Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!
Here we are, ten years into the 21st century and a few things are absolutely abundantly clear, problems of mankind continue to be the problems of mankind. Generally speaking, things aren’t getting any easier and life on Earth is not getting any simpler. Still, as we have zoomed ahead another decade in time, much has changed and most of it for the better.
We are a smarter planet for one thing, having added to our mental databases of knowledge, tremendous petaflops of information about the complexities of the universe. We have answered some age-old questions and have posed new questions to be worked on in the decades to come.
Science, we seek to unravel the mysteries, overcome the obstacles and create a better future for us all. While science is a major focus of the University of California at Davis, it does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the next hour of our programming, KDVS or its sponsors.
And while science continues to pursue a more perfect future, we’ll take a few moments now to look back at the year of new findings, here on This Week in Science, coming up next.
Good morning, Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! It’s our last show of 2009!
Kirsten: I know, wow!
Justin: There’s been a lot of shows this year. It seems like there’s more shows this year than normal.
Kirsten: You think?
Justin: I can’t see you. There’s this little…
Kirsten: There’s a stuffed animal…
Justin: …(abominable) creature…
Kirsten: … (abominable) stuffed animals hanging out on your microphone.
Justin: In front of me. Here we go.
Kirsten: Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for a conversation. I can’t see you. It’s like a wall.
Justin: There you are.
Kirsten: Oh, wait. That’s my hand…
Justin: There you are.
Kirsten: …covering your face.
Justin: It’s going to make it hard to do the show. Yeah, an entire year which is by my closest estimations, more than 50 shows. We did this every week.
Kirsten: We try and bring it to the minions, week after week after week, the science that we love and that we love to share and talk about. It’s just great to talk about science.
Kirsten: Why not, you know. How often just to get you go, hang out and talk about science.
Justin: I feel sorry for those guys I see and gals I see on those television networks, certain radio programs talking about how many points the Dow Jones went up or down this week.
Kirsten: They probably enjoy it, you know.
Justin: Maybe they get a kick out of it.
Kirsten: They might get a kick out of it.
Justin: But I kind of like look at it like, you know…
Kirsten: To each – to each their own, you know.
Justin: I guess it’s sort – to me, it’s sort of like reporting on the tide, you know.
Kirsten: And the tide went out…
Justin: One, two, three coming in more now than it was previously. There seems to be foamy bits on the surf – it’s just like, great! Yeah. There’s an (avin) of flow and things moving around – please people, you don’t need up to the minute reporting on this. Let’s figure out how we are ten years from now, 20 years from now. That’s like the kind of scope you need to be thinking about.
Kirsten: That’s right. And what are we doing right now? Well, we’re talking about the past. Today’s show is all about the past, you know. But maybe, by talking about the past year in science, we’re bringing you what we think are the best stories of 2009, the best 11 stories, because there’s always some that are left out, right?
Justin: Or subjects because sometimes…
Kirsten: It’s not…
Justin: Sometimes, it’s not just one story in itself that has taken that…
Kirsten: Right. It’s subject, subject matter.
Justin: …category. But it’s, yeah. Like a lot of movement in one area of science.
Kirsten: Yeah. And hopefully, by recapping each year at the end of the year, you can have a perspective on change and where progress is being made and where change may continue to happen, where we may continue to see development in different areas. So, this is a perspective look to the past.
Kirsten: Yeah, yeah. So, I wanted to start out – we picked out a bunch of topics that we think were just the most fabulous topics of the year. And every year, it just gets harder and harder and harder to pick because there’s so much amazing research happening. But I wanted to go back even further in the past to get us started.
So, last year we started our Top 11 Stories of the Year show. With a letter from a listener named (Larry). And (Larry) was concerned with the story that we have reported on about the melting of Greenland’s ice cap which is still melting, by the way.
He also commented on Antarctica because – and we talked a bit about the fact that if you’re reporting on Greenland, you obviously have to talk about Antarctica. But what he wrote is also – well no one disputes – the observed global warming and loss of ice in Greenland and West Antarctica, no one ever mentions the fact that the East Antarctica ice sheet which is significantly larger than the other two combined is actually accreting.
Wouldn’t a balanced scientific discussion address this as well? And (Larry), if you’re still listening, after this past year, the end of the year has given us some new information about that East Antarctica ice sheet. It’s melting.
Justin: You were right.
Kirsten: Or more accurately stating, it is losing mass which would be the exact opposite of accretion.
