In 45 BCE, Julius Caesar decided to make January the “first” month of the year. The reason was that Janus, the god after whom the month is named, was the god of doorways and new starts so it seemed an appropriate place to begin our cycles. The Earth isn’t in a particularly special place, but we designate the December/January switchover as a festival to take stock of the past and consider the future.
2017 has of course been full of negative “political” news stories - just like every other year - but I’m happy to report that - just like every other year - Science provided a candle of optimism in the perpetual darkness of parochial human affairs! The most important Science story was obviously that Lemmy, the late, great frontman of Motorhead had a dinosaur-alligator named in his honour called Lemmysuchus. Some other things happened too. Here’s my favourite picks of awesome Science stories from the last 365 days.
Not Today Tsunami
Tsunamis occur when an earthquake at sea sends water outward in all directions, devastating coastal towns and cities. Up until now, there has been no way to stop them but Usama Kadri, doctor of mathematics at Cardiff University, has hit on the solution. By creating enormous sound-blasts underwater, the acoustic-shockwave can be pointed at the oncoming tsunami like a deflector shield. When the kinetic energy of the water going toward land meets the kinetic energy of the soundwave moving away, the net energy of the water particles spreads out, raising the temperature and killing the tsunami. Kadri’s idea is the first of its kind and has already been tested in small, artificial settings with great success. All we need to do is scale up and choose what sound we use to blast the tsunamis apart.
New Continent Discovered
It sounds made up but it’s completely true. New Zealand, which everyone previously assumed to be an island on its own, appears to be the highest point of a unique continental plate, separate to all the countries around it. This continent, named Zealandia on February 9th, lies 94% below the surface of the ocean but really is there, making its disocverer, Maria Seton, the first person to discover a continent in over three centuries.
Mental Illness is Normal
A study conducted by J.D. Schaeffer in the newly continented New Zealand found that between the ages of 11 and 38 only 17% of people experience no mental health problems. Everyone else experiences at least one bout of depression or anxiety and 41% experience it for more than a year. It turns out that being mentally ill at some point during one’s life puts you in the majority. Perhaps this might not seem like an uplifting news story, but I think it’s encouraging. If you suffer from mental illness yourself or know somebody who does, don’t feel ashamed about it or stigmatised. We can now say categorically that it’s a standard part of being human,
Goldilocks and the seven planets
On February 21st, the Spitzer telescope at NASA discovered seven planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, all of them in the Circumstellar Habitable Zone aka the "Goldilocks zone”. That’s the area around a star where the temperatures aren't too hot or too cold, making things just right for liquid water to flow and complex organic reactions to take place. TRAPPIST-1 is about 378 trillion kilometers away sadly, but the evidence is undeniable. Our solar system only has one planet in the CHZ for sure (Mars is up for debate), but apparently there are places in the Universe far more amenable to life. If it was able to arise in this barren cosmic wasteland, chances are it could have done so elsewhere.
Life Started in Canada
The oldest fossils of living things have long been assumed to be the samples found in Pilbara Australia dating to aboot 3.5 billion years old, but on March 1st Matthew Dodd published results that put new microfossils discovered in Quebec, Canada at 4.28 billion. That would be astonishing given that the Earth is probably no more than 4.5 billion years old itself. The results are disputed of course, but exciting...eh?
One of the most abundant resources we have on the planet is saltwater. Unfortunately it’s unpalatable to humans, making it approximately useless. But on the 3rd of April, Rahul Nair discovered a solution (pun intended) to the problem. Graphene, made from sheets of carbon atoms arranged like a chickenwire fence, has billions of tiny holes which water molecules fit through but salt particles do not. Graphene works like a sieve, purifying the water and leaving salt on the other side. By using Nair’s method we could turn the oceans into fresh drinking-water for millions.
We Shall Not Be Moved
Perhaps the biggest story from April was a story about scientists themselves. After Donlad Trump and many in his cabinet made comments denying climate change, asserting that vaccines caused autism or that the big bang was “a fairtyale”, the scientific community worried that governments were no longer going to be making decisions based on Science (aka reality). In response, an estimated 1.07 million people in over a hundred cities around the world took to the streets on the 22nd of April to march in protest of science-denialism. The March for Science was the biggest pro-Science public demonstration in history.
