2014: The Year in (Unsung) Science
by Pearl Tesler • January 6, 2015
If there’s any theme to the big science stories this year, it might be this—science giveth, and science taketh away.
Eureka, we found an easy breezy recipe for stem cells! (Oops, sorry, we can’t actually seem to repeat it.) Look, there’s proof of the inflationary model of the Big Bang via ancient gravity waves! (Oh, wait, that was probably just Milky Way dust on the lens.) Hey, watch as we land this probe on a comet! (Drat. It took a bad bounce into a shady spot and now the solar panels won’t work.)
Fortunately, the big stories aren’t the only stories. There were roughly a million scientific articles published in over 24,000 journals this year, and it goes without saying that most of them went unnoticed—unless, of course, you happen to work at the Exploratorium.
So we decided to turn inward and asked ourselves: What science stories got us excited this year? Here they are; all give, no take.
Could alien DNA hitch a ride to Earth on a meteorite?
Maybe, say Swiss and German researchers. They put DNA samples on the outside of a rocket, sent it up into orbit, and let it fall back to Earth again.
You might think that the intense heat from re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere—262°F (128°C)—would burn and destroy the delicate molecules of genetic material. You’d be wrong. Many of the DNA samples were tough enough to survive.
What’s more, when the researchers took those samples back into the lab and inserted them into bacterial cells, they produced functional proteins. In other words, the DNA still worked.
If life from outer space weren’t enough, here’s a bonus nod to 1950s sci-fi: They tracked the DNA using a green fluorescent protein—not exactly “little green men from outer space” but close.
Source: PLOS ONE
2. 2000-Year-Old Computer
A century ago, sponge divers discovered a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea and from it pulled up a trove of ancient artifacts—among them heavily encrusted something that archeologists initially dismissed as a rock. Then someone noticed that the “rock” had a gear in it.
Eventually, computerized tomography enabled a detailed peek inside the crusty surface of what is now known as the Antikythera mechanism, a mind-bogglingly advanced piece of technology that is described as the first analog computer ever made, capable of calculating lunar, solar, and planetary cycles, including the prediction of eclipses and other celestial subtleties.
This year, researchers announced that the world’s oldest computer was even older than previously thought. Using a mathematical method known as a sieve of Eratosthenes, they upped the ante on the Antikythera mechanism’s age to 205 B.C., predating the development of trigonometry and suggesting that the real brains behind the mechanism might actually have been Babylonian, not Greek.
Speaking of real brains, here’s a little project for a rainy day. Why not build a working model of the Antikythera Mechanism out of Legos?
3. Twin Primes, Ad Infinitum
Long ago, mathematicians noticed an odd pattern among the prime numbers, numbers divisible only by themselves and 1. Often, and seemingly at random, two primes occur separated by a single even number. For example, 5 and 7 are prime numbers separated by 2, as are 41 and 43. We call these “twin primes.”
Mathematicians know that there are an infinite number of primes, but here’s a question that has long kept at least some of them up at night: How many of these primes are twin primes?
Last year, Yitang Zhang stunned, yes, stunned the mathematical community by showing that there are an infinite number of prime pairs separated by an amount less than 70 million. This year, mathematicians have been furiously working to push this number down—if they can get it down to 2, they will have (finally!) proven that there are, in fact, an infinite number of twin primes. Currently, they’ve got the prime gap proven down to 246…hold your breath for updates.
Some discoveries we love in part because they are so obscure. This is an, er, prime example. Says Exploratorium exhibit developer (and mathematician) Paul Stepahin, “It’s almost like the pointlessness is what makes it so beautiful.”
4. Beaked Whales Record Dive
Take that, elephant seal: This year the Cuvier’s beaked whale set the deep-diving bar to a record new low.
Marine biologists staged the competition by attaching satellite tags to eight Cuvier’s beaked whales and recording their diving behavior off the Southern California coast. These 20-foot (6-meter), two-and-a-half ton whales must have sensed a challenge, because they smashed both the depth and duration records for a diving mammal, with a descent to 2 miles (3.2 km) below the surface and a single dive that lasted over two hours—137 minutes, to be precise. Left in the sediment are the previous records made by elephant seals: 1.5 miles (2.4 km) depth and 120-minute duration.
Pitch blackness, frigid water, and a crushing 300 atmospheres of pressures make depths like these daunting even to a devoted mammalian diver. Researchers assume that the dining down there must be fine indeed—that or the whales are diving to escape the noise from the nearby US Navy sonar range.
Source: PLOS ONE
5. Great Balls of Fire
Lightning researchers—not the ultrafast kind, but people who actually study lightning—had a ball this year. For the first time in human history, they caught on film a form of lightning so rare that many doubted its existence.
