. Preventing further transmission would be monumental.

Just because many of us lost interest in studying science right about the time we had to memorize the periodic table doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about nature or the nature of reality. We’re animals, yes, but we’re smart animals. We need to nourish our bodies and our minds. Knowledge is one of those rare things: great for what it can do but also great in and of itself.

You’ll never visit Kepler-20e. But it’s still cool to know it’s there.

Organizations: Discover magazine

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