What are the top scientific breakthroughs in the past 3 decades?
Straight from the laboratory
In 1982, a human genome was a science-fiction fantasy and the space shuttle was
state-of-the-art science. The field of science has stretched ever-more widely into
everyday life since then, bringing us cellphones, web browsing and the promise of a
With help from long-time science observers, USA TODAY's Dan Vergano counts
down the 25 top milestones.
1Accelerating universe (1998)
Exploding stars, receding at an ever-faster pace, stunned scientists by showing that an
anti-gravity effect is relentlessly expanding the universe. This expansion still defies
2Human genome (1999)
Competing public and private teams declared victory in mapping human DNA’s
24,000 or so genes, ushering in a coming era of gene-based medicine.
3Climate accord (2001-2007)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change went from finding global warming
“very likely” to “unequivocal,” a view that coincides with growing public acceptance.
NASA via AP
4Hubble launched (1990)
The Hubble space telescope overcame early mirror distortions to become astronomy’s
most productive observatory and a symbol of scientific achievement.
5Big Bang fingerprinted (1992)
NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) probe mapped the fiery Big Bang’s
aftermath, detecting hot spots in the early universe that coalesced into galaxies.
Mike Groll, AP
6DNA fingerprinting (1985)
Sir Alec Jeffreys at the United Kingdom’s University of Leicester announced a
method of identifying individuals based only on their DNA, now a fundamental
forensics tool. Made famous by television’s CSI series, DNA fingerprinting has been
used to imprison many convicts, and free others, raising questions about the justice
system in its wake.
7Hello Dolly! (1996)
Ian Wilmut of Scotland’s Roslin Institute led the team behind the birth of the first
cloned mammal, a sheep named Dolly, preceding horses, bulls, dogs and others.
8 Worldwide Web (1989)
Physicist Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland unveils a method to link pages
through the Internet as a way to share research. And now everything else.
9Ozone unmasked (1987)
High over Antarctica, NASA scientists confirmed that chlorofluorocarbons —
aerosols and refrigerants — were eating stratospheric ozone; a ban promises recovery
for this layer of protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
10Extrasolar planets (1995)
Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz report the first detection of a
planet, named 51 Pegasi B, orbiting a nearby sun-like star. Over 200 “exoplanets” are
now known, including one found in a nearby star’s “habitable” zone.
Martin Oeser, AFP/Getty Images
11RNA interference (1998)
Working with worms, biologists Andrew Fire and Craig Mello report how RNA can
selectively shut down genes, a dazzling research and medical tool.
12Top quark detected (1995)
Atom-smashing physicists at Fermilab, a federal research facility, detect the top
quark, a long-sought sub-atomic particle. Confirmation of its existence cements the
modern understanding of the structure of matter.
Miami Science Museum, AP
13Feathered dino found (1992)
U.S. and Chinese researchers find the remains of the first of many feathered-dinosaur
fossils, confirming growing paleontological perception that birds are in fact,
descended from dinosaurs.
14Pluto dethroned (2006)
The discovery of Eris, a frozen world larger and farther away than Pluto, spurs the
International Astronomical Union to disown the ninth planet.
15Embryonic stem cells (1997)
A University of Wisconsin team first isolates human embryonic stem cells, master
cells that may one day be used to create rejection-free transplant tissues. Destruction
of embryos to harvest the cells remains controversial.
NASA via AP
16Water on Mars (2000-2004)
Spurred by a Martian meteorite that might hold fossil bacteria, NASA revs up its Mars
program, with satellite images and the rover, Opportunity, finding that salty seas once
sat on the Red Planet.
17Oldest hominid (1994)
A 4.4 million-year-old Ethiopian fossil, Ardipithecus ramidus, presented by a
University of California, Berkeley, team, predates all known human species.
Carolyn Kaster, AP
18Intelligent design suit (2005)
Reaching “the inescapable conclusion that ID (intelligent design) is an interesting
theological argument, but that it is not science,” federal judge John Jones halts a
Dover, Pa., school board’s bid to suggest to science students that an “intelligent
designer” created life.
19Neutrino mass discovered (1998)
Measuring cosmic rays, U.S. and Japanese physicists show that neutrinos —
elementary radioactive decay particles — have mass, contradicting a previous belief
and offering a surprising hint about a new theory of matter in the universe. The find
also spurs searches for leftover neutrinos from the Big Bang.
John McConnico, AP
20Abrupt climate change (1982-85)
Geologists and paleoclimatologists find evidence that sudden climate shifts, 60-degree
temperature jumps and doubling of rainfall in some places, have occurred within the
last 600 million years. Some worry manmade global warming will spark similar
21Neuroscience explodes (1990-present)
The “Decade of the Brain” premieres new imaging devices that reveal how the brain
22Quantum teleportation (1998)
European researchers transfer — instantaneously and over distance — one light
particle’s characteristics to another, opening a new secure method of communication.
23Evo devo (1999)
Evidence that evolution alters genes active in infancy to create novel physical
structures in species coalesces into a new branch of biology.
NASA via AP
24Golden age of solar astronomy (1996)
The international Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) sun-watching satellites
begin operations, opening up solar seismology and space weather forecasting.
Artistic rendering by Peter Schouten via AFP
25Hobbit discovered (2004)
Still controversial, the discovery on an Indonesian island of Homo floresiensis — an
18,000-year-old, pint-sized human species — by an Indonesian-Australian team stuns
paleontologists because of the small brain size of these tool-using hunters.