On the 25th, doctor Emily Partrdige and her team published a paper in which they reported keeping six prematurely born lambs alive inside artificially created wombs. The lambs were removed from their mothers via caesarean section and delivered at the equivalent of 23 weeks old. Partridge and her team were able to keep the lambs alive until they were fully grown, after which they were birthed successfully. If we can replicate this in humans it would mark the end for deaths of premature babies.
The world’s first nano-grand prix took place on the 28th. Cars no more than a billionth of a meter across, invisible even to an optical microscope, were raced on a track for the first time, demonstrating the versatility and applicability of nanotechnology. The Swiss team won with their mini-hovercraft “Nano-Dragster” although unfortunately the victory was undermined by the shape of the car itself...
Forget Shark-Nado, Meet Crystal-Nado
It sounds like a joke but it isn’t. Kathleen Benson reported, on May 1st, that occasionally amid the Andes mountains of Chile, whirlwinds of air can pick up thousands of crystals and transport them across distances of over 5 km, before showering them in a sparkly display of magicness. This isn’t a world-changing or far-reaching discovery, but it’s objectively awesome.
Transparent Frogs Exist
Juan Manuel Guayasamin and his team discovered a species of frog which is completely see-through; you can actually see their organs working from the outside, a bit like that scene in Hollow Man where we see Kevin Bacon's innards through the skin. Only this time, no uncomfortable Kevin Bacon nudity! They are called Hyalinobatrachium Yaku and are proof that sometimes nature does things for the hell of it.
Enceladus has food
In October 2015, Cassini (which collapsed into Saturn on September 15th of this year) flew through the hydrothermal plumes of the moon Enceladus. As it shot through the jets, it collected a vast amount of data which was analysed over the next two years and on April 14th one of the most startling results was published: Enceladus' sub-surface ocean has a lot of molecular hydrogen - the most likely source being organic molecules. Not only would these molecules serve as the building blocks for life, molecular hydrogen is often used as a food source for primitive microbes. It used to be Mars which was considered our best bet for finding extra-terrestrial life, now it looks like Enceladus is going to take the top spot for astrobiological research.
Out of Eden
The earliest fossils of human-like creatures come from a site called Omo Kibish in Ethiopia and date to around 200,000 years old. The assumption has always been that this is where humans first evolved. The Shangri-La or Garden of Eden described in so many mythologies. Turns out that’s not true. On June 8th, Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin announced that a site in Morocco called Jebel Irhoud has human-like fossils dating back to around 350,000 years. What's more, sites similar to Jebel Irhoud have been found all over Africa. The assumption has always been that these sites were later ones, representing our spread from the cradle of life in Ethiopia. But it looks like we had it backwards. If the Jebel Irhoud site has been dated accurately that would mean the various human species were covering Africa simultaneously rather than originating in one single place. This changes our understanding of not only human evolution, but how evolution itself works.
Here Comes the Sun
A novel but surprisngly simple idea to fight skin-cancer was published on 13th of July from Nisma Mujahid. A sun-cream which boosts melanin production in human skin. Melanin is the pigment which makes skin darker, meaning people with darker skin tend to be less at risk from skin cancer caused by UV rays. While most sun-creams merely cover the skin of white people like me in dark brown ink, this one actually causes melanin to produce under the skin’s surface, providing secure coverage. It’s been tested successfully on rats and isolated human skin to great effect. All that remains is human trials.
2016 saw the discovery of gravitational waves; ripples in spacetime caused by leviathan cosmic events. The ones discovered by LIGO back then were generated by the merger of two black holes and this year we got a second big discovery; the collision of two neutron stars. Essentially, atomic nuclei the size of Manhattan, neutron stars are the cores of dead suns spinning many thousands of times per second. When neutron stars fall into each other’s gravitational attraction, the resulting collision is so powerful that it generates gravitational waves, along with heavy elements like gold that get scattered into the universe and wind up as globe-shaped prizes for people like Kevin Bacon.
