From gigantic planets to tiny images

DNA used for data storage. (Montage: ETH Zurich)

DNA used for data storage. (Montage: ETH Zurich)

From the smallest ever printed colour image and the world’s largest plant seeds to the darkest matter in the infinite expanse of the universe - over the past year, ETH research has focussed on all animate and inanimate aspects of the natural world, presenting fascinating results and ingenious inventions. ETH News again looks back on the past year with a selection of highlights from 2015.

Having written this annual review, the ETH News team is now breaking up for Christmas. We look forward to keeping you up to date again when we return on 4 January 2016. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The new year marked the beginning of Lino Guzzella ’s term as President of ETH Zurich. Guzzella was also appointed to the Board of the Rectors’ Conference, swissuniversities. Chemists made the news when they developed a new type of glass that acts as an electrode material and which could significantly increase the capacity and energy density of today’s lithium ion batteries. A new computer model showed that a huge celestial object may have crashed into Mars, causing the formation of the Red Planet’s two very different hemispheres. Researchers developed a simple method of fabricating particularly well tolerated sheaths for implants such as pacemakers, which should reduce the incidence of complications. Prizes awarded in January were also cause for celebration: the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control was awarded the Watt d’Or in the category of Energy-Efficient Mobility by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy. Innovative strength even among spin-offs: 22 new companies were founded by ETH researchers over the previous year.


A shining hour for astrophysics: An international research team discovered for the first time the formation of a quadruple star system that develops in an exceptionally short time, in astronomical terms, from widely scattered fragments of a filamentary gas cloud. On the other hand, it is possible to store information for a very long time - almost for eternity - if information-carrying segments of DNA are encapsulated in tiny glass balls and read with special software, as proposed by ETH chemists. This report also caught people’s attention: parts of the Swiss-German population are exposed to questionable UV filters , contained in sun and skin creams, in quantities that may be harmful to health, according to the results of a consumer survey. A moment of glory for the author Adolf Muschg, Professor Emeritus of Literature at ETH Zurich: Federal Councillor Alain Berset awarded him Switzerland’s Grand Prix Literatur for his complete works.


Researchers led by Professor Manfred Kopf received ETH Zurich’s Spark Award for a new method of identifying the cellular constituents of an immune cell. Other biologists developed a new method of identifying thousands of different proteins in tissue samples in one fell swoop. The technique has the potential to revolutionise the field of pathology. The university’s scientists also took seriously a problem that faces many men: a gene construct that can be switched on with a blue light and which eliminates erectile dysfunction made global headlines. And here is another development from an ETH laboratory that attracted a great deal of interest: researchers used tobacco cells and nanotubes to build a thermometer that is at least 100 times more sensitive than previous temperature sensors. In addition, climate researchers found an answer to the question of whether climate change causes cold snaps such as those that recently hit the eastern US. "No," came the answer from the ETH researchers, who demonstrated that in general global warming reduces temperature variability. And, for the first time, evolutionary scientists provided a plausible explanation of why the coco-de-mer , the double coconut palm of the Seychelles, grows the largest and heaviest seeds in the entire plant kingdom.


Earth scientists at ETH put forward a new explanation of how the high-lying valleys of Tibet were formed. They and their colleagues were also delighted at the verdict of the QS World University Rankings by Subject: ETH Zurich’s earth scientists are the best in the world. ETH physicists were co-editors of the first map of dark matter in outer space, and ETH biologists presented a three-dimensional map of the protein-producing machinery in cells of living creatures. An international team led by ETH biologists decoded the genome of bumblebees , and robotics researchers developed a system to produce large numbers of reference samples for archaeological stone tools. This allows archaeologists to determine the purpose of a Stone Age tool.


Criminologists at ETH reported an encouraging conclusion of a study: the canton of Zurich saw a significant fall in youth violence over the last eight years. Particularly large decreases were observed in cases of theft, blackmail and bullying. In contrast, cases involving sexual violence declined the least. ETH geologists discovered spectacular craters on the bed of Lake Neuchâtel. These are among the world’s largest underwater craters to be found in inland waters. Other ETH scientists presented a new explanation for the strong earthquakes off the coast of Japan. ETH Zurich established a new Game Technology Center and thus strengthened technological research in computer games. It also extended its commitment in Singapore, where ETH Zurich and Singapore’s National Research Foundation will continue to operate the Future Cities Laboratory for the next five years. The laboratory’s research focuses on sustainable urban development.


The month of June featured sustainability and new materials: scientists at the World Food System Center carried out an investigation on behalf of the government to determine the major research priorities facing sustainable production and a sustainable food trade in Switzerland. An event was held to inaugurate the House of Natural Resources , a flagship building that deployed new construction techniques, including the use of hardwood, for the first time. ETH awarded the Max Rössler Prize to David Norris who has developed materials with specific optical properties and who researches, inter alia, tiny, luminous quantum dots and novel nano-lasers. Other ETH scientists used a special composite material to develop a miniature, simply constructed sensor for measuring CO2. Lastly, thanks to a donation, ETH Zurich was able to expand its Zurich Information Security and Privacy Center ( ZISC ).