Justin: Although, it could be gaining volume…
Kirsten: Becoming more light and airy?
Justin: Well, yeah, because this is like one of the things is that you – with more moisture in the air, you get more precipitation and you get more snowfall sometimes in these areas which has been being recounted like, “Whoa! There’s more snow fell in the Arctic than it had fallen before.”
But this is like – this is the powder…
Justin: This is the light fluffy stuff.
Justin: This isn’t the glacial ice that’s maintaining the appearance of there being a land mass there.
Kirsten: Exactly. And so, I just – I thought that story would get us started…
Kirsten: …and bring us right into our number 11 science stories/subject area.
Kirsten: Climydia! Wait, wait.
Justin: Isn’t it cute? Hit that – there we go.
[Song about Climydia]
Kirsten: So, campy. I love it.
That’s right, Trebeth Eric wrote Climydia. It’s a wonderful, wonderful song. And that was on – which year? What year?
Justin: It was 2006?
Justin: The year is running together now.
Kirsten: Our science music compilation from 2008.
Kirsten: Climydia. And so, Climydia has been on our list for years, I would say. But yeah, last year, it was number 11. And I think again, it fills the number 11 spot with a lot of data, more information. Every year, we get more information about the way that the climate is changing. And this year was no different.
And this year however, again, very political. We had the COP15, Copenhagen 15 conference which was very political. It didn’t really get much done. But that’s okay, we don’t ask the politicians to get much done. Scientists are doing the work.
Justin: And I went out there, there seems to be some slight confusion that went after Copenhagen a little bit for, you know, with my (unintelligible).
Kirsten: Right. Yes, yes.
Justin: No, it wasn’t – it wasn’t I mean really after, yeah, (Alaska) Copenhagen, it’s like a great city. I think they were frustrated too because they were – I don’t think it’s the meeting that they wanted to be hosting, ultimately.
I think, it took a few turns where they were getting frustrated with the general political vibe that showed up to hash out how to turn…
Justin: …how to turn it into some sort of carbon trading market that’s controlled by the World Bank instead of an actual addressing of the issue.
Kirsten: Actually, yeah – actually addressing the issue and making waves, making change. So, that’s I think again, we’re looking for progress. But we have found some in climate change news, Antarctica is warming. And it’s warming at rates very similar to the rest of the Earth.
So, we used to think that Antarctica was different somehow. Our measuring equipment was not as spread out over the continent. It’s a large continent. We don’t have many stations over it. Been able to look at the data again and it’s warming, great.
But there’s been some other very interesting news. More information about how the oceans are turned over, how mixing happens in the great heat sink, the great carbon dioxide sink on our planet.
And little tiny creatures fossilized or – not fossilized but little tiny plankton, little, little, tiny creatures really affect the way the ocean mixes.
Justin: I know.
Kirsten: You know, these are…
Justin: Isn’t it fantastic that the fate of the world and the climate for the future…
Kirsten: It lies in the hands of these little creatures.
Justin: But it’s not in their hands.
Justin: It’s in their – what do you call it? Scat? Isn’t it? Especially plankton scat that drops those…
Justin: …carbons into the deep ocean.
Kirsten: And they go up…
Justin: And they drop these little carbon pellets down there.
Kirsten: Yeah. And there have also been – there’s been research looking at fossilized plankton showing the effects of fossil fuels. Researcher – published in Science in June, a study about how plankton incorporates different forms of boron into their shells. And depending on the acidity of the water, it determines which form of boron is incorporated.
Acidity of the water is determined by how much carbon dioxide is in the water. And we know that the amount of carbon dioxide that’s in the water is determined by how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere.
So, you can – the researcher was able to link temperature, date, how far back and carbon dioxide levels. And what she was even able to find is that over some 100 million years that she was – how far back did she look – 2.1 million years.
Researchers want to go back 100 million years. But she looked back 2.1 million years and found that although they were local fluctuations in carbon dioxide with variations in local temperature and there were higher levels of carbon dioxide that corresponded to warmer eras, despite that, she found that overall, the carbon dioxide concentration remained remarkably constant and it’s the today’s readings that go beyond anything that the Earth has seen in a very long time.
Justin: Right. And actually, well the Earth has seen it – that there was another researcher – very similar sort of a study and she used seashells. And she managed to get back 15 million years and find that actually, 15 million years ago, we’re about where we are now.
Justin: Just slightly higher than we are now, but we’re trending there very quickly, 400 millions parts per something.