Gene Editing Achieved
On the 20th of September, research was published by Kathy Niakan and her team who managed to successfully edit a human embryo for the first time. Using the revolutionary CRISPR technique, Niakan was able to alter an embryo to give it a greater chance of forming a blastocyst in the womb. Baring in mind that roughly one in six women experience miscarriage at some point in their adult lives, the ability to edit human embryos would change the game completely. It would also allow us to remove diseases and illnesses from unborn children, giving them a better chance of life. People have speculated about the possibility of altering human genes for decades. Now, we have taken our first step toward doing so. Maybe one day everyone can be edited to look like Kevin Bacon.
Part of our Universe has been found
It’s no secret that most of our Universe is missing. Simply put, the Universe behaves in a way that suggests it should be heavier, but we’ve not been able to find where most of the missing mass is coming from. There are three suspected substances to blame. The first is Dark Energy, the second is Dark Matter and the third is Missing Baryons. And, on October 9th, the Baryon puzzle was solved. Independently, two teams led by Hideki Tanamura and Anna de Graaf discovered threads of particles trillions of kilometers long, linking up every galaxy in the cosmos. Although it looks like galaxies are lone specks of light floating amid darkness, it turns out they are all linked by unimaginably long clouds like highways connecting towns, accounting for 50% of the normal matter that’s out there. Dark matter and Dark energy are still mysteries, but that's one down two to go. Next mystery: why is Kevin Bacon doing the EE commercials?
It's Pronounced "Oh-Moo-er-Moo-er"
On 19th of October, the Hawaian astronomer Robert Weryk discovered a 230 x 35 meter cigar-shaped object floating through our solar system. What was bizarre about Oumuamua (as it was later named) was that its trajectory could not be explained as having originated from either of the asteroid belts in our solar system, making it the very first interstellar object to approach our sun. That we know of at least. Sadly, it turned out not to be an alien probe, but most likely a hunk of rock from a system around the star Vega which got knocked into its current orbit approximately 600,000 years ago. The same day Kevin Bacon was born.
Photons Behaving Badly
This one is seriously weird. On November 9th a team led by Ado Jorio was able to observe a bizarre interaction between particles of light (photons). By slamming a laser beam onto the surface of water, the team were able to emit pairs of photons which were able to “talk” to each other by sending temporary vibrations through the medium they were moving through. Electrons are known to do this in superconducting materials but seeing photons do it is baffling. Apparently, light particles can communicate information and energy with other light particles. There’s not really a whole lot else can be said about this one because it's such a shock. Watch this space.
In 2015 a six-year-old boy was admitted to hospital with a very rare genetic condition called Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa. The condition is lethal in children, causing the skin to fall off, leaving you without your primary defence system. It’s genetic and there is no known cure. Well…there wasn’t a known cure. In what sounds like the plot of a movie, as the boy was down to 20% of his skin remaining, a group of scientists led by Michele DeLuca decided to try a never-attempted treatment in a last-ditch effort to save the boy. By taking a small sample of his remaining skin and infecting it with a virus designed to correct the JEB genes with healthy ones, the team were able to create new healthy skin cells which they grew and grafted to the boy. After eight months, the boy was finally given healthy skin and discharged from the hospital. Technically this story happened in 2016 but DeLuca’s results were not published until November 8th and it’s too good not to mention. The young boy in question has returned to school and DeLuca has genuinely found a cure for a formerly untreatable disease. I would like to say “this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often” but actually…in Science…it genuinely does.
Trump to the Moon
Say what you like about Donald Trump, he does seem to really like space. Whatever his motivations, I happen to agree with his ideology. Weird, right? The space program is crucial to our species’ survival (that’s not hyperbole, it’s just true) so if he’s serious about investing in it I’m all in favour. On the 11th of December, Trump announced that he wanted America to return to the moon with a mind for using it as a base to launch missions toward Mars and explore the rest of the solar system. He hasn’t given any specific deadlines for NASA, nor has he announced any additional funding he will be supplying for the target, but the sentiment is apparently there. At this point, I’ll take anything I can get.
Science provides hope even in hopeless places...
By all the stars!
A few days ago I was talking with someone who claimed her horoscope was always extremely accurate. Horoscopes claim that fusion reactions taking place trillions of kilometers away can influence the personality traits and lives of humans here on Earth. That’s an astonishing claim if it’s true. And millions of people seem to think it is...so maybe there’s something going on there.