The stars were aligned for astronomers at the start of the month: for the first time, they observed the birth of a planet , and then other scientists discovered a particularly massive black hole. This had clearly grown so quickly that the host galaxy was not able to keep pace. The Executive Board published an investigation report, which concluded that a professor who had been accused of manipulating figures at the start of the year was not guilty of scientific misconduct. As Europe sweltered its way through a heatwave, climate researchers at ETH kept a cool head: they showed how periods of hot weather are related to the formation of blocking patterns. However, keeping people warm was the focus of an innovation by materials scientists, who successfully developed an insulating yarn from slaughterhouse waste. Insulation (against sound) can also be achieved using quantum physics, as demonstrated in an ETH study: a model consisting of 270 pendulums connected by springs can be activated so that only the outer pendulums begin to move.


ETH welcomed teams from all over the world to a practice session for the Cybathlon. The Cybathlon, which will be held in autumn 2016, is a unique event in which people with disabilities compete using the latest assistive technologies. Researchers succeeded in using a new class of alloys to produce a material that can withstand extreme pressures and temperatures. Speaking of extreme temperatures, hot water has been used to produce electricity in Iceland for decades. For the first time, earth scientists from ETH were able to simulate the formation of superheated geothermal reservoirs. Geneticists decoded the mechanism that inactivates one of the two X chromosomes in female mammals. At Industry Day , scientists presented their research to industry representatives. ETH’s students developed a stable, sustainable and yet cost-effective bamboo bicycle and an ETH spin-off presented clever ideas for the smart homes of the future. The end of the month was marked by the ceremony to turn the first sod for Agrovet-Strickhof. This jointly operated agricultural education and research centre is being built in Eschikon by ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and the canton of Zurich.


This lively month kicked off with the updated seismic hazard model from the Swiss Seismological Service. This showed that earthquakes could occur at any time and anywhere in Switzerland. Reassurance was offered, however, by biologists in a different field: it is not possible for microRNA molecules to be absorbed from food and thus to have a physiological effect. Shortly before the semester was under way, researchers enthralled 25,000 visitors with the topic of light as part of Scientifica. At the start of the semester, ETH welcomed more female students than ever before. In future, this will probably also apply to more degree programmes: together with other Swiss universities, ETH plans to offer a new course in medicine from 2017. In the QS Rankings, ETH leapt into the top 10 of the world’s best universities for the first time - which was immediately confirmed in the THE rankings. Ulrich Weidmann was appointed the new Vice President for Human Resources and Infrastructure, and researchers caused a stir with a biomimetic type of dental prosthesis. Lastly, materials scientist Nicola Spaldin was awarded the prestigious Körber Prize.


Lino Guzzella and Patrick Aebischer travelled to Brussels. Following discussions with representatives of the EU, the Presidents of ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne made it clear that Switzerland needs full association with the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020. Plant scientists discovered a way for the cassava plants to form higher levels of vitamin B6 in its tuberous roots and leaves. In collaboration with colleagues from Princeton, physicists at ETH succeeded in building a resonator for electrons and to direct the generated standing waves on to an artificial atom. Furthermore, a new study showed that more than half the
potato harvest is lost on the way from field to fork. ETH scientists from the fields of computer science, architecture, mechanical engineering and robotics highlighted the risks and opportunities of digitalisation to Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann. Digital fabrication was also used to produce the ’Rock Print’ installation, which stands four metres tall and was on show at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.


Together with the Max Planck Society, ETH opened the new Center for Learning Systems. The researchers at the new centre want to understand how the intelligence of living beings is determined and how this can be applied to robots and machines. Learning was also on the agenda for the newly elected members of the federal parliament. At an introductory event organised by ETH, the new members of the National Council and Council of States were prepped for their first session. Scientists taught water droplets how to trampoline and in doing so took a big step towards the development of materials that prevent the formation of ice. Food technologists presented a new ultra-light form of gold , and physicists made the surprising discovery of a new particle. This particle is related to the Weyl fermion, which the mathematician Hermann Weyl predicted almost 90 years ago. Exactly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein presented his general theory of relativity. At her first ETH Day as rector, Sarah Springman described how she wants to provide students with the tools they need for their future careers. ETH biomechanic Sabrina Badir emerged victorious from the Falling Walls Lab’s international ideas competition. She developed a device that can determine the risk of a premature birth.


It was a busy end to the year: At the beginning of December, the Bi-City Biennale opened in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, co-curated by two ETH architects. ETH and the University of Zurich celebrated the opening of Wyss Zurich , which will enable important discoveries in fundamental medical research to be translated into practice as quickly as possible. ETH researchers presented a remarkable diagnostic procedure based on birefringence and special lipids. Doctors could use this to quickly verify infections like HIV or Ebola. For the first time ever, biologists also recorded the entire population of bacterial strains living on one plant: 10,000 different strains were counted. How the lifetime of a worm can be extended was shown by a research team comprising ETH Zurich and a research consortium in Jena. If just one of the 30 located " ageing genes " is manipulated, the healthy life span of the test creatures is extended by more than a quarter. World record before Christmas: The tiniest inkjet colour image in the world was printed by ETH researchers working together with an ETH spin-off company. The image made up of quantum dots measures as little as the cross-sectional area of a human hair. And finally an implantable genetic construct that has an AND logic gate and fights psoriasis made headlines. At the Christmas drinks reception, the school management not only looked forward into the near and distant future, but also bid farewell to Vice President Human Resources and Infrastructure, Roman Boutellier. He had held the position for seven years, during which time he shaped the development of the ETH campus.