It’s been a good and somewhat momentous year. In July, I left my job of seven years to become a fulltime freelancer. Before, the blogging and feature-writing were all leisure-time activities, and they’re now my bread and butter. With just five months in, it’s working out nicely so far and I get to spend a bit more time on the stories I write for this blog. I hope that the quality of the content here is, if anything, improving as a result. Some events of note:
I did other stuff too! Some long-form features…
These are some of my proudest work. They’re where I really get to flex my writing muscles. There are six here, but I’ve actually written ten this year. Four of them will be out in early 2012.
…and lots of news stories and columns
And even a spot of radio…
In which I tell the collected listeners of BBC Radio 4 that they’re sacks of bacteria
As always, I owe a huge amount to the editors who have kicked my pieces into shape, the friends and colleagues who have supported me, and the readers who have deigned to read the messy piles of words that I bash out at my desk. Writing is a lonely and sometimes dispiriting business, and every kind word helps. I’m grateful to all the people I connect with, from all over the world, who make it worthwhile.
And, as has become obligatory but never any less important, my utmost thanks to my wife, Alice, who continues to make it all possible
By now, you are no doubt tired of reading “Best of 2011” lists. I offer up no such animal. Instead, this is just a list 30 of my favourite posts of the year. It are not a list of breakthroughs or important events – you won’t find any mention of the Higgs boson, Fukushima, neutrinos or exo-planets here. Importance has never been a criterion for me in deciding what to write about. Instead, I am drawn to science that excites and inspires me, or that allows me to tell interesting stories. It’s these stories – quirky or jaw-dropping, eye-opening or smile-raising – that comprise this list.
It’s been a light week, both in terms of news and in terms of what I’ve read. This week’s links round-up is therefore a bit truncated. We’re back to full service next week, and the first mind-blowing story of the year on Monday.
“The logical thing a reporter should then do is ask, “How exciting can this conclusion be, when you never actually made it in the paper?” Indeed. Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek take on the week’s non-story – the discovery of fossil teeth that apparently double the age of our species from 200,000 to 400,000 years, but actually may not even have belonged to humans.
What a wunch of bankers. The UK banking trade association asked Cambridge University to censor a student’s master’s thesis because it “documented a well-known flaw in the chip-and-PIN system.” Cambridge’s Ross Anderson wasn’t impressed and sent a legendary reply: “Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton, and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values… Your letter shows that, instead, your member banks do their lamentable best to deprecate the work of those outside their cosy club, and indeed to censor it.”
Some year-end round-ups: Al Dove picks his top five marine science stories, Brian Switek recaps a year of dinosaur stories, Petra Boynton lists the best and worst sex stories of the year, Alex Wild chooses some of his best photos, and Emily Anthes lists her top posts (and they are top indeed) of the last year. Meanwhile, Nature predicts some stories for 2011.
Is it possible to have the first newborn of the year on purpose? And when do astronauts celebrate New Year’s Eve?
How do you name a dinosaur? Find out in this wonderful post by David Orr. Just try to do better than “Irritator”
Polar bears get the better out of spy cameras.
2011 was one day old, and we already had a contender for crap reporting of year. Here, a “journalist” quotes another “journalist” who quoted a third writer. Also the fourth sentence refutes the headline.
“How many friends do you have? A rough answer can be predicted by the size of [a part of the brain called the amygdala]”
Rebecca Skloot is collecting stories about how the story of Henrietta Lacks has affected the people see or do science. Please share if you’ve read her book.
7-month-old bouncing babies betray their awareness of others’ beliefs. Scicurious covers an important study.
World’s first organ donor dies aged 79
I was profiled on MuckRack, a site about journalism and social media
Baby beavers’ secret lives filmed
An awesome list of 10 biomimetic designs inspired by insects
How long has that been there? Fossilised food stuck in Neanderthal teeth suggests that they ate a plant-rich diet.
The Psychology of Climate Change Communication – a book with advice on knowing your audience, employing framing, using trusted messengers (often local voices), using the power of groupthink in your favor (rather than letting it turn against you), and much else.
Brain activity levels under general anaesthesia track pretty close to brain-stem death. Much like watching X-Factor.
Using Google’s Ngrams to distinguish real science from fads
I just wanted to mark this moment – Not Exactly Rocket Science has just received its four millionth page view. It’s a pretty sweet New Year’s present and gives me a nice hook to reflect on the last year.
I wrote 275 pieces for the blog, and I started doing a weekly roundup of links. In March, I moved the blog to Discover, a decision I’ve been immensely happy with. For reference, two of the four million views so far have been in the last 10 months (it took 42 to get the first two million). The first set of heartfelt thanks go to Amos Zeeberg for recruting me; Eliza Strickland, Gemma Shusterman, Andrew Moseman, Joe Calamia, and Jennifer Welsh for helping to promote and debug the blog; Sheril, Carl, Phil, Razib, Sean, Chris and my other fellow Discover bloggers for their camaraderie; my entire network of friends and colleagues in the blogosphere, Twitter and the UK science community for their support; and everyone who reads, comments on, and passes on these posts for taking NERS out of the echo-chamber and into the world.