I suggested to her that we carry out a series of simple tests to see if her horoscopes were genuinely as good as she thought. She agreed and we set about devising experiments to put them to the test. The outcome was sadly the same as every other test into the accuracy of astrology ever conducted: resoundingly negative. We couldn’t find any evidence that her horoscopes were trustworthy.
It's a real shame. Had the test yielded a positive result I would have been exhilarated. Imagine being the first person in history to confirm the existence of a link between star positions and human behaviour. I would have loved to find evidence in favour of horoscopes. Sadly however, that wasn’t what we found.
At this point, my friend became rather unhappy because we had ruined something. The result was easy for me to process because I went from “I’ve seen no evidence to trust horoscopes” to “I’ve seen no evidence to trust horoscopes”. Her journey was different however; she had to abandon a belief.
Admittedly, the more you get used to Science the easier this becomes, because you learn to be proven wrong regularly...but the first few times it happens it can sting like a nettle down the neck.
Intellectually, we should be just as satisfied with a negative result as a positive one because we still learn from it, but we are emotional beings as well as intellectual ones and having our cherished views dissolved can be horrible.
Scientists - ruining everyone’s fun forever
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who believe in the supernatural often see Scientists as enemies. We are accused of trying to destroy belief systems or (far more often) of being “closed minded”. Scientists want to subject everything to tests, often sucking the beauty and mystery out of the world, and if we can’t find it in a test-tube we decide it isn’t real.
I know why we come across like that. Science has a long history of debunking and discrediting supernatural claims, so it’s no wonder people think Science is anti-supernatural. But this simply isn’t true. Scientists are very open minded. We are literally prepared to believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. You want me to believe in Unicorns? Bring me a unicorn and I’m sold.
We’re not trying to ruin everybody’s fun at all. Scientists just go looking for answers by investigating. If someone claims there are Gods living on Mount Olympus we’re the ones who decide to climb the mountain and look. If we fail to find evidence for something you believe in, that’s not because we were trying to destroy it, it’s because the evidence was undetectable and that’s nature’s fault not ours.
The war on magic
There are all sorts of supernatural claims Science has investigated over the years and found zero evidence for. Mediumship, telekinesis, mind-reading, sympathetic magic, prophecy, ghosts, crystal-healing, oujia boards, homeopathy, dowsing, reiki and a whole buffet of others. They’ve all been scrutinised by Scientists who were trying to prove them right, and came up empty-handed each time.
These things could absolutely be real, but investigations have found nothing to support them, so we are left with a simple choice. Either we say “I don’t know if it’s true” or “I’m going to believe it anyway”. If you decide to pick that second option and believe in something without evidence, you have to answer the following question: what is your belief based on if not evidence?
The idea of magical forces watching over our destinies is exciting for sure, but to be a Scientist is to commit yourself to either evidence or ignorance. Nothing in between.
I’ve met people who have countered this line of argument by pointing out that even though the evidence is lacking for a claim, it could still be true. I agree of course, but believing something because it could be true is a dangerous position. Magnetism could be caused by invisible fairies who speak Welsh. Penguins might secretly be red and they put on the black outfits when they see us coming. Ewan McGregor could be Britney Spears...have you ever seen them together?
The problem with believing something because it could be true is that it’s a slippery slope to infinity. There are so many possible things out there it would be impossible to believe them all. And many of them would contradict. Scientists stick to what we’re confident probably is rather than what could be. It doesn’t mean we close our eyes to the possibilities, we just reserve judgement until we know more.
When demons walked
So, why can’t Scientists just leave things alone and let people believe what they want to? Why does it matter if someone has a few unsubstantiated ideas in their head? The problem is that a person’s beliefs determine their actions, so if their beliefs are crooked their behaviour will be too.
The Ku Klux Klan act on the belief that black people are inferior to white people. Nathalie Rippeberger’s parents caused her death by refusing to take her to see a doctor because they didn’t believe in medicine. We used to burn women alive at the stake for witchcract and we believed we were right to do so. Saying “everybody is entitled to their beliefs” only works if people decide what to believe based on reason. That’s why Scientists want to get things right, even if that means abandoning a supernatural explanation. A world where everyone believes what they want is an abhorrent and primitive one.
