Not Exactly Rocket Science Review of 2008

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Phew. Another year almost over and it’s been a really good one. This time last year, I was still blogging at WordPress, and it was only in late February that I beamed aboard the mighty ScienceBlog mothership. It’s been a great experience and all in all, I’ve managed to rack up about 190 posts on new research (excluding reposts and random stuff), over 1,500 comments and over 400,000 page views in a year. Elsewhere, I published a book based on this blog, I wrote about 2% of another book called “Defining Moments in Science“, and I wrote three features and several news pieces for New Scientist.

And given all that, it’s nice to take some time for reflection and with that in mind, I’m going to continue a tradition that I started last year – choosing some of the favourite stories from 2008. This list has no pretensions to be a catalogue of the year’s biggest stories or its most important breakthroughs. It’s just what I personally deemed to be the most interesting and just plain, downright cool.

So, without further ado, here are my picks. Once again, a massive thanks to anyone who read, commented on, or linked to this site over the last year. I hope you’ll join me for 2009.

Animal behaviour

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A group of frogs drive bone claws through their toes for defence, rather like Marvel’s mutant superhero, Wolverine. Cats have retractable claws too, but these frogs are the only animals whose claws need to pierce their way to use. They even use a superhuman healing factor to close the wound.

When giant bees are threatened by hornets, workers raise their rear-ends by ninety degrees and shake them in unison. The result is a ripple of booty-shaking that passes over the surface of the hive, a beautiful “Mexican moon” that deters the hornets.

Small, aquatic invertebrates called tardigrades cemented their position as the world’s hardest animals by becoming the first to survive a voyage in open space. Launched into orbit aboard a Russian satellite, they shrugged off the vacuum of space, extreme dehydration, freezing temperatures, weightlessness and severe radiation. Elsewhere, another group of hardy animals – the rotifers – demonstrated a resistance to radiation that outclasses all others. 

For centuries, farmers have known that their livestock not only gather in large herds but also tend to face the same way when grazing. But this year, Google’s satellites revealed that this alignment has nothing to do with sun or wind, but is driven by a magnetic sense that had gone unnoticed for millennia. Right under the noses of herdsmen and hunters, cows and deer have been lining up in a north-south line like a living compass needle.

The tiny pen-tailed treeshrew emerged as nature’s heavyweight when it comes to boozing. They drink the highly alcoholic nectar of the bertam palm,  frequently drinking as much alcohol for their weight as a human woman knocking back nine glasses of wine in an evening. And yet, they never show signs of drunkenness or hangovers. Ah, if only…

A good year for fans of parasitic wasps – the emerald cockroach wasp injects cockroaches with a highly specialised venom that doesn’t paralyse them but specifically reduces their motivation to walk. The wasp can grab the roach by its antennae and walk it around like a dog on a leash.  Another wasp turns a caterpillar into an incubator and a bodyguard – wasp larvae eat the victim from the inside out, but some stay behind and make the zombie caterpillar keep watch over the wasp grubs, waving its head to deter predators.


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Heteronectes is a half-committed flatfish and the year’s most beautiful transitional fossil. Its skull is asymmetrical and one eye has begun migrating to the other side of its head but stops before crossing to the other side. All living flatfish have eyes on both sides of their heads. It’s a marvellous missing link.

Taking second place is Odontochelys, the world’s earliest turtle. Unlike all known species, it only had half a shell and strongly suggests that the bottom half of this unique defensive armour developed before the top half did. It also provided a chance for peppering a blog post with nostalgic Ninja Turtle-related puns. (And taking the bronze is Onychonycteris, an early bat that shows that these aeronauts developed flight before echolocation.

Fossils of small predatory dinosaurs sitting on top of eggs tell us that dinosaurs cared for their young, but also which parent took more responsibility. The size of the clutches and the bones of the parent suggest that males cared for the babies alone, which means that fatherly care was probably also the norm for the earliest birds too. Today, ostriches, rheas and emus have kept up this ancient tradition.


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Experiments allow us to replay the tape of life in a lab. The latest results from a 20-year experiment with bacteria found that one extremely rare adaptation had turned up just once in two decades. The mutation showed that small happenstances of history can have profound impacts on the course of evolution.

Artificial evolution isn’t restricted to bacteria – scientists can also watch languages evolving in labs. As artificial languages are passed down a chain of volunteers, they evolve features that make them easier to transmit effectively, becoming more structured and easier to learn in just ten iterations. What’s more, these adaptive features  arose without specific plans or designs on the part of the speakers, offering another parallel to biological evolution. Another study showed that languages evolve in rapid bursts

For blobs of goo, box jellyfish have surprisingly sophisticated eyes that are structurally similar to ours. And it turns out that their eyes are also built with many of the same genetic building blocks that ours are. They tell us yet again that important innovations, such as eyes, evolve by changing how existing groups of genes are used, rather than adding new ones to the mix. The song of the toadfish yields a similar moral.

