Friday, 26 December 2014

My Top 10 Science picks of 2014

Some of my favourite moments in the realms of science this year, in no particular order.

1. Swimming with spinosaurs

In September, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues published their findings that Spinosaurus was semiaquatic.While palaeontologists had dabbled with the idea for a few years (and oxygen isotopes provided evidence of fish-eating), there wasn't enough fossil evidence to confirm the extent of its watery lifestyle.

Ibrahim discovered some hitherto overlooked bones from Egypt, discovered over 100 years previously and thought lost. Assembling the skeleton, he announced his discovery to public delight. There are still some critics urging caution: biomechanical analysis of the jaws of Spinosaurs have found there is more to the animals feeding style than just being a bipedal croc. Also, both terrestrial and airborne species have both been found among its last meals, so it must have spent time on land as well as water.

For many though, Spinosaurus is now firmly an aquatic beast.

A few of the adaptive morphologies identified by Ibrahim et al this year that lead them to believe Spinosaurs were aquatic.

2. Frozen Prehistoric Virus Invades!

A horror movie made real, French scientists announced that a virus had come back to life in March this year, after slumbering in the frozen tundra of Siberia for over 30,000 years.
The Blob (1958)
Just as we packed our bags and were about to flee for the hills and bunkers, they reassured us that all was safe - unless you are an amoeba of course. Pithovirus sibericum only attacks single-celled organisms, but won't infect humans or animals. Phew.
Pithovirus sibericum. Image: BBC
But wait... 

"researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in Siberia's permafrost" the BBC tell us. As climate change melts the permafrost, all sorts of nasties may come out to play. Apparently smallpox isn't out of the question.
Can such viruses really survive for thousands and even millions of years? "If they do survive this, then they need to find a host to infect and they need to find them pretty fast."

Holiday in Siberia anyone?

3. Rosetta Comet - when scientists lose their cool.

The secret is out, scientists are all nerds (yes, even Prof. wear-all-black Cox). At no other point this year was the cat more out of the bag than when Philae completed its 10-year, 6.4 billion km journey to park itself on a comet. (We actually landed something on a comet: we are living in a sci-fi novel now people!)

You can't leave this event off a top 10 list for the year, but what I enjoyed most about it was watching the eloquent, unflappable Professor Monica Grady - calm voice of science on so many BBC Radio 4 programmes - go totally bananas when the lander touched down. I guess every one of us has to have a screaming nerd-gasm at some point in our lives. You go Girl.

4. Much ado about genomes

Sequencing genomes is rather trendy now, and increasingly cheap and easy (comparatively of course; it'll be a while before you'll be getting a sequencer for xmas). As a result, scientists are working their way through the natural world, sequencing as they go. I'm not sure who choses their subjects, but whoever it is, they were hungry in 2014: first salmon (Salmo salar) and then coffee (Coffea canephora) got the genome treatment this year.

Atlantic salmon. Image: Hans-Petter Fjeld
Chocolate and coffee, our caffeinated
friends. Image:
Coming from the Scottish Highlands and studying environmental science, I can attest to the mad passion for salmon among those who like to eat and/or conserve it. This fishy genome should improve wild fish stock management and conservation, as well as aiding commercial needs such as breeding selection, food quality and traceability.

Coffee meanwhile, is my morning mistress. It turns out that it developed caffeine via a different path from chocolate, and the magical bean also contains 23 novel genes (each one more delicious than the last). This is an interesting example of covergent evolution in plants. Moral of the story? Drink mochas to cover both caffeine families.

Tangentially, mammoth genomes are also a hot topic in late 2014, as Channel 4's Mammoth Autopsy introduced the public to the possibility of filling the tundra with these hairy behemoths, thanks to some ethically questionable South Korean scientists who currently clone pets. Can we? Should we? Debates rage, but if a private group work out how to do it, could we stop them even if we wanted to?

5. Ebola.


We watched in shock as Ebola appeared in March 2014 and unfurled itself across Western Africa. Over 7,500 people have died so far, and we are approaching 20,000 infected. Spread through body fluids, the virus incubates for 2-21 days, making detection difficult.