There was a time when people didn’t know about bacterial or viral infections. If you got sick it was the will of the spirits. People who heard voices weren’t treated for schizophrenia or epilepsy, they were possessed of demons or communing with angels. Science has made us abandon these supernatural explanations and it has replaced them with life expectancy and good mental health. That’s a fair trade, I think.
After all, there was a time when we didn’t even know what air was and doors slamming would have been the result of poltergeists rather than differences in air pressure. I mean, imagine growing up in a civilization where people didn’t know where the rain came from, why food spoiled, or where the Sun went at night.
The pre-scientific world was one of ghosts and goblins. It was a place where humans were diseased and helpless. Then along came the radical notion that you could learn what reality was like by investigating and testing it. Once we realised this elegant truth we began looking for answers rather than guessing at them. And the answer to every mystery so far has been predictable cause-effect relationships between testable laws and particles. The answer has never turned out to be magic or mysticism.
That doesn’t mean magic isn’t real. But if you want to use magical explanations to account for your world, you must also recognise that magic is an ever-receding pocket of ignorance which has been shrinking like a shadow before a candle. You’re welcome to choose magic, but I cannot help but wonder, why would you choose igorance and darkness?
Beyond our understanding
There are certainly deep and confounding mysteries which fill our Universe from edge to edge. What happens inside a black hole? Why is spacetime expanding? Does quantum gravity exist? Or, perhaps the greatest mystery of all time, when you listen to the song Doctor Jones by Aqua the guitar intro for the first 14 seconds is a beautiful piece of music, while the rest of the song sounds like Doctor Jones by Aqua. How is this possible?
Some things in the Universe are so strange that it can be hard getting our heads around them. But is it possible there are things which can’t be found in a laboratory? Things which don't conform to logical laws and textbook explanations? The answer is again, yes. There could be things which transcend natural law. But if such things really do exist, nobody would know about them...including the people making the claim in the first place.
Science is all about investigating the world through experimentation. Anything which can’t be tested for is supernatural. But if you claim to have knowledge of supernatural things, you are claiming that they are detectable because you yourself have detected them. And since the part of you which detected these things obeys natural laws (your brain) natural laws can clearly be used to search for them.
The laws which give you awareness are the same laws which underpin equipment in a laboratory. It’s not a matter of Scientists applying the wrong approach. Scientists are using the same approaches as supernaturalists, we’re just being cautious about it because we know how easily nature can play tricks on our senses. Salt looks like sugar and clouds look like cotton. We have to be better than that.
Kill the Myth
In a 2014 interview with Bill Moyers, Niel deGrasse Tyson explained that when people are wishing on stars they are more than likely wishing on planets. Moyers asks Tyson “Don’t you sometimes feel sad about breaking all these myths apart?” Tyson responds quickly: “No, because some myths deserve to be broken apart out of respect for the human intellect.”
This sentiment is close of the heart of Scientific motivation. We aren’t trying to ruin people’s fantasies, we just think people deserve to know the truth. We think people are smart enough to handle the facts, even if it means giving up a comforting superstition. We don’t think people should be patronised with fairy tales and spook-stories. We think grown-ups should have the right to grasp reality by the horns.
This doesn’t mean you have to abandon a world of mystery and wonder though. Supernatural beliefs offer you magical and fanciful ideas, but Science can beat them all.
Every atom in your body was formed in the core of a star and the atoms of your left hand came from a different star to the ones in your right. There are species of plant and jellyfish which are immortal. The sky is actually purple. Sugar glows in the dark when you crush it. On Venus it snows metal and on Neptune it rains diamonds. Some of the particles in your body can teleport to the moon. Time slows down or speeds up depending on where you’re standing. There are gases which can set fire to water. Whales used to walk on land. Diamonds are vomited to the Earth’s surface by volcanoes but we’ve learned to make them out of peanut butter. You can make frogs and oxygen levitate in magnetic fields. Last year we carried out real-life thought transplants. We have helped paraplegics walk and brought hearing to the deaf.
The world is full of strange stuff and there’s enough genuine magic out there for the entire species. To be quite frank, Science doesn’t oppose the supernatural, it just finds it a bit limited and boring.
Tiddlytubbies: Teletubbies wiki
Teletubbies 1: The Sun
Teletubbies 2: The Mirror
Teletubbies 3: hdnux
Teletubbies 4: onedio
I love science, let me tell you why.