Not Exactly Rocket Science – Favourites from 2011

By now, you are no doubt tired of reading “Best of 2011” lists. I offer up no such animal. Instead, this is just a list 30 of my favourite posts of the year. It are not a list of breakthroughs or important events – you won’t find any mention of the Higgs boson, Fukushima, neutrinos or exo-planets here. Importance has never been a criterion for me in deciding what to write about. Instead, I am drawn to science that excites and inspires me, or that allows me to tell interesting stories. It’s these stories – quirky or jaw-dropping, eye-opening or smile-raising – that comprise this list.

The first post of the year, and still one of my favourites. I find it utterly delightful that such beauty could have gone unnoticed for such a long time, simply because people didn’t look at insects under the right conditions.

One of the more mind-blowing discoveries of the last year. There’s regeneration and then there’s regeneration. Clearly, flatworms practice the latter.

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The picture sold it for me, but I loved the idea of insects whose nervous systems are so tiny that they shouldn’t work.

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A wonderful paper that took a lot of existing evidence and packaged it into a new, radically different, and utterly compelling idea.

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A perfect example of a story with no practical application whatsoever. I love it because there’s a quirky historical tie-in, an interesting use of YouTube for research, and a wonderful human element –a scientist watched his own cat, wondered something, answered it by himself, and got a Science paper out of it. There was also a sequel in which dogs get their own back.

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Featuring a man who inhaled aerosolised poison and a Polynesian shark god

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In which I start with an Onion article, continue with a step-by-step guide to making your own skull-cap, and end with a Byron poem.

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I love studies about the power of words, and this one is particularly stark. “Metaphors aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.”

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I am fascinated by this molecule, which seems to be vital for keeping our memories intact. This post was one of a three-part series, including a news piece and an interview.

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In which the saying that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” turns out to be right. This post also featured one of the year’s most striking graphs.

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This says it all: “Even if the rats are awake, parts of their brain can be taking a nap. What we know as “sleep” is the global version of something that happens throughout the brain at a local level.”

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This contained one of my favourite quotes of the year: “The strength of the authors’ conclusions is only as good as the inability of anyone else to come up with an alternative hypothesis.” And in the comments, readers tried.

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This was easily the longest post from the year and, rewardingly, one of the most popular. Perhaps I should do more of these profiles in 2012.

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“It repels everything. All manner of liquids, from water to blood to crude oil, roll straight off it. Ice cannot form on it. It even heals itself when damaged. It’s an extraordinary material and it was inspired by the lips of a flesh-eating plant.”

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In which we learn that retired cells are slowly killing you. It strikes me that this is going to be very important for our understanding of ageing in years to come.

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I’ve covered Foldit three times on the blog and it never ceases to intrigue and surprise me. This is their latest volley and it shows just how accomplished these players can be.

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I usually don’t care about far-flung applications of basic research, so this was an odd story in that the far-flung application took centre-stage. I was struck by the specific nature of the deadline, and the steps that are already being taken to meet it. Also, cyborg monkeys.

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A beautiful and uplifting story. See? It’s not all brutal animal violence and sex here. There’s life-affirming stuff too.

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But then there’s also the brutal violence. This story made even me squirm.

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Sex, it turns out, isn’t fixed. It’s held under constant tension by two rival genes. Take away either contestant, and males and turn into females, and vice versa.

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I’ve known about hagfish slime since I was a child, but there’s a massive gulf between reading about it on paper and actually seeing it being deployed in the wild.

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This is based on one of my favourite papers this year, from the brilliant Nick Lane. It takes a simple concept – that our cells have two genomes that must dance in step – and uses it to explain why species stay separate, why we typically have two sexes, how many offspring we produce, and how we age.

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This story attracted a fair bit of controversy, not least because it was based on a paper that partly refuted one from the same group just a few months prior. Still, it’s a fascinating tale and I was pleased with the approach of revisiting and re-editing my earlier post.

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Hacking an entire genome has many possible applications (and the people behind the work have some truly far-out ones in mind), but I was drawn to this for the sheer bolshiness of the science.

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I covered this story for Nature, but this interview with John Rogers goes into a lot more detail about his astounding new device and its many implications.

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Wolbachia – the male-killing, gender-distorting bacterium that may well be the planet’s most successful parasite – has always been fascinating to me. And doubly so, when it’s being used to defeat a human infection in actual field trials.

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I loved writing about this. Evo-devo isn’t the sexiest science in the world, and it sometimes gets a short shrift. But peel aside the silly gene names, and you basically have a story about how some rather boring things made some very small changes and turned into thousands of extraordinarily beautiful things.

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It’s an animal-genitals story. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a Best-of-NERS list without one.

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Optogenetics – the technique that allows scientists to control animals and cells using light – is fascinating in its own right, but its applications are really starting to boggle the mind. Here, we have flies that can fall asleep on demand.

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Science isn’t a set of one-off discoveries. It’s a sequence of them, built on top of one another. It’s a process. It takes time. I love getting chances to show that, and this study – the culmination of a wonderful 11-year line of research – certainly provided such a chance.

And for the record, here were the top ten posts by traffic