A study of the biggest species throughout life’s entire history showed that over 3.6 billion years of evolution, life’s maximum size has shot up by 10 quadrillion times, from single cells to massive sequoias. The process happened in two main bursts – the first followed the evolution of more complex, compartmentalised cells and the second came after the advent of multi-celled creatures. Both coincided with dramatically rising levels of oxygen in the air, showing that environmental changes unlocked pre-existing evolutionary potential.


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Most of the planet’s ecosystems are made of a multitude of different species, rich tangles of living things all interacting, competing and cooperating in order to eke out an existence. But not always – in South Africa, within the darkness of a gold mine, there is an ecosystem that consists of a single species, a type of bacteria that is the only thing alive in the hot, oxygen-less depths. It is an ecosystem of one, living in complete isolation from the Sun’s energy.

A painstaking survey of three river estuaries showed that the local parasites, despite their tiny size, weigh more than the top predators in the area and their influence extended wider still. Those that castrated snails and turned them into parasite factories were most successful, which means that a massive proportion of the flesh in the estuaries is under parasite control. It’s their world and we’re just living in it.

The tiny mountain pine beetle is inadvertently speeding up climate change by turning North America’s pine forests from carbon sinks into carbon sources. The largest outbreak ever recorded has killed so many trees that they are releasing more carbon into the environment than they absorb.


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For the first time, a group of scientists discovered a virus that targets other viruses. Found in the cells of a giant virus, “Sputnik” is the only known member of the “virophages”, an entirely new family of meta-viruses that use others of its kind to reproduce.

Antibiotics are meant to kill bacteria, so it was disheartening to learn that some can literally eat antibiotics for breakfast and even thrive happily on nothing but antibiotics. These antibiotic-eaters were cultured from every one of 11 soil samples, taken from farmland and urban areas across the US. These resistant strains act as a living reservoir of innovative genetic methods for resisting antibiotics.

The next time you watch a snowfall, just think that among the falling flakes are some that house bacteria at their core. Pseudomonas syringae has a special protein on its surface that mimics the surface of an ice crystal and acts as a template for water molecules to crystallise around. These bacterial ice-makers are everywhere, showing up in snowfalls from the USA to Antarctica.


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Three independent studies reported amazing examples of genes hopping across the genomes of animals and plants, in a way that’s usually restricted to bacteria. American researchers discovered a group of genetic hitchhikers – dubbed the Space Invaders – that have clearly jumped around the genomes of several mammals, one reptile and one amphibian. A species of solar-powered green sea slug has stolen both the genes and the cellular machinery needed for photosynthesis, from the algae that it eats. And a group of permanently asexual animals – the rotifers – import all the sexual diversity they need by smuggling in genes from plants, bacteria and fungi. 

About 70% of the full mammoth genome was published this year, marking the first time that the genome of an extinct species has been sequenced almost to completion. Another group managed to clone mice from thawed bodies that had been frozen for 16 years, raising hopes for similar techniques to be applied to mammoths.

An “enhancer element” called HACNS1 may have contributed to the uniquely human aspects of our thumbs, wrists, ankles and feet. It’s a non-coding piece of DNA that controls the activity of other genes. It has gone relatively unchanged in almost all back-boned animals, but evolved rapidly in the human genome since we split away from chimpanzees. And if inserted into an embryonic mouse, it switches on genes in the part of the paw that eventually becomes the thumb.

Within a drop of blood, you can find all the information you need to reasonably guess where a person came from, without ever having to look at their face, name or passport. Small variations in our DNA are enough for the task. They can be used to pinpoint someone’s place of origin to a remarkable degree of accuracy, often to within a few hundred kilometres.

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An innovative study that carbon-dated body fat found that the number of fat cells in both thin and obese people is more or less set during childhood and adolescence. Adults, even those who lose masses of weight, have a constant number of fat cells and it’s changes in the volume of these cells that changes body weight. Elsewhere, fat mice showed that obesity can snowball down the generations through “epigenetic” changes, but that a special folate-rich diet could spare future generations of mice from a heightened risk of obesity.

For the first time, scientists have developed drugs that mimics the effects of endurance exercise. Two chemicals can turn regular lab rodents into furry Paula Radcliffes – mighty mice capable of running for up to 70%  further and longer than their peers. One of the drugs even managed to boost stamina without exercise.

Stem cell discoveries are starting to come thick and fast. This year, a group managed to produce embryonic stem cells from skin cells taken from an 82-year old woman with motor neurone disease. These reprogrammed stem cells were then converted into motor neurons, proving that the double-whammy of transformations needed for stem cell therapies is possible.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed millions of people, but those who survived still carry antibodies that can remember and neutralise the murderous strain, even after 90 years. To this day, their blood samples can neutralise the virus, showing that the immune system’s memory stays sharp till the end of life.


