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Death, heat, twins, spam and chips

Crew
The seven crew members on board the space shuttle Columbia died when it broke up upon reentry.

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SPECIAL REPORT

(CNN) -- Astronaut deaths, the warming poles and a global epidemic were among the more troubling headlines in science in 2003. Genetic advances drew both criticism and praise -- as did high-risk medical operations to divide twins joined at the head.

On the technology front, 2003 was a year of fighting back against Internet annoyances and Web-based business woes, from "spam rage" to the extensive legal action taken against file sharers.

Loss of Columbia

Only minutes from wrapping up a long mission in orbit, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart February 1 over Texas, killing the crew of six Americans and one Israeli. An investigation blamed foam debris from the external fuel tank, which struck the wing of the orbiter shortly after launch, creating a puncture that later allowed in superheated gases during atmospheric re-entry 16 days later. The disaster, which took place 17 years and a few days after the loss of the Challenger and its seven crew members, grounded the remaining three shuttles until at least late 2004.

Disappearing ice

As politicians and environmentalists debate whether to blame humans or nature, polar ice and mountain glaciers are melting at what some climatologists call disturbingly fast rates.

In the Arctic, the rate of warming during the past 20 years has been eight times higher than that over the last century, according to one report, thinning ice sheets, endangering polar bears and "transforming" the Arctic.

In the Antarctic, storms split the world's largest iceberg, a Jamaica-sized mass that broke from the Ross Sea Ice Shelf in 2000. Weeks later, scientists reported that 20 percent of sea ice around Antarctica had disappeared in the past 50 years.

Moreover, an international conservation group warned a U.N. conference that warming within the century could melt enough of the world's glaciers to threaten the fresh water supply of billions of people.

Stirring the gene pool

The year began as controversy raged over a secretive religious group's claim, made on December 26, 2002, that it had cloned humans. While the assertion was never proven, it dramatized the growing dilemma as science wrestles with the promise and pitfalls of fiddling with genes, whether they're from humans, livestock or crops.

Among the other DNA flashpoints this year: the protracted U.S. battle to sell genetically modified foods in Europe, and the US Food and Drug Administration is studying whether to allow meat and milk from cloned animals to be sold to the public.

SARS epidemic

Reports began surfacing in late winter of 2003 of a mystery disease that was highly contagious with no known cure. In the months following, more than 8,000 people in dozens of countries were infected, and more than 750 died of Severe Acute Repertory Syndrome or SARS, the name given to the newly discovered disease.

Mass quarantines, global travel restrictions and the donning of surgical masks became routine in parts of the world. Then, in early summer, the number of reported new SARS cases disappeared. But not before leaving health officials -- and the public -- a grim reminder of how quickly a global pandemic can emerge and spread. And medical experts say SARS could still make a comeback.

Joined at the head

Twins
Conjoined twins Ahmed and Mohamed Ibrahim, left, and Ladan and Laleh Bijani underwent complicated surgeries to be separated.

Medical technology has turned what were once thought inoperable conditions into surgical possibilities. Born joined at the head, Egyptian toddlers Ahmed and Mohamed Ibrahim were successfully separated this year in a 34-hour surgery that delicately divided blood vessels and brains.

But 29-year-old Ladan and Laleh Bijani weren't so lucky. The Iranian sisters conjoined at the head died during their landmark surgery, unprecedented on adult twins.

Now, doctors are trying another method of separating conjoined twins. Instead of one marathon surgery, 20-month-old Carl and Clarence Aguirre's heads will be operated on over the course of several months, with total separation scheduled for sometime next year.

Struggling with spam

The U.S. Senate and Congress passed anti-spam legislation in November, paving the way for an anti-spam law. But critics including The Wall Street Journal say the Federal Trade Commission does not have the resources to create a "Do Not Spam" registry, which was outlined in the House's anti-spam bill.

Earlier in the same month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates pledged to combat pesky unsolicited e-mails with a new program called Smart Screen. Also, a Silicon Valley programmer was prosecuted in a first-of-its-kind case which a Reuters report dubbed "spam rage." Charles Booher, 44, was accused of threatening to injure employees of the spamming company he deemed responsible for sending him penis enlargement e-mails.

File swapping

In late November, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) simultaneously filed 261 lawsuits against individual music file sharers while announcing the Clean Slate Program, then announced 41 additional lawsuits in early December. The program gives those who illegally swap music the chance to turn themselves in.

"For those who want to... avoid a potential lawsuit, this is the way to go," said Mitch Bainwol, RIAA chairman and CEO. RIAA blames music file-sharing for a 31 percent drop in compact disc sales since mid-2000.

Mainstream Linux

Analysts say Linux poses a threat to computer giant Microsoft. The operating system alternative to Microsoft Windows has had a successful year and boasts software that is more secure.

Chairman Bill Gates announced at the Comdex convention, in what has been seen as a move to compete with the growing popularity of Linux, the company's development of a new security program called "Longhorn."

Games go to the movies

Many of 2003's blockbuster movies had their Xbox, Game Cube and PlayStation 2 counterparts.

The trend reached a critical mass during the summer with the release of "Enter the Matrix," "Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness" and "The Hulk" -- all released around the same time they made it onto the big screen in dramatic form.

Aside from Hollywood's contribution to gaming, an unprecedented 250 new games are were slated for release during the Christmas shopping season.

64-bit chip

Apple's latest G5 computer and AMD's Athlon 64 processor both contain a revolutionary 64-bit chip once reserved for servers and high end work stations, but now available in personal computers..

Much faster than 32-bit systems, which are most widely used, the computing power and speed of these new systems is unparalleled. As much as 16 billion gigabytes of data can be handled at a time. Analysts suggest that Companies that have large databases can cut costs with the high-powered chip.


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