Monday, 2 March 2009

Ep 100: Your Top 10 Science Stories from 2008

With 2008 done and dusted, it is now time to look back and reflect on the science year that was. It is also our 100th podcast episode, so I would like to say thanks very much to all my subscribers, whether you get your Mr Science fix via the podcast, email, in an RSS reader, however you do it, thanks! If you have, by some chance, listened to all 100 episodes, then I'd love to hear from you as not even my parents have listened to them all....

The winner of our 2008 year in science competition is... Dr Steven Farrell from Cork in Ireland. Congratulations Steven! Steven won the random draw for suggesting the Large Hadron Collider as his favourite science story from 2008. Thanks to everyone who entered the competition and suggested stories - each story listed below was entered by at least one person. Steven has won the book The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2008 - the book will be published very shortly and will feature one blog by me - I'll put out a post about this when the book comes out, but in the meantime, check out the 2007 version.

Listen to his podcast here - includes short snippets from the music of 2008, plus a couple of shout-outs from friends of the show (thanks Brains Matter and Jacqui Hayes from Diffusion):



Now to the countdown....

10. Weird Animals

2008 was a year for weird science emanating out of Europe:



9. Weird Research (impacting our sex lives...)

Two bits of weird science that made the news in 2008 will have quite an impact on our sex lives:
  • But the researchers from California who confirmed that the humble roll of sticky tape is a source of x-rays should perhaps concern us. The researchers admit that Soviet scientists had found something along these lines in the 1960's, but still don't know how it works. We should all think twice about wrapping Christmas presents with the tape dispenser close to our nether regions...


8. The Kakeya conjecture

And now for some difficult science, and the work of Zeev Dvir and Australia’s own Terence Tao on the Kakeya conjecture is mind-blowing, if you understand it.

The Kakeya conjecture is part of geometric measure theory and stems from the Kakeya needle problem posed in 1917:

What is the least area in the plane required to continuously rotate a needle of unit length and zero thickness around completely (i.e. by 360 degrees)

For instance, you can rotate a unit needle inside a unit disk, which has area π/4. By using a deltoid one requires only π/8 area. See here for an animation of that rotation.

In 1928, a bloke by the name of Besicovitch showed that in fact you can rotate this needle in an arbitrarily small amount of area – that is, essentially zero area. This seems unintuitive, but is not too difficult to picture. Imagine you have a needle and you slide it along the direction it points for some distance (which costs zero area - remember the needle has zero width). Then turn the needle slightly, which costs a small amount of area, slide it back and turn it slightly again. Then slide up, turn, slide back, turn etc. At each turn you rotate in the opposite direction to the last. If you keep doing this until the needle has completed 360 degrees, the amount of area that has actually been used to turn the needle gets smaller and smaller for smaller and smaller turns at the end of each needle slide. Check out this animation to see this idea in action.

The Kakeya conjecture concerns the fact that you can make this needle turn through arbitrarily small amounts of area, and takes it into higher dimensions (that is, not simply 2 dimensions). Zeev Dvir, who according to Terence Tao produced a “beautifully simple argument”, proved a special case of the conjecture, the finite field Kakeya conjecture.

Perhaps this should have made my mathematics highlights of 2008



7. The creation of artificial bacteria by Craig Venter

Scientists have discovered a more efficient way of building a synthetic genome that could one day enable them to create artificial life. The method is already being used to help develop next generation biofuels and biochemicals in the labs of controversial US scientist Craig Venter.

Venter has hailed artificial life forms as a potential remedy to illness and global warming, but the prospect is highly controversial and arouses heated debate over its potential ramifications and the ethics of engineering artificial life. The J. Craig Venter Institute succeeded in synthetically reproducing the DNA of a simple bacteria last year.



6. Chandrayaan moon landing by India

India became the first country outside the US and the old USSR to land a spacecraft on the moon. Its lunar orbiting spacecraft Chandrayaan 1 released the Moon Impact Probe, which reached the surface of the Moon on Nov 14 2008. This date was chosen to commemorate the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister who initiated India's space program. Developed in India by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the MIP had the Indian flag painted on its exterior. Although Japan and Europe had previously commanded their orbiters Hiten and SMART-1 to crash on the Moon's surface at the end of their lifetimes, India's MIP was the first probe designed specifically for a trip to the lunar surface since the Soviet lander Luna 24 in 1976.