Outside of the blog, I wrote six feature pieces: on memory molecules and a 40-million-year dry spell for the Times’s Eureka magazine, on the mislabelled ‘warrior gene’ and the magnetovision of birds for New Scientist, on surprisingly sophisticated slime moulds for the Guardian, and a couple of items for WIRED’s Ideas Special. My thanks go out to my editors Kate Douglas, Michael LePage, Alok Jha, Antonia Senior and David Rowan for commissioning those pieces and knocking them into shape.
I started doing lots of speaking engagements on journalism, blogging and writing: at the US and London editions of ScienceOnline 2010; for science communication/journalism students at City University, Imperial College, NYU and Macquarie University; at the ABSW science journalism conference; and at several debates/panels at the Royal Institution, City University and more. Hearty thanks to Bora Zivkovic, Alice Bell, Mark Henderson, Lucy Harper, Ivan Oransky, David Dobbs, Henry Scowcroft, Fiona Fox, Mun-Keat Looi and Steve Pratt for inviting me to those events.
Best of all, I won the online category in the National Academies Keck 2010 Science Communication Awards, the Three Quarks Daily Science Prize 2010, and three prizes at the inaugural Research Blogging Awards 2009. Thanks to the judging panels, Richard Dawkins and my fellow bloggers respectively. (In return, I also helped to judge the resurrected ABSW Science Writing awards and OpenLab 2010) I somehow ended up in Eureka’s 100 important people in science supplement, in a list of ten people under 40 to watch. Presumably not in the voyeuristic sense, or the Government blacklist sense. Thanks to Mark Henderson and Alice Bell for graciously accepting my bribes.
In November, I had a nap. Next year, I might do more of that.
But probably not.
And last but not least, a final massive burst of gratitude to my wife, Alice, for her unerring encouragment and belief, in these endeavours and in everything else.
Happy New Year everyone. See you in 2011.
This is the final part of my review of the year, with a more light-hearted look at the past 12 months. But first, here are parts 1-10.
IgNobel tribute awards
First up, a selection of posts that, in the words of the award creators, first make people laugh, and then make them think.
The good news: beer makes some people much more attractive. The bad news: it makes them more attractive to mosquitoes. Anopheles gambiae (the mosquito that transmits malaria) finds the body odour of beer drinkers to be quite tantalising. The authors even suggest (very speculatively and with tongue somewhat planted in cheek) that mosquitoes might have evolved a preference for the smell of beer-drinkers, “possibly due to reduced host defensive behaviours”.
Many of the stories I write about fall into the “shock and awe” camp – discoveries that promote wonder without promising anything practical. These are different. They are technical achievements that have direct practical implications for improving our lives, developing our technologies and allowing us to better investigate our world. And no, before you ask, I didn’t write about Venter’s synthetic bacterium, except in jest.
Two spiders are walking along a track – a seemingly ordinary scene, but these are no ordinary spiders. They are molecular robots and they, like the tracks they stride over, are fashioned from DNA. One of them has four legs and marches over its DNA landscape, turning and stopping with no controls from its human creators. The other has four legs and three arms – it walks along a miniature assembly line, picking up three pieces of cargo from loading machines (also made of DNA) and attaching them to itself. All of this is happening at the nanometre scale, far beyond what the naked eye can discern. Welcome to the exciting future of nanotechnology.
Every time a cell divides in two, its genetic information is copied and there’s a small chance that mistakes (or ‘mutations’) will creep in. Marina Elez has developed a way to watch mutations in real time. She can look at dividing cells and literally watch the moment when mutations show up across the entire genome. She tagged a proofreading protein called MutL with a glow-in-the-dark molecule. The protein tracks down mutations and tries to fix them; when it can’t, it sits at the altered site and gives off a telltale glow.
This is the ninth of a series of reviews, looking back at a year of science according to topic and theme. This one celebrates science as enlightenment. Some of these discoveries make us consider the world in a new light, some act as timely reminders of things we already know, and others complicate a previously simple picture. They tell us that no matter how much we think we know, it’s all a little more complicated than that.
The OXTR gene acts as a dock for oxytocin, a hormone frequently billed as a “love hormone”. Among Americans, a specific “G” version of OXTR makes carriers more likely to seek emotional support from their friends. But for Koreans, whose culture frowns on seeking support from one’s social circle, the opposite happens. People with the G version are less likely to turn to their peers in times of need. To top it all off, both of these effects only showed up when people experienced a lot of stress. The study reminds us that the same stretch of DNA can lead to very different deeds, depending on individual circumstances. Environments and cultures set the stage on which genes expresse itself.