Colourised TEM of the Ebola virus, also called Ebola
haemorrhagic fever. Image: CDC

Health workers are fighting the spread on the ground and
treating the infected. The virus is spread through direct and
indirect contact with bodily fluids. Image: CDC
Ebola is by no means the most deadly disease out there, leading analysts and scientists to ponder why the West has become so scared of this one in particular. The general consensus is that we are no longer used to dealing with untreatable diseases: we expect there to be a pill for everything (in the West there usually is, if you can afford it.)
Ebola means isolation from those you love, and in all likelihood a slow, lonely, painful death.

There has been a strong and fierce criticism that there was no real talk of a cure until "white people" got infected, prompting some controversial memes (search: ebola white people meme). When two Americans were infected, a serum was administered to them that cured them, leading to an outcry: why was this serum not being given out in Africa? Money, logistics, the usual excuses.

If 2014 is the year Ebola appeared, let's make 2015 the year we wiped it out.

6. Antarctica's secrets

Imagine an entire frozen continent was hidden from the world, so well hidden, that only in 2014 did we realise it had a gouge out of it bigger than the Grand Canyon.
Welcome to Antarctica.

Antarctica: smuggling a super-canyon while the forests and bones of ages past
are scraped from its surface.
The canyon under the ice. Image: Geological Society of America

This story is one of my picks because the Southern continent is a real land of mystery. Home to life for most of its geological history (probably including nocturnal dinosaurs) only relatively recently did it hide itself away under the ice. It's a recluse in the crustal family, frantically rubbing out the secrets written on the diary pages of its surface with thick erasers of glacier.

If the ice melts and humans are still around, can you imagine what we might find under there?

7. Politicians still can't IPCC sense

I do wonder just how bad things have to get before politicians will actually do something to mitigate climate change. Only time will tell, and the latest IPCC report, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, came out this year to remind us that we're royally screwed if we don't get our shit together. You can't help but feel let down by yet another anti-climactic (or climatic) UN talk: this one was in Lima. In the usual political non-speak, they reached a monumental agreement: they agreed to talk about it more next year.
Read the report here.
Meanwhile, 2014 has been the hottest year ever recorded, with record droughts, storms, flooding and other climate related events. All of this supports the assertion that weather is becoming more extreme as our climate alters.

This is the most important news story of the millennium, not just the year.

8. Changing wombs

A 36 year old woman, born without a uterus, gave birth to a baby this year.
In the world's weirdest case of re-gifting, the womb was donated by a 61 year old friend of the family who had been through menopause (the press's tactful way of saying she didn't need it any more).

Dr Mats Brannstrom from the University of Gothenburg led the procedure, and there are apparently two more women expecting soon. Simply amazing.

9. Mine is bigger than yours


Everyone likes an est.
Longest, strongest, fastest, fattest. This year there was a lot of noise about the biggest dinosaur ever found. Based on what they have so far at the dig in Argentina, this Cretaceaous sauropod would have been around 40m long and weighed almost 80 tonnes.

Of course the world of palaeontology was quick to start debating the methodology for estimating size, and arguing over who exactly who has the biggest one (dinosaur that is).
Whatever the outcome, it looks likely that this will be one of the largest living creatures ever to have walked the earth.

Obligatory palaeontologist-lying-beside-femur shot. Image: BBC

10. Science in the movies

Jurassic World, another sequel to the much-loved Jurassic Park, was announced and the trailer released. It was promptly torn to shreds by the fearsome claws of science, and the cry went out: why won't Hollywood portray science more accurately?

Diagnosed as a case of "Nerd-Rage", well known scientists, bloggers and writers were all talking about the appalling lack of progress in the 21 years since the first JP film. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for featherless dinosaurs. It might take an entomologist to wonder why there is a cranefly in amber instead of a mosquito, but it doesn't take a mathematician to realise a mososaur that big couldn't live in a pond that small. It isn't just the dinosaur films, every scientific discipline suffers in virtually every film it appears in. There are no explosions in space, or flickering flames. A 100% DNA match isn't possible for two different organisms (Prometheus), you can't drill to the centre of the earth (The Core), and those lab results will not be on your desk by the end of the hour (every crime series/film).

Studies have shown that bad science in movies actually impacts student understanding of the real processes at work in the world around them. It's time we stopped making excuses for poor science in movies.

As this top 10 shows, the realities are more exciting than any of the stuff those scriptwriters can make up.

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