Anecdotal reports of this meteorological unicorn—called ball lightning—have bounced around for years. Blamed for killing people and setting buildings afire, so-called “fireballs” can appear during thunderstorms as glowing orbs ranging in size from a golf ball to a delivery van, floating eerily in mid air for seconds before vanishing into thin, albeit ionized, air.
The fleeting footage of ball lightning is hardly electrifying to the uninitiated, but it includes spectral emission data that indicate the presence of silicon, iron, and calcium in the glowing plasma ball—lending support to a theory that vaporized soil plays a role in this strange, spherical show.
Source: American Physical Society
6. Dinos in the Henhouse
Birds are dinosaurs. This isn’t news; we’ve long known that birds evolved from the group of dinosaurs called theropods, which includes T. Rex and Velociraptor.
Just this year, however, researchers announced that, based on a study of chromosomes, the bird that’s the most similar to its fearsome Cretaceous ancestors is—drumroll—the chicken.
Obviously, there are plenty of differences between today’s beaked barnyard bantams and the dinosaurs we know from fossils—big tails and gnashing teeth, for starters—and the authors of the study were quick to caution that it’s hard to say whether chickens are also physically (as opposed to genetically) the closest kin to extinct dinosaurs.
In fact, another genetic study this year of 48 bird species reached a different conclusion: ostriches and their tinamou relatives, not chickens, are the most like dinosaurs. Genetic fine points aside, we suppose they all taste about the same when fried—like chicken.
Scientists used chickens to simulate the gait of theropod dinosaurs, such as T. Rex, strapping a plunger-like appendage onto the bird’s tails and filming the resulting change in their gait. Try that with an ostrich.
Source: Science News
7. Cave Art Rocks
Eurocentrism got a five-finger salute this fall when Australian archeologists announced that cave paintings found in the Indonesian tropics date from 40,000 years ago, as old as the oldest cave paintings found in Europe or anywhere else in the world.
Cave paintings depicting hand outlines and a pig-like creature were discovered on cave walls on the island of Salawesi and successfully dated using uranium-series dating, a technique that estimates age by measuring the growth of mineral deposits on rock surfaces.
The discovery shakes up a long-held view that Western Europe was the exclusive be-all and end-all of the ancient rock art world, and suggests that the human art scene is both much older and more widespread than previously thought.
8. Greater Tater Smites Blight
Potato blight—you heard about it in history class (hint: famine), but this disease is an ongoing scourge. Today, farmers in the UK spray their crops as much as 15 times a season to keep blight at bay.
In February, British researchers announced the successful completion of a three-year trial of a new genetically modified potato impervious to blight. What’s more, the GM tater yielded twice the tubers. Even so, the spud will probably be a market dud in “frankenfood”-leery EU, and will likely take root elsewhere first.
Exploratorium staff scientist Isabel Hawkins sees another story behind this story, noting that the researchers fail to give credit for the “new” blight-fighting gene to its true source: 10,000 years of careful cultivation by the native people of Peru and Bolivia.
“The 5,000 varieties of native potatoes are the result of indigenous knowledge, what we call ‘selective breeding’—a form of genetic engineering—developed through thousands of years of relationship between Andean peoples and their environment.”
Chew on that, Mr. Chips.
9. A “Junior” Moment
Remember when you were little and you dumped a bowl of spaghetti on your head? If the answer is no, well, you’re not alone.
Recent research expands our understanding of “childhood amnesia,” the fact that adults remember almost nothing of their early lives. Psychologists logged discussions with three-year-olds about events they remembered, returning to the same kids later, at ages five to nine, to see which memories they retained.
What they discovered is that somewhere around age seven, we forget life’s early events. It’s not clear why, but parallel research from neuroscience has an idea: It may be that the explosive growth rate of neurons in young brains destabilizes early memories.
All those lost memories? Not to worry— fortunately, someone took a picture of you with spaghetti on your head.
10. Monkey Moonshines
Next time you belly up to the bar with a baboon, be sure to order your furry friend a Shirley Temple. Only certain primates—ourselves included—can produce the enzymes required to efficiently metabolize ethanol.
This biochemical feat is what allows you to quaff a (reasonable) amount of alcohol and still remain bipedal. Scientists long assumed it evolved as a direct result of deliberate fermentation, a happy discovery our species cooked up roughly 9,000 years ago.
But this March, researchers announced that the mutation responsible for our ability to drink responsibly actually dates much farther back, to 10 million years ago—just around the time that our tree-dwelling ancestors were shifting to a terrestrial lifestyle.
The mutation had legs. Primates able to eat fallen fruit that had fermented on the ground would have had a selective advantage over those who were stuck eating only fresh fruit from trees. In short: What happens under the plum tree stays under the plum tree.