Fascinating science stories overlooked this year

The discoveries, advances and curious research findings that were missed amid covid-19 coverage

Science & technology

COVID-19 CONSUMED the world’s attention. On this week’s Babbage podcast (embedded below), The Economist’s health-policy editor, Natasha Loder, unveiled some of the top stories she argues were missed amid the coverage of the pandemic. Highlights discussed on the show included a new polio vaccine, a blood-test for cancer and calculating the age of dogs. Her full list, published on her Twitter account at @natashaloder, is below.

EARLY HUMANS — Two million years ago, three hominin genera, including the earliest Homo erectus lineage, were contemporaries on the landscape of what is today South Africa. (Whether they all gathered to have a regular grunt at the local water hole is unknown.)

BEE BITES —When plant pollen is scarce, bumblebees can bite leaves to stimulate flowering—advancing it by 30 days. Cool bit: experimenters were not able to replicate the bee’s efforts.

BEE DECLINES — The widespread declines in bumblebee populations are being caused by temperature extremes. Bee populations are being hardest hit in countries like Spain and Mexico because of more frequent extremely warm years.

BEE VS BUBBLE — So when we have lost all our bumble bees, the techno-utopians may have it all figured out for us. Soap bubbles pollinated a pear orchard without damaging delicate flowers. Is this a good news story? Maybe.

REDUCING PLASTICS — Even if we reduce the rate of plastic pollution by 80%, we will be left with 710m metric tonnes in the environment by 2040. (And let’s face it, an 80% reduction looks like a pipe dream at the moment.)

A DOG’S LIFE — Dogs all have one common ancestor, and five major lines trace back at least 11,000 years with limited gene flow from present-day wolves since domestication. This paper has more dog ancestry than you can throw a stick at.

DOG YEARS — We now have a proper scientific measure of dog years. The study looks at age-driven methylation changes in the DNA of dogs and comes up with a new formula. It is more complicated than seven dog years for every human year. Your two-year old dog is 40.

CANCER TESTING — This was a really nice study showing that cancers can be picked up in the blood four years before a conventional diagnosis. Very positive news for the emerging technology of liquid biopsy.

COOL CHIPS — A room-temperature superconductor, sought by physicists for decades, has been found. We are not quite at levitating trains and lossless power grids yet, but with some advances to make it work at lower pressures there might be applications in imaging. A superb piece by Konstantin Kakaes on the Nature paper.

POLAR BEAR CRISIS — An unfed bear is a dead bear: business as usual climate change emissions will see all but a few polar bear populations collapse by 2100. Polar bears require sea ice for capturing seal. But declining summer sea ice forces bears onto land or onto remaining ice as it drifts over deep, unproductive waters. In both cases, polar bears go hungry.

WEIGHTY MATTERS — From Nature: “Constraint on the matter–antimatter symmetry-violating phase in neutrino oscillations”. I’m not a physicist but it seems to me it is trying to explain why there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe, and seem to have found some evidence of this in fundamental particles.

HOLY COW — The Dead Sea scrolls are tens of thousands of tiny fragments of fragile, ancient, manuscripts—and one of the most difficult jigsaw puzzles the world has ever faced. But DNA from the animal skins on which the texts were written can help unravel part of the mystery.

What do you think were some of the top science and technology stories that got overlooked this year? Tell us by emailing: [email protected]. And if you’re not already signed up for our weekly Babbage podcast, you can do so for free here.

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