It’s a 4.4 million year old fossilized female skeleton that may be our earliest ancestor. She walks upright but is almost completely covered with fur–overall, a pleasing mixture of “primitive” traits shared with its predecessors, and “derived” features, shared with later hominids. At over a million years older than Lucy, the Australopithecine that made history in the 1970’s, she’s 4 feet tall, 110 pounds, an Ethiopian forest-dweller–not the savanna we have become acclimated to imagining as our ancenstor’s homelands.
The nine runners up (taken from BBC News) are:
- Pulsar mystery: Nasa’s Fermi gamma-Ray Space Telescope helped identify previously unknown pulsars – highly magnetised and rapidly rotating neutron stars.
- Extending life: Researchers found the compound rapamycin extends the life span of mice. The discovery was particularly remarkable because the treatment did not start until the mice were middle-aged.
- Supreme conduction: Materials scientists probed the properties of graphene – highly conductive single-layer sheets of carbon atoms – and started fashioning the material into experimental electronic devices.
- Plant survival: Scientists discovered the structure of a critical molecule that helps plants survive during droughts. This could help in the design of new ways to protect crops against prolonged dry periods.
- Laser tool: The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California unveiled the world’s first X-ray laser, a powerful research tool capable of taking snapshots of chemical reactions as they happen and studying materials in unprecedented detail.
- Gene Therapy: European and US researchers made progress in treating a fatal brain disease, inherited blindness, and a severe immune disorder by developing new strategies involving gene therapy.
- Magnetic monopoly: Physicists working with strange crystalline materials called spin ices created magnetic ripples that behaved like “magnetic monopoles” – fundamental particles with only one magnetic pole.
- Watery Moon: Nasa discovered water vapour in the debris when it deliberately crashed a rocket near the south pole of the Moon. The experiment was part of the space agency’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission.
- Hubble Repair: A final repair mission by space shuttle astronauts gave the Hubble telescope sharper vision, enabling it to produce some of its most spectacular images yet.