Interesting times

It's a happy new year for science; it always is. The thing science has over, say, economics, is that confounding factors - things not going how you hoped or predicted - make life more interesting rather than compounding the world's misery.

There'll certainly be no escaping the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) this year. It is now make-or-break in the hunt for the Higgs boson. By the end of 2012 we should know for sure whether this particle, which has been credited with giving mass to everything in the universe, really exists. Since its existence was first predicted in 1964, we have been building machines that could find evidence of its existence. By the end of the year, the LHC will explore all its hiding places.

But physicists won't be adding to the unemployment figures if it doesn't turn up. Many of them will be rather pleased, because it will mean that an alternative theory called supersymmetry can take centre stage. This brings with it a huge cast of as-yet-undiscovered subatomic particles; the search for these will keep everyone at Cern busy for years to come.

Another win-win comes from a Nasa mission called Curiosity that is currently hurtling towards Mars. Whatever the result of its investigation, it will be of enormous significance.

Among other tasks, Curiosity will take samples of Martian soil and examine them for signs that the Red Planet is, or has been, host to molecules that allow life to function. The most fundamental of these are the carbon-based molecules that supply the basis of life on earth.

If it finds any, Curiosity is equipped to analyse them to see whether they have the signatures of having been part of or passed through a living organism.

Arthur C Clarke once pointed out that we are either alone in the universe, or we are not - and either scenario is astonishing. We can never prove we are alone in the universe, but a negative result from Curiosity will be fascinating nonetheless. And we only have to make one discovery of extraterrestrial life to get a good idea of the answer to one of the most interesting and important questions in biology: is life a widespread phenomenon?

Meanwhile, back on earth, the screenwriters of the movie 2012 will be glad to learn that neutrinos could trigger an apocalypse this year, albeit metaphorical (and not, as in the film, because they are "mutating"). If the results showing neutrinos travelling faster than light are replicated by other groups, that would force a rethink of some of Einstein's work, which - as with everything else - would be simultaneously gut-wrenching and fascinating.

If there is no replication; well, that's fine, too: it will demonstrate the strength of our grasp on the processes of the universe.

Apocalypse now?

There is a slim chance of a real apocalypse, too. If the sun belched out a huge - but not unprecedented - flare in the wrong direction, it could conceivably cause a major breakdown in civilisation. Interactions between solar flares and earth's magnetic field can induce enormous currents in the infrastructure of our electric power systems, melting cables and destroying transformers.

Unfortunately for the 2012 conspiracy theorists, who will be in a frenzy for most of the next 12 months, it's much more likely (but still hugely unlikely) to happen when the sun reaches the most violent phase of its cycle. That is currently predicted to occur in March 2013. Of course, that's a win-win, too: the story, the conspiracies and the research can all come out again next year. Science: the gift that keeps on giving.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...