Unsung Science 2015
by Kevin Boyd • January 12, 2016
Unless you slept through most of 2015, you probably read stories aplenty about new gene-editing techniques and the return of El Niño, and saw all the new photos of Pluto. Rather than rehash the top ten stories of the year, we’ve compiled a list of seven stories you may not have heard about.
Join us as we sing a song of the unsung science stories of 2015.
You might imagine that a book of medical treatments from the ninth century would be filled with recipes for mostly worthless concoctions—similar to the secret potions you made when you were five. But at least one recipe for an eye salve, found in the medieval English tome Bald’s Leechbook, proved to be much more valuable than vile.
The recipe called for just four ingredients: onion, garlic, cow bile (produced in the liver), and wine. Researchers were astonished to find that the salve easily wiped out a tough strain of bacteria—called MRSA—which is notoriously resistant to the powerful antibiotics used in hospitals today.
The English healers of the Middle Ages probably didn’t just get lucky, the researchers say. They likely used some degree of experimentation and testing to find the most effective remedies. And, no FDA approval required.
Lions roar, owls hoot, wolves howl, and giraffes…Well, what do giraffes say? Mostly giraffes are quiet so their vocal communication is poorly studied—and may not exist at all. Over the years, however, observers have reported that giraffes snort, cough, grunt, and a make a few other simple sounds.
But when Austrian researchers recorded some 900 hours of giraffe audio, they were most excited to hear them making long, low-frequency humming sounds.
Mysteriously, the giraffes only hummed at night. The tonal quality of the humming supports the idea that giraffes might be saying something to one another with these noises. We may never know what.
Can light travel slower than the speed of light? It sounds as likely as a zebra shaking off its stripes. But researchers in Glasgow and Prague showed for the first time that if you send light particles—photons—through a filter that changes their shape, you can also make the photons go slower, even after they leave the filter.
To prove it, the researchers set up a race between normal photons and the “reshaped” photons. When they sent them side by side down identical racetracks, the normal photons finished first. The reshaped photons only lagged by a few femtoseconds (that’s millions of a billionth of a second)—truly a photo finish.
To design strong, new, lightweight materials, scientists often look to the animal world for inspiration. This year, they discovered a new world record in physical strength—the teeth of a small mollusk known as the common limpet.
Though it measures just a couple of inches across, the limpet has more than 1,900 teeth, which it uses to scrape algae from the surfaces of rocks. When scientists dissected the teeth’s molecular structure, they found it contained microscopic fibers of an iron-bearing mineral called goethite.
Strength testing revealed that the teeth were the strongest material ever discovered in a living organism. So next time you meet a limpet, you might want to back away from that seaweed salad.
Looking for a place with plenty of natural light? This year, astronomers discovered a solar system governed by five different suns. Visible near the Big Dipper (if you have a telescope), the star system features two pairs of binary stars—in which two stars orbit around each other—plus a fifth star near one of the binaries.
It’s not the first five-star system ever seen, but it’s the first with such a weird combination of stars. In one of the binary pairs, the two stars are touching each other.
And the astronomers say there could be planets orbiting any of the five stars. If so, you’d never have to wait long to see a sunset. (Photo via BBC)
Look very closely at a chiton—a simple mollusk with a plated shell—and you’ll find a thousand microscopic eyes, which look like black dots, nestled in the grooves of its shell.
This year scientists learned that these eyes are fairly powerful—good enough to distinguish between a passing predator and the shadow of a cloud passing over the sun. Yet the eyes are made up of tiny, transparent crystals of the same hard mineral as the rest of the chiton’s shell. So the chiton gains vision without sacrificing much in shell strength.
The eyes aren’t quite sharp enough to read a Twitter feed, but who needs tweets when you’re clinging to a rock in the tide zone?
The Exploratorium blogged this story twice in 2015, but we think it still counts as unsung science, since El Nino grabbed so much of this year’s ocean news.
To review: there’s been a giant blob of unusually warm ocean water parked just south of Alaska since early 2014. Although it’s only about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5–2 degrees Celsius) warmer than normal, that’s enough to throw the entire ocean ecosystem into disarray.
With such warm water, the plant-like plankton that form the base of the food web can’t grow. So many larger animals are struggling. Salmon and herring populations are plummeting, and many sea birds and young sea lions are starving.
Yet some undesirable organisms thrive in warmer waters. A toxic algae called Pseudo-nitzschia has blossomed, poisoning waters and ruining crab and shellfish harvests all along the West Coast.
But 2016 may bring better news. Scientists say that the blob is finally starting to fade in the face of winter winds from the north.
Illustrations by Emma Bailey