Saturday, January 10, 2009

Top science stories of 2008

Popular interest in science news just isn't what it used to be. That's a sad but apparent fact. However, one reason that some people will always be interested in science news is that it satisfies a deep-rooted need for novelty. We get bored with the same old, same old after awhile. Our brains even tend automatically to tune out stimuli that don't ever change, or that change very little.

Science, on the other hand, keeps on providing a steady stream of genuinely new, and sometimes even surprising, information. This was just as true in 2008 as ever. It's a fact that could be lost sight of amidst all the other chaos of the year. As we review this year's noteworthy events in science, take note of how often the interest of the story resides in the novelty of the information.

Last year we did a summary of the news summaries. It was fun, so let's do it again.

As usual, Science magazine again provides the most intelligent selection of significant developments (December 19 issue).

The number 1 story (in their opinion) was reprogramming cells from one type to another. This research was announced in August and published a little later (October 2) in Nature. I was plannning to write about it – haven't yet – may still do so.

Here's how Science describes it:

Reprogramming Cells
By inserting genes that turn back a cell's developmental clock, researchers are gaining insights into disease and the biology of how a cell decides its fate.

This year, scientists achieved a long-sought feat of cellular alchemy. They took skin cells from patients suffering from a variety of diseases and reprogrammed them into stem cells. The transformed cells grow and divide in the laboratory, giving researchers new tools to study the cellular processes that underlie the patients' diseases. The achievement could also be an important step on a long path to treating diseases with a patient's own cells.

And here's the whole Top 10 list:

  1. Reprogramming cells
  2. Direct visual observation of extrasolar planets
  3. Identification of specific genetic abnormalities in cancer cells
  4. New class of high-temperature superconductors
  5. Clarification of how proteins bind to their targets
  6. Discovery of a new, cheaper catalyst for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen
  7. Real-time imaging of zebrafish embryonic development
  8. Discovery that cells of "brown" fat are more closely related to muscle cells than to cells of "white" fat
  9. Computation using quantum chromodynamics of correct (to within 5%) mass of a proton
  10. Much faster and cheaper genome sequencing technologies

Could this list have been better? Yes. It doesn't mention anything in astrophysics or cosmology, where there was actually quite a lot happening in the areas of dark matter, dark energy, star and galaxy formation simulations, gamma-ray astronomy, high-energy cosmic rays, and more.

Several other print and/or online publications attempted to come up with similar lists. Here are some of the better ones:

News 2008 (Nature)
Nature's list of important stories gets a lower rating because their criterion was "newsworthiness" or something like that, perhaps in terms of social or political impact, rather than scientific significance. Polar bears? Eh. In terms of actual science the list includes genome sequencing, synthetic genomes, Arctic sea ice, and pluripotent stem cells (a year late).

2008: Science News of the Year (Science News)
A little disappointing, because it covers so many stories. But from another point of view, that's the biggest strength, if you have patience to go through longish lists in 13 different categories.

Top 100 Stories of 2008 (Discover)
This traditionally long list (couldn't they at least have separated out the best 20 or so?) is substantially improved this year by organization into categories. But then they spoil it and lose mucho points for referring to the Higgs particle as the "God particle". Ugh.

The Year in Science (MSNBC)
Good job by Alan Boyle. Intelligent choices, not too long, not too short. Nice mix of scientific results and political/social implications. Now we just need to convince Alan and other American science writers to stop using the name of a long-dead baseball jock in connection with an important neurological disease (ALS).

Year in science: Dig into DNA, out-of-this-world discoveries (USA Today)
Workman-like effort from Dan Vergano. This is the one to read if you want brevity. Genome mapping, extrasolar planets, ancient DNA.

Top Ten Physics Stories of 2008 (American Institute of Physics)
Pretty fair list, albeit in just one area of science. Covers superconductivity, quark physics, gamma-ray bursts, cosmic rays, and low-temperature physics.

The best of 2008 (Physics World)
Another decent physics list. Drawback is organization by month, which doesn't map well to topic areas – notable ones being superconductivity, graphene, quantum computing, and dark matter. Somehow they managed to miss the proton mass calculation, and anything in astrophysics except for dark matter.

Biggest Science Stories: Bloggers' Picks for 2008 (National Geographic)
Interesting concept: the magazine chooses bloggers to discuss the most important stories in several areas – anthropology, paleontology, energy, archaeology, psychology, and environment.

Lists of lists:

Unimpressive lists:

New Scientist did offer up a number of collections of its own favorite articles in various topic areas. You get to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It's unfortunate how little coverage there is in this, and most other non-professional media, of significant stories about cell and molecular biology, where scientific activity is frenetic.


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Anonymous Garry Pilkington said...

Added to the Astronomy Link List

1/13/2009 01:13:00 AM  

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