Rocks are full of stories. They contain the petrified remains of long-dead animals and in every fossilised bone, scale and track, there are awe-inspiring accounts of the history of life on this planet. Of course, fossils themselves are poor narrators. To uncover their tales, you need a storyteller with an expert’s knowledge and a writer’s flair. Brian Switek is that storyteller.
In his first book, Written in Stone, Switek uses the remains of prehistoric creatures to illustrate how the first tetrapods (four-legged animals) invaded the land from the sea, how the ancestors of whales went back to the sea from the land, and how a special branch of the dinosaur family eventually took to the air as birds. This is thrilling stuff, full of memorable characters including shovel-tusked elephants, huge leviathans, and fuzzy dinosaurs. In a wonderful penultimate chapter, Switek even tackles our own origins in one of the best accounts of the topic that I have read.
These stories haven’t been chosen at random. Each one reveals a subtle new aspect about the nature of evolution, which Switek brings home with uncompromising accuracy. The book is the richer for it. Instead of the claims of “missing links” and direct ancestors, we get a much subtler picture of life’s history, complete with failed experiments and bursts of diversity. There is grandeur in this view of life and Switek captures it well. Immersing yourself in these stories, you get a true sense of life’s incredible diversity, the great panoply of forms of which today’s species are a small and ever-shrinking part.
I don’t really like end-of-the-year lists. They seem a bit too self-knowing and forced, and there are just so many of them, particularly because we’re heralding the end of a decade too. I half-expect someone to create a Top Ten Years of the Decade list (and Time Out would probably put 1977 in there just to be edgy).
This might seem like a funny way of introducing an end-of-the-year list, but I’ve tried to make this one a bit different. This is not a collection of the “top” scientific discoveries of the year. I’m not calling them “breakthroughs”. I’m not judging them on such abstract and subjective measures as “quality” or “significance”. There is no Ardi and no ice on the moon.
Instead, this is a list of stories that have made you and I widen our eyes in collective excitement. It was chosen by you readers through a series of nine polls. It reflects the fact that science has a value that goes well beyond practical applications. The coolest discoveries expand our knowledge about the world around us and our place in it. They make us wonder. They make us want to know more. I’ve learned a great deal through writing for this blog over the last 12 months and I hope that I’ve been able to share at least some of that successfully with you lot.
So without any further fanfare, the list:
Phew. Another year almost over and it’s been a really good one. This time last year, I was still blogging at WordPress, and it was only in late February that I beamed aboard the mighty ScienceBlog mothership. It’s been a great experience and all in all, I’ve managed to rack up about 190 posts on new research (excluding reposts and random stuff), over 1,500 comments and over 400,000 page views in a year. Elsewhere, I published a book based on this blog, I wrote about 2% of another book called “Defining Moments in Science“, and I wrote three features and several news pieces for New Scientist.
And given all that, it’s nice to take some time for reflection and with that in mind, I’m going to continue a tradition that I started last year – choosing some of the favourite stories from 2008. This list has no pretensions to be a catalogue of the year’s biggest stories or its most important breakthroughs. It’s just what I personally deemed to be the most interesting and just plain, downright cool.
So, without further ado, here are my picks. Once again, a massive thanks to anyone who read, commented on, or linked to this site over the last year. I hope you’ll join me for 2009.