Seahorses and pipefish took a big leap from models of fatherhood to vampiric cannibal abortionists. The females lay their eggs into a pouch in the male’s belly and he carries the developing babies to term. They may seem like a shoe-in for a Dad-of-the-year award but two studies this year showed that males can turn into cannibals. They can absorb the young in their pouch for their own nutrition. What’s more, they’re more likely to do this if they’ve mated with an unattractive female.
The oceans are in trouble. Every year, a mountain of research spells trouble for watery wildlife, as climate change heats the oceans and makes their waters more acidic. This year, one of the most alarming studies showed that tiny green creatures called phytoplankton are disappearing. This couldn’t be more important. Phytoplankton are the bottom of the ocean’s food web, and they produce much of the planet’s oxygen. Their numbers have fallen by around 1% per year over the last century as the oceans have become warmer, and if anything, their decline is getting faster. Our blue planet is becoming less green with every year.
This is the eighth of a series of reviews, looking back at a year of science according to topic and theme. This is about the unexpectedly dynamic world of genes, including some that jump around their host genomes, others that infiltrate new species, and yet others that change in surprisingly constrained ways.
Your genome is full of fossils, the remains of ancient viruses that shoved their genes into those of your ancestors. This year, we learned that this genetic infiltration was far more extensive than anyone had realised. By screening 44 animal genomes of 44 species, Aris Katzourakis and Robert Gifford found fossils representing 11 virus families, including ancient relatives of influenza, Ebola, hepatitis B and rabies. Most of these “endogenous viral elements” or EVEs are broken and fragmented, but some have been domesticated and probably play an active role in their new hosts. The EVEs can tell us about what ancient viruses were like, about which modern animals act as reservoirs for today’s killers, and even about viruses that jumped from one host to another.
Most mammals can trace their origins to a single ancestral species but a Caribbean fruit bat called Artibeus schwartzi has a far more complex family tree. It’s a hybrid of three separate species. Its main genome is a cross between those of two other fruit bats, A. jamaicensis and A. Planirostris. But a third ancestor contributed the genome of its mitochondria (energy-providing structures in the cells of all animals that carry their own accessory genes). This third species has either since gone extinct or hasn’t been discovered yet. Artibeus schwartzi is a fusion bat – a sort of fuzzy, winged spork.
This is the sixth of a series of reviews, looking back at a year of science according to topic and theme. This one is pretty self-explanatory. These aren’t necessarily the most entertaining videos of the last year, but they all helped illustrate an already fascinating story.
One of the more amusing videos of the year (and I take credit for adding an appropriate score). Frogs are powerful jumpers and most land gracefully on their front legs. But not the Rocky Mountain tailed frog. It belongs to a lineage of ancient frogs that lands with an awkward mix of belly-flops, face-plants and lengthy skids. Only when it grinds to a halt does it recover its outstretched limbs together. These results support the idea that frogs evolved their jumping abilities to escape from danger by rapidly diving into water. Only later did they evolve to pull their legs in earlier and land gracefully on land. The Rocky Mountain tailed frog never did, but it compensates with a large shield-shaped piece of cartilage that protects its undersides.
A bursting bubble might seem unspectacular but a set of slow-motion videos revealed more to this everyday even than meets the eye. The videos showed that a popped bubble doesn’t just vanish. Instead, it gives birth to a ring of smaller daughter bubbles, each of which can produce an even smaller ring when it bursts.The whole process takes place in a few thousandths of a second and it can only happen twice before the daughter bubbles get too small.
This is the sixth of a series of reviews, looking back at a year of science according to topic and theme. This one covers my favourite discoveries about the distant past. They change our views of (and push back the dates of) some of the most important events in prehistory, from the origin of complex life, to the invasion of the land, to the development of human butchery (well, maybe).
An unassuming English village called Happisburgh, Norfolk happens to be the site of Britain’s earliest known human settlement. With the village about to fall into the sea, archaeologists uncovered over 70 flint tools from the exposed shore. They suggest that humans lived in this area over 800,000 years ago, some 100,000 years earlier than previously thought. These first Brits had to contend with prowling sabre-toothed cats and hyenas, mammoths and woolly rhinos, a Thames that flowed upwards to Norfolk, and rubbish weather. The last bit, at least, hasn’t changed.
Regular readers of this blog should be familiar with the concept of feathered dinosaurs but two specimens, described earlier this year, put an unusual twist in the tale of dinosaur feathers. The fossils are both youngsters of the same species – Similicaudipteryx – but at different ages and with very different types of feathers. The older one has plumes shaped like quills, while the younger one has feathers that are thin ribbons at their base and quills at their tips. Together, they demonstrate that the feather of some dinosaurs changed dramatically as they grew older, in a way that we don’t see in any modern bird.