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The Sciences

Not Exactly Rocket Science - Favourites from 2011

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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.

The first post of the year, and still one of my favourites. I find it utterly delightful that such beauty could have gone unnoticed for such a long time, simply because people didn’t look at insects under the right conditions.

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1) Forget butterflies – wasps and flies have hidden rainbows in their wings

One of the more mind-blowing discoveries of the last year. There’s regeneration and then there’s regeneration. Clearly, flatworms practice the latter.

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2) An entire flatworm regenerated from a single adult cell

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3) How tiny wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas

The picture sold it for me, but I loved the idea of insects whose nervous systems are so tiny that they shouldn’t work.

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4) Deinonychus and Velociraptor used their killing claws to pin prey, like eagles and hawks

A wonderful paper that took a lot of existing evidence and packaged it into a new, radically different, and utterly compelling idea.

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5) How the cat that got the cream then drank it

A perfect example of a story with no practical application whatsoever. I love it because there’s a quirky historical tie-in, an interesting use of YouTube for research, and a wonderful human element –a scientist watched his own cat, wondered something, answered it by himself, and got a Science paper out of it. There was also a sequel in which dogs get their own back.

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6) World’s 2nd deadliest poison, in an aquarium store near you

Featuring a man who inhaled aerosolised poison and a Polynesian shark god

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7) Prehistoric Brits made the world’s earliest skull-cups

In which I start with an Onion article, continue with a step-by-step guide to making your own skull-cap, and end with a Byron poem.

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8 ) Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions

I love studies about the power of words, and this one is particularly stark. “Metaphors aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.”

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9) Exposing the memory engine: the story of PKMzeta

I am fascinated by this molecule, which seems to be vital for keeping our memories intact. This post was one of a three-part series, including a news piece and an interview.

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10) Justice is served, but more so after lunch: how food-breaks sway the decisions of judges

In which the saying that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” turns out to be right. This post also featured one of the year’s most striking graphs.

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11) Individual neurons go to sleep while rats stay awake

This says it all: “Even if the rats are awake, parts of their brain can be taking a nap. What we know as “sleep” is the global version of something that happens throughout the brain at a local level.”

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12) Foxes use the Earth’s magnetic field as a targeting system

This contained one of my favourite quotes of the year: “The strength of the authors’ conclusions is only as good as the inability of anyone else to come up with an alternative hypothesis.” And in the comments, readers tried.

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13) The Renaissance man: how to become a scientist over and over again

This was easily the longest post from the year and, rewardingly, one of the most popular. Perhaps I should do more of these profiles in 2012.

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14) Flesh-eating plant inspires super-slippery material that repels everything

“It repels everything. All manner of liquids, from water to blood to crude oil, roll straight off it. Ice cannot form on it. It even heals itself when damaged. It’s an extraordinary material and it was inspired by the lips of a flesh-eating plant.”

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15) Extending healthy life by getting rid of retired cells

In which we learn that retired cells are slowly killing you. It strikes me that this is going to be very important for our understanding of ageing in years to come.

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16) Computer gamers develop problem-solving algorithm that beats scientists’ best efforts

I’ve covered Foldit three times on the blog and it never ceases to intrigue and surprise me. This is their latest volley and it shows just how accomplished these players can be.

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17) Monkeys grab and feel virtual objects with thoughts alone (and what this means for the World Cup)

I usually don’t care about far-flung applications of basic research, so this was an odd story in that the far-flung application took centre-stage. I was struck by the specific nature of the deadline, and the steps that are already being taken to meet it. Also, cyborg monkeys.

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18) Man with schizophrenia has out-of-body experience in lab, gains knowledge, controls his psychosis

A beautiful and uplifting story. See? It’s not all brutal animal violence and sex here. There’s life-affirming stuff too.

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19) Beetle larva lures and kills frogs, while the adult hunts and paralyses them

But then there’s also the brutal violence. This story made even me squirm.

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20) One gene keeps Mickey from turning into Minnie

Sex, it turns out, isn’t fixed. It’s held under constant tension by two rival genes. Take away either contestant, and males and turn into females, and vice versa.

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21) Hagfish filmed choking sharks with slime, and actively hunting fish

I’ve known about hagfish slime since I was a child, but there’s a massive gulf between reading about it on paper and actually seeing it being deployed in the wild.

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22) The two-genome waltz: how the threat of mismatched partners shapes complex life

This is based on one of my favourite papers this year, from the brilliant Nick Lane. It takes a simple concept – that our cells have two genomes that must dance in step – and uses it to explain why species stay separate, why we typically have two sexes, how many offspring we produce, and how we age.

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23) Scientists sequence the full Black Death genome and find the mother of all plagues

This story attracted a fair bit of controversy, not least because it was based on a paper that partly refuted one from the same group just a few months prior. Still, it’s a fascinating tale and I was pleased with the approach of revisiting and re-editing my earlier post.

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24) Hacking the genome with a MAGE and a CAGE

Hacking an entire genome has many possible applications (and the people behind the work have some truly far-out ones in mind), but I was drawn to this for the sheer bolshiness of the science.

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25) Hair-thin ‘electronic skin’ monitors hearts and brains, controls video games

I covered this story for Nature, but this interview with John Rogers goes into a lot more detail about his astounding new device and its many implications.

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26) Defeating dengue by releasing mosquitoes with virus-blocking bacteria

Wolbachia – the male-killing, gender-distorting bacterium that may well be the planet’s most successful parasite – has always been fascinating to me. And doubly so, when it’s being used to defeat a human infection in actual field trials.

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27) From 250 million years of repression, a wonderland of hats

I loved writing about this. Evo-devo isn’t the sexiest science in the world, and it sometimes gets a short shrift. But peel aside the silly gene names, and you basically have a story about how some rather boring things made some very small changes and turned into thousands of extraordinarily beautiful things.

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28) Tiny water insect makes record-breaking song with his penis

It’s an animal-genitals story. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a Best-of-NERS list without one.

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29) To discover the point of sleep, scientists breed flies that nod off on demand

Optogenetics – the technique that allows scientists to control animals and cells using light – is fascinating in its own right, but its applications are really starting to boggle the mind. Here, we have flies that can fall asleep on demand.

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30) How acquiring The Knowledge changes the brains of London cab drivers

Science isn’t a set of one-off discoveries. It’s a sequence of them, built on top of one another. It’s a process. It takes time. I love getting chances to show that, and this study – the culmination of a wonderful 11-year line of research – certainly provided such a chance. And for the record, here were the top ten posts by traffic

  1. World’s 2nd deadliest poison, in an aquarium store near you

  2. What is the point of pruney fingers?

  3. Hagfish filmed choking sharks with slime, and actively hunting fish

  4. “There are some people who don’t wait.” Robert Krulwich on the future of journalism

  5. The Renaissance man: how to become a scientist over and over again

  6. Computer gamers solve problem in AIDS research that puzzled scientists for years

  7. Beetle turns itself into a wheel (that’s how it rolls)

  8. Scientists finish a 53-year-old classic experiment on the origins of life

  9. Flesh-eating plant inspires super-slippery material that repels everything

  10. Justice is served, but more so after lunch: how food-breaks sway the decisions of judges

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