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A series of stunning real-world experiments showed that disorder breeds more disorder. The mere presence of petty crimes, such as graffiti or litter, can double the number of people who litter and steal. The results provide strong support for the controversial Broken Windows Theory, which suggests that signs of petty crimes, like broken windows, serve as a trigger for yet more criminal behaviour. It follows that fixing small problems can prevent the build-up of bigger ones and the gradual decay of a neighbourhood.

Exchanging minds is clearly impossible, these two scientists have created an illusion that can make people feel that another body – be it a mannequin or an actual person – is really theirs. The delusion is so powerful that the person can shake hands with their own real body without breaking the spell. Another study on illusions found that it’s possible to alter the severity of pain and swelling in an aching hand by making it seem larger or smaller.

The way people identify themselves racially, and the way others define them, change over time and are coloured by social status. Race is as much a flexible indicator of our social standing as it is a reflection of our biology.

A trio of studies showed that physical concepts like temperature and cleanliness are closely linked to mental ones like warmth of personality and moral purity. One found that a warming cup of coffee can also bring out the warmth in their social relationships, pushing them to judge others more positively and promoting their charitable side. Another found that social exclusion can literally make people feel cold. And a third found that cleaning, or even thinking about cleanliness, can influence a person’s moral compass, swinging it towards a less judgmental direction. Phrases like “warm personalities”, “cold hearts” and “clean consciences” are more than just metaphors.

But a new study reveals that money can indeed buy happiness… if it’s spent on others. People who spend more on gifts and charities are happier than those who spend more on bills and personal treats. And those who are given a pot to spend are happier if they spend it on their friends than on themselves. The modern obsession with personal spending is rather like running on a hedonic treadmill.

Three studies looked at the role of punishment in managing cooperation among groups of people, who are vulnerable to cheats and freeloaders. One looked at the use of “antisocial punishment” (punishing those who don’t deserve it) in 16 countries around the world. And two others looked at whether the costs of punishment outweigh its benefits – the first concluded that winners don’t punish and the other found that in punishment pays off in the long run

People who lack control in their lives will try to cope psychologically by identifying coherent and meaningful relationships between things we observe. That can lead them to spot false patterns that aren’t there, believe in conspiracy theories and develop superstitions.


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Three studies showed that our decisions, and even our voting preferences, are strongly drive by unconscious forces. One found that the final verdicts of undecided decision-makers are only weakly related to their conscious preferences and more strongly influenced by unconscious views and biases they are unaware of. “Undecided” people have often secretly made up our minds, unbeknownst even to themselves. A second showed that patterns of activity in certain parts of our brain can predict the outcome of a decision seconds before we’re even aware that we’re making one. And a third found that our “startle reflexes” – the moisture on our skin or the strength of our blinks – can predict our political attitudes. The stronger these responses, the more likely people are to support the Iraq War or the Patriot Act; the weaker they are, the more people are likely to support gay marriage and abortion rights. 

A blind man called TN can flawlessly negotiate an obstacle course without cane or guide, even though the part of the brain that processes visual information is damaged and completely inactive, and he is completely unaware of the ability to see.

Two monkeys, using only electrodes implanted in their brains, were able to feed themselves with a robotic arm complete with working joints. This is the first time that a prosthetic has been placed under direct control of the relevant part of the brain.

A study that scanned the brains of improvising jazz musicians found that their impromptu performances could be driven by shutting down parts of the brain involved in self-assessment and focused attention and activating areas involved in a sense of self. This pattern could allow musicians to avoid over-thinking what they’re doing, while expressing themselves more clearly.

And finally…

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They say that a poor workman blames his tools but laboratory scientists may well have cause to. Some botched experiments may be due to chemicals leaching from the very plastic tubes that scientists use on an everyday basis.

An intriguing piece of culinary forensics showed that the overwhelming majority of American takeaway food is actually based on a single source – corn. It provides food for the animals whose meat makes up the burgers, the oil for frying chips and the syrup that bulks out fizzy drinks.

American computer scientists have developed a computer program to convert the wasted time of web users into something productive. The reCAPTCHA tool asks users to look at images of distorted words and type what they see in a box. It’s a common security measure used when people sign up for an accounts, but reCAPTCHA channels the effort toward transcribing old books.

Just 1% of chess Grand Masters are women but that’s not because of innate differences – it’s nothing more than simple statistics. Far more men play chess than women and it’s a simple statistical fact that the best performers from a large group are probably going to be better than the best performers from a small one. This simple sampling effect accounts for a whopping 96% of the difference in ability between the two genders at the highest level of play, brushing aside other possible explanations – biological, cultural or environmental.