The Top Ten Science Stories of 2010

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.

Dark Matter

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!)

Comments

  1. #1 gwen
    December 28, 2010

    The ‘Jupiter Star’ was the coolest story I read all year.
    Upsetting the balance of the O2 generator, was the scariest!

  2. #2 Inflection
    December 28, 2010

    Neutrinos, btw, not neutrons.

  3. #3 Charles Sullivan
    December 28, 2010

    The Extended Phenotype. Good idea, No?

  4. #4 Birger Johansson
    December 28, 2010

    “You can install all the safety devices you want, it is still possible for every single one of them to fail”

    Chernobyl already proved that safety devices do not matter if the people in charge are determined not to use them. For “dangerous stuff” you need technology that is literally foolproof, that is, you should not be able to swith the gear on unless everything is right (also, see “Put Phasers on Stun” about safety failures in medical technology).

    — — — —
    “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”

    We are all descended from Ark B survivors (see “The Restaurant At the End Of the Universe”).
    The last people alive will be high-paid telephone sanitizers who argue about which color the wheel should be.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    December 28, 2010

    Charles, The Extended Phenotype certainly is a good idea, just as when it was proposed years ago by Dawkins!

  6. #6 lumberjack
    December 30, 2010

    You said:
    “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.”

    and….. and? Answer: and an already living bacterium. You’re talking about installing new seats, and painting flames on the hood of your dad’s car then claiming to have built it.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    December 30, 2010

    Actually, lumberjack, it’s like building a custom engine from other engines and installing it in a car body. You may not have mined and refined all the metal and shaped all the parts (and all the non-metal stuff I’m eliding), but you have built a new car that did not exist before.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2010

    It’s like taking all of the DNA out of an organisms so it can not possibliy live, and seeting it’s livid corpse to one side. Then, you take the information only from that DNA (well, you had a library of that info already built) and construct, from human-made machines controlled by a computer, new DNA … this DNA did not exist before and was not created by an organism …. and you use your machines to pack the DNA up well enough so that when you insert it in the corpse of the organism it is reanimated.

    It is, precisely, what Mary Shelly has Victor Frankenstein do.

    But yeah, it is impressive but only somewhat impressive from a scientific point of view. But from the perspective of the hypothesis that Shelly explores, it’s a killer DIY project.

  9. #9 mgr
    December 30, 2010

    There’s no link for the #1 story.

    Mike

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2010

    Mike: Here’s the phytoplankton story: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=phytoplankton-population

    The part about people being stupid is self evident, I’m afraid.

  11. #11 mgr
    December 30, 2010

    Thanks Greg. So it’s the article from behind Nature’s paywall from June. I thought it might be.

    Anybody trying to measure changes in the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen for the period? That’s the shoe I am waiting to see drop. (FWIW this is about the most f/u’ed piece of science news I have seen in a while–the mass extinction from this would put the close of the Permian to shame.)

    You may also want to see this:

    http://www.mindfully.org/Water/2003/Phytoplankton-Decline-Ocean6oct03.htm

    Mike

  12. #12 Barbie
    January 1, 2011

    Thank you for this great list, I need these kind of list for my students for their homework.Thanks a lot.

  13. #13 Sam Dei Lune
    January 2, 2011

    Your list is very good. I am hoping that when you do this list next year you will be reporting to us that a cure has been found for said stupidity. Happy New Year.

  14. #14 Mike Walley
    January 3, 2011

    An intriguing and eclectic list that you have compiled. For me however, the stand out story of the year (excluding specific news articles on palaeontology) was the “Jupiter Star”, simply mind-blowing and confirmation, as if anyone needed it, as to just how little we know about our place in the universe.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    January 3, 2011

    Mike, you mean the idea that Jupiter is a “failed star” (which is probably not a very good description) or a different story?

  16. #16 mgr
    January 3, 2011

    Greg at 15.

    No, I’m not getting the articles confused. I assumed this was what prompted your comment ‘we are all going to die’. Let me dial it back.

    The problem is that the Sci American/ Nature article confirms the NASA satellite measurements, and extends it back in time. Causality is weak, but I think it would be prudent given the finding to examine possible changes in the partial pressure of oxygen over this period, although my reasons for doing so are probably alarmist.

    What I am getting at, is that a decline of 40% and growing in ocean produtivity may lead to a reversal of evolutionary history, ala the Eidacarian (if indeed it is a unique multicellular radiation).

    It’s been hypothesized that photosynthesis altered the earth’s atmosphere from reducing to oxidizing, and is potentially the variable explaining the evolution of multicellular life. Eliminate oxygen and it’s not possible.

    http://palaeo.gly.bris.ac.uk/Palaeofiles/Cambrian/triggers/extrinsic/extrinsic.html

    http://life3.beyondgenes.com/

    Second, there a narrow percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere necessary for maintaining oxidative respiration, I think the ranges is 20% to 26%. (I cannot recall a cite for this, but understand that above 26% and spontaneous ignition would be sustained; and below 20% only diffusion of oxygen for cellular activity can be sustained for aerobes)

    [And before someone raises the hyperoxic conditions of the Paleozoic that are inferred responsible for large insects (e.g. the Caboniferous dragonfly with the three foot wingspan), note that the partial pressure of oxygen was near the upper limit of the bound, not beyond.]

    The primary production of the ocean is the largest aggregate of carbon dioxide fixation on the planet, and impaired could result in an oxygen deficet that could move the atmospheric partial pressure of oxygen downwards over time. I doubt terrestrial ecosystems could fill the gap.

    Mike

  17. #17 mgr
    January 3, 2011

    Oops, I see I am not the only Mike to have posted.

  18. #18 Stephen Leahy
    January 3, 2011

    Mike at 16. I’d be keen to know of anyone doing analysis on changes in O2 content…as I guess we all would.

    FYI here was my take as a jurno on the plankton decline when the Nature paper came out – plus dead zones & acidification – and speculates on how loss of plankton may impact on cloud formation ?…(Kind of scared myself re-reading it)

    http://stephenleahy.net/2010/08/06/ocean-losing-its-green-planets-life-support-system-in-decline/