Not Exactly Rocket Science Review of 2009

I don’t really like end-of-the-year lists. They seem a bit too self-knowing and forced, and there are just so many of them, particularly because we’re heralding the end of a decade too. I half-expect someone to create a Top Ten Years of the Decade list (and Time Out would probably put 1977 in there just to be edgy).

This might seem like a funny way of introducing an end-of-the-year list, but I’ve tried to make this one a bit different. This is not a collection of the “top” scientific discoveries of the year. I’m not calling them “breakthroughs”. I’m not judging them on such abstract and subjective measures as “quality” or “significance”. There is no Ardi and no ice on the moon.  

Instead, this is a list of stories that have made you and I widen our eyes in collective excitement. It was chosen by you readers through a series of nine polls. It reflects the fact that science has a value that goes well beyond practical applications. The coolest discoveries expand our knowledge about the world around us and our place in it. They make us wonder. They make us want to know more. I’ve learned a great deal through writing for this blog over the last 12 months and I hope that I’ve been able to share at least some of that successfully with you lot.

So without any further fanfare, the list:

Animal behaviour

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In 1997, a chimp called Santino started stockpiling weapons of individual destruction. He collected stones and concrete slabs from his moat-surrounded enclosure to throw at tourists when they came for a visit. The funny behaviour has a serious side – it’s clear evidence that chimps, or Santino at least, have the ability to plan for the future.

One of Aesop’s fables told of a crow that dropped stones into a pitcher to raise the level of the water within its reach. This is no mere fiction – scientists have found that rooks, close relatives of crows, can actually do this. They use stones very precisely, picking the best size and adding the right number. This ability is even more impressive when you consider that rooks hardly ever use tools in the wild.

The veined octopus uses coconut shells for defence, encasing itself in a makeshift suit of armour when danger threatens. When not in use, it carries the shells around tucked underneath its tentacles and shuffling along in a comical stilt-walking style. A great video topped off another superb example of the brilliance of cephalopods.

Neuroscience

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Tetris, the classic video game of falling coloured blocks, could prevent people who have suffered through a traumatic experience from developing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By occupying our visual and spatial skills during the narrow time window when memories are consolidated, Tetris could act as a cognitive vaccine against PTSD.

Do feelings of free will originate in the parietal cortex? Electrical stimulation here produces a strong desire to move parts of the body without actually doing so. Stimulate another part of the brain – the premotor cortex – and people move without realising it.

Folk wisdom tells us that testosterone makes people more aggressive, selfish or antisocial. Well, that’s true… but only because people think that’s what testosterone does. A fascinating trial showed that women who are given testosterone play more fairly. The belligerent behaviour stereotypically linked to testosterone only surfaces if people think they’ve been given hormone, whether they receive a placebo or not. So strong are the negative connotations linked to testosterone that they can actually overwhelm and reverse the hormone’s actual biological effects.

Runners-up: Why information is its own reward, a study that raised big concerns about fMRI, propanolol dulls the sting of fearful memories, the neuroscience of literacy as told by Colombian ex-guerillas, more on erasing memories, the effects of wearing a cast, and more.

Palaeontology

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This was one of the most gorgeous and evocative fossils in a year that was full of them – a mother whale called Maiacetus with a foetus inside it. The mother’s strong legs showed that it was a strong swimmer but could happily walk on land. The baby, pointing backwards, suggests that Maiacetus probably gave birth to its young head-first on land.

The most important retort of the year. After the ridiculous hype surrounding Ida’s unveiling to the world as “The Link”, a new fossil called Afradapis, and a comprehensive analysis of 117 primates, showed that Ida was more closely related to lemurs than humans. Her group, the adapids, left no living descendants. For all the hype, Ida turns out to be the ancestor of nothing.

Runners-up: Recovery of dinosaur proteins, cells and blood vessels, Titanoboa the largest snake ever, controversy about a potentially  venomous dinosaur, a plague that killed tyrant lizards, a series of stunning transitional fossils including Raptorex the 100th-scale early tyrannosaur, Puijila the walking seal and Tianyulong a fuzzy dinosaur, and more

Evolution

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A series of robots, with their own virtual neural network and binary genomes, evolve to hide information from each other over time, if they have to compete for a “food source”. Decepticons, anyone?

Turtle shells are unique adaptations, not least because the shoulder blade sits inside the ribcage unlike all other vertebrates. This year, a study of developing turtle embryos showed the dramatic feats of origami that these animals went through to get to this bizarre body plan.

Some parasitic wasps subdue caterpillars with a biological weapon. They inject the victim with an egg, and “virus-like particles” called polydnaviruses (PDVs). The latter weaken the caterpillar’s immune system and leave the wasp grub to develop unopposed. The partnership has been sealed by genetic swapping. Some of the virus’s genes have relocated to the genome of the wasp. The partners are completely dependent on one another

Medicine

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Scientists have used gene therapy to give full colour vision to adult squirrel monkeys that had been colour-blind since birth, opening up a world of formerly invisible reds and oranges, right in front of their eyes. The fact that this worked for adults is extremely promising – it suggests gene therapy could eventually fix red-green colour-blindness without being restricted to the very young.

HIV is an elusive adversary that resists attempts at developing vaccines and treatments. But maybe a defence has been lurking in our genomes all this time. Retrocyclins are genes that protect other primates from HIV but have lain dormant in our genomes for 7 million years. Now, gene therapy, or even a simple cream, could be set to awaken these sleeping guardians.

Social science

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Arguably the most controversial post this year, and certainly one of the most heavily commented. A study that combines surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning has found that when Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs. The popular question “What would Jesus do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?”

Chinese physics students trounce Americans in terms of knowledge, but both are matched in terms of reasoning. These differences are due to more intensive courses in China, but they also show that different standards of education, leading to different levels of knowledge, don’t translate into different aptitudes for reasoning. Teaching scientific reasoning depends on instilling skills that go well beyond simply memorising facts and formulae.

Genetics

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To pack 2m of DNA into a 6 micrometre nucleus, our genome is packed into super-dense ball without a single knot in it. The shape is called a fractal globule and until now, it was completely theoretical. It’s like a pack of uncooked ramen noodles – really dense, but totally unentangled. And nothing like a pair of knotted headphones!

A neat piece of historical genetics confirms that the Spanish Habsburg dynasty of kings caused its own extinction through generations of inbreeding. The scientists even managed to diagnose the two genetic disorders that likely afflicted Charles II, the last Habsburg king, based on the panoply of symptoms that he showed.

Runners-up: Epigenetic links between child abuse and suicide, the gene that  stops ovaries from turning into testes, unintentional genetic engineering done by farmers, beautiful DNA sculpture and origami, the delayed genes that separate humans from chimps, the death and resurrection of the Jesus gene and the gene behind the short legs of dachshunds, and more

Psychology

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Despite what self-help books say, repeating positive statements about yourself only works for people who already feel good about themselves, and only to a small and trivial extent.  For people with low self-esteem, who need the most help, overly positive statements can backfire badly, causing people to dismiss the claims and reaffirm their own self-loathing.

Gravity affects not just our bodies and our behaviours, but our very thoughts. A simple heavy clipboard can make issues seem weightier – when holding one, volunteers think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues. It’s a fascinating example of embodied cognition, a topic that has featured heavily in the blog this year.

Runners-up: The temptations of the supposedly self-restrained, whether lost people really go round in circles, why being good gives people license to misbehave, the distractible nature of heavy multimedia usershow to predict what will make you happy, the effects of violent films and games, and more.

Heh

And just for the sake of it, my piss-take of the whole Ida/Darwinius debacle. There really wasn’t any other reaction for it than mockery. 

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