The Indian MIP-1 probe did not include braking rockets and was destroyed upon impacting the lunar surface at its planned speed of 3,100 miles per hour.



5. Stem Cell Fraud

One of the less savoury aspects of science is fraud. In 2006, South Korean Hwang Woo-suk fabricated stem-cell results in two academic papers, and in 2008, stem-cell fraud again hit the headlines.

Morayma Reyes, a former member of one of the highest-profile teams in stem-cell biology, was found to have falsified results. In 2007, the work of Catherine Verfaillie and researchers from the University of Minnesota became mired in controversy, after magazine New Scientist pointed to irregularities in their published results. An expert panel was examined and it was found that PhD student Morayma Reyes had falsified data.

The fraud is significant as in 2002, the team published a paper in Nature suggesting that a rare type of adult stem cell from bone marrow could give rise to all of the body's tissues. Such versatility had previously been seen only in embryonic stem cells. This was an astounding result and opened the door to creating cell-lines in a more “ethical” manner than using embryos.



4. The Story of HM

The most moving science story from 2008, and certainly some of the best science writing, comes from the New York Times and concerns the life and death of Henry Gustav Molaison, known as HM.

HM knew his name, that his father’s family came from Louisiana and his mother’s from Ireland. He knew of the 1929 stock market crash and World War II, but not much more. He could not remember anything of his life before 1953, when he underwent an experimental brain operation to correct an epileptic seizure disorder. He emerged from the operation with profound amnesia and had lost the ability to form any new memories.

For the next 55 years of his life to 2008, everything he did, from meeting someone, to going for a walk, eating dinner and watching TV, in his mind, it was the first time he had ever done it. And throughout those 55 years, he was recognised as the most important patient in the history of brain science. He took part in hundreds of studies and contributed immensely to our understanding of learning, memory and what it means to be human. HM died in 2008.



3. Discovery of water ice on Mars

I love the fact that it was a Mars Phoenix twitter status update that confirmed what many of us had always hoped, that there is water ice on Mars.

Water-ice has been found in vast quantities just below the surface across great swathes Mars. Some people are now arguing that NASA should now commit itself to a manned landing within 20 years. The discovery was made by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and now seems to answer a long-unanswered puzzle, where did all the water on Mars go? We’ve known for a while from valleys on Mars that water once flowed and we used to ask whether all the water evaporated into space because of the lack of atmospheric pressure on the surface. Now it seems it all froze underground. If it all melted, Mars would be completely covered in a planet-wide ocean!

Incidentally, the Mars Phoenix Lander won a Shorty award for twitter its efforts.



2. Climate Change

Climate change will feature in every top 10 of science from now until the year 3000, if we’re still here and writing blogs and recording podcasts - and it's making its third appearance on this blog after topping the 2006 list and coming in 9th in 2007. The hole the in ozone layer was the second largest in history, the Arctic experienced its second smallest cover of ice, and after remaining flat for a decade, methane levels started to rise again.

The Australian government let nearly everyone down with its soft carbon targets, and concerns have mounted over the global production of biofuels which have been grown in place of food crops.

Watch this space, I’m sure climate change will feature again in 2009.



1. The Large Hadron Collider

In the words of Dr Steven Farrell, our competition winner...

I loved the LHC for a couple of great reasons. Firstly, growing up in the age of Bond villains who were intent on gigantic technological pieces capable of destroying the earth, I loved the idea that the collider might possibly generate a black hole and consume the earth thus destroying all evidence of human existence. Awesome. I don't care if any number of physics associations came out and said it wouldn't happen. They couldn't be 100% sure that it wouldn't. Fantastic. And the second reason is obviously that this rather expensive piece of technology that took a fair bit of time to put together broke. And pretty darn quick too. So yeah, that's my highlight.

It cost approximately US$10 billion to build, and almost 20 years to complete, got everyone excited, then it broke. For about week, everyone was an expert on the Higgs boson and fearful that the LHC might create a mini-black hole, which would not only swallow the Earth, but the whole Universe! After a few tests and no black holes, a small fault in one of the magnets caused the LHC to be shutdown. Watch this space in 2009.



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So there you have it, the top 10 science stories from 2008 as contributed by Mr Science Show lovers. Thanks to all who contributed and we'll do it all again next year! Please let me know of any stories you would have liked to have seen - and please write and say hi if you're a long-time listener of the show!

Listen to his podcast here: