The first thing you need to know about my list of the top ten science stories of the year is this: There are not ten. Well, as I write this, I’ve not settled what’s on the list and what’s not, so maybe there will be ten. Or six. Or one hundred and eleven. In any event, it will likely only be ten if you express the number in Basen where n is the number of stories.
What makes a “top ten” science story? I’ve decided to be picky this year. So, a brand new study that shows that male bower birds do some amazing trick with mirror fragments and monofiliment fishing line and discarded transistor radio parts to outdo the other male bower birds in impressing the lady bower birds, while fascinating and very much the kind of science story I like, is not in the top ten. We already knew that male bower birds were obsessed with the extrasomatic and with impressing the ladies, so this is not new however impressive it may be. (That didn’t happen, by the way.)
For something to be on my list it needs to either represent a change in what we know about something, or it must be very relevant to how science policy operates, and that must be about policy that is terribly salient. For the former, we will find most of this years top stories in physics, and for the latter, in environmental issues …
The biggest star ever, so big that it makes us rethink big
… for instance knowing how big stars can be, by observing how big they are and now and then finding one that is bigger than any previously known, is cool and pushes our knowledge. This year, a star that is about 265 times larger than our sun was found, and not only is that the biggest star ever found, but its bigness is so big that astronomers may have to modify their models of how big stars can be. More here.
The BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill
This event showed us three things that are about science, engineering, and the intersection between those two things and public policy. 1) You can install all the safety devices you want, it is still possible for every single one of them to fail. 1) We have no clue as to the effects of oil spills, to the extent that there was no systematic way to decide if dispersing the oil at the blow out was a good idea. I was shocked to discover this limit to our knowledge. In retrospect, it may well have been a good thing to have dispersed the oil at the blowout, but that is a wild guess. 3) The US government environmental protection systems are ineffective and disdained. We need to start sending EPA rangers wearing sidearms to oil rigs, and rough up a few of those guys so next time there’s a problem like this they cower instead of pushing the Coast Guard, the EPA and POTUS around like bullies push around little kids on a playground. This may not be a major science story from a theoretical or knowledge based point of view, but it is very, very important.
We “know” dark matter exists, and some things about it, because there is a gap in our explanation of the universe that must be filled with it. Nothing else explains a whole bunch of verified observations, though we’ve never “seen” it using any sort of instruments. Had the gaps in the observations of the universe not existed, we would be clueless as to the existence of dark matter. This year, scientists may have observed particles of dark matter being destroyed in very powerful natural particle destroyers near the center of the solar system. Moving something like dark matter from “it must be true” theory to “Here’s a picture of some (being annihilated)” is very, very cool, if confirmed.
The Large Hadron Collide got turned on (for real) and found out stuff
The very fact that the LHC finally got turned on for real (instead of turned on and it breaks) gets on the list as one item, simply because you can’t do what it is designed to do without finding stuff that will force us to rethink reality, and as a pure engineering feet, the LHC is up there with any other ever carried out successfully. And, because of the science that is coming out of this project, we’ve already started to rethink reality. neutrinos might have mass. Tiny black holes that string theory predicted didn’t form. There’s probably other stuff, but those are the two findings that stand out.
Life created in the lab
This happened early in the year, so people have forgotten about it, but in fact, a laboratory experiment that demonstrated something important about the origin of life, though not completely or perfectly, broke new ground in that area of study. In May, J. Craig Venter created a living cell by synthesizing the entire genome from DNA data on a computer of one bacterium and transplanting it into another bacterium. That particular event was very cool but not a breakthrough in understanding. However, it was a simple experiment that tested a widely believed hypothesis about life, one that most scientists do not hold but many non-scientists do. For this reason, this story will likely be the most under-appreciated one of the year, but still important. The hypothesis, of course, is that you need a god (or something like a god) to make something alive. Turns out you just need a highly motivated well funded scientist, an excellent database and some intelligently designed machines.
Before we get to number one, a few honorable mentions:
If it turns out that there is meaningful and natural substitution of arsenic for phosphorus in key biological molecules (the bit NASA story near the end of the year) that would be cool. If it turns out that the electromagnetic force actually varies across the universe in one direction (thus ruling out a change in time or some distance related bias in the measurement) then that would be cool. If it turns out that there really was a 3.5 billion year old radiation of life forms that we can detect in the living genomic record and it is not an artifact of the statistics, that would be cool. If funny circles found in “the sky” turn out to be evidence of the pre-big bang universe, that would be cool. In any event, it will be interesting to see if any of these stories pan out, or if they just fade away, or, even better, they turn out to be not what they seem but still lead to something interesting.
#1 The Earth’s system for supplying oxygen is failing rapidly
This year a study showed a 40 percent decline in phytoplankton activity caused by global warming. Also in this year, the degree of public “acceptance” (for lack of a more appropriate word) of the reality of global warming has dipped in large part because of the rhetorical success of anti-global warming science forces. You’re all going to die, bitches, and for one reason only. Because you are stupid. And that, I’m afraid, is the number one story of the year.
There is one more story I have not listed becasue I’m still undecided, and it is new. This is the story of the “Asian species of hominid” that bred with “us” at some time in the past. I find this story both interesting and disturbing. I will be talking about it next Sunday Morning on Atheist Talk Radio when Lynn Fellmann hosts a year-end science retrospective. Tune in! (I’ll post more details on that as the time approaches. Most likely you will listen to the podcast, but if you’re local, do tune in and join us for Brunch after the show!)