Justin: At that time coincidentally, there was no ice on the caps. North Pole was kind of a tropical zone.
Justin: And it was the Miocene era which hosted one of the largest sharks ever, the biggest fish ever in the water.
Kirsten: Big teeth.
Justin: Yeah. So, we make bigger sharks with global warming.
Kirsten: Which would be cool.
Justin: And I think, we’ve gone up like a foot in global sea level over the last hundred of years.
Kirsten: It’s going to keep rising.
Justin: I mean, it’s already moving that way.
Kirsten: It’s going to keep rising.
Justin: The global warming thing is so simple that truly a six-year old could understand it. I noticed there were no six years old though on the panel at Copenhagen. So, I sent my own. I sent my own…
Kirsten: You sent your own six-year old?
Justin: I sent my own. I sent my six-year old over there…
Justin: …to go, you know, sort things out a bit.
Kirsten: Go (Bastian)!
Kirsten: Go (Bastian).
Justin: So, he’s working on it.
Kirsten: Yeah. Okay. Well let’s move on from number 11. We have a lot more topics to get to this hour.
Justin: Number ten – computering.
Kirsten: The very…
Justin: How can we still be talking about those ancient machines in this modern era?
Kirsten: Because they’re getting much more complicated. They’re getting to a point that we’re going to be looking at some crazy advances in our computing power and technology.
This past year, some huge strides were made in proof of concept for the programmable quantum computer.
Kirsten: Yes! Yeah. So, this past year, researchers used beryllium ions to create a quantum computer. And then, were able recently, the beginning of – they published – pretty much at the beginning of December actually – they performed 160 randomly chosen processing routines which, you know, is pretty good. It’s not a lot. But, you know, it’s getting there. I mean, it’s pretty cool.
And researchers have also been able to make them, these program book quantum computers, more resistant to any kind of outside influence. So, you know, you carry your laptop around. You don’t want to like shake your laptop and suddenly lose everything because you bumped a couple of beryllium ions out of place.
Justin: I would – yeah, I’d be in trouble constantly.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, they need to be durable. These computers can’t be testy little machines. They have to be durable and stand up to human rigorous use like dropping on the floor.
Justin: I’m still waiting for them to come out with the Nerf laptop.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: That’s really the one I need. That’s the one that’s got, you know, that’s allowed to be dropped and tossed and…
Kirsten: That will be…
Justin: …fall off the tables.
Kirsten: The computer of the future. And the quantum computer that they have produced accurately performed those 160 programs 79% of the time which isn’t as accurate as we want it to be. We want it to be in the 99 percentile of accuracy. But 79% isn’t bad. It’s over 50% which is chance. So, it’s better than chance by over…
Justin: Wait, wait, wait a second.
Kirsten: It’s kind of like a C+.
Justin: Wait, no, no, no. Fifty percent is not a C+. You’re saying it’s basically, if I wanted to get the right answer out of this computer, I’d have just as much chance flipping a coin?
Kirsten: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s better than chance.
Kirsten: A much better than chance. It’s like, trying.
Justin: It’s like trying.
Kirsten: It’s like trying.
Justin: It’s so sweet.
Kirsten: So, you know, it’s not the top of the list here. But it’s very important advancement. This is the kind of thing that’s going to make a huge difference in computing in the future. And these proof of concepts will eventually – they’re going to change the way we do things. So, I think it’s a very important story.
Justin: In that same venue, in the old, clunky, you know, regular, digital computering, we have a new, super computer – the Kraken – which can…
Kirsten: The Kraken. That’s right, the super computer.
Justin: Yeah. Which can do a petaflop calculations per second. Now, a petaflop is…
Kirsten: A lot.
Justin: …like a thousand trillion.
Justin: Wow! That’s a lot. But it has to use of course, some 16000 six-cored processors, 100,000 computer cores and has a memory of 129 terabytes.
Justin: I remember being at a university where we couldn’t get our terabyte of information up and down that we needed…
Justin: …for some stuff that – this can do a 129, this would be a fun computer to like play video games on.
Kirsten: I can just imagine using the world’s largest super computer for a video game.
Justin: You know…
Kirsten: Oh, yeah. Why not?
Justin: Yeah. I love it. What else?
Kirsten: It’s either – all of these computer advancements, it’s either porn or video games. It’s where the advancements go.
Kirsten: I’m sure of it.
Justin: What advancements have been made in pornography?
Kirsten: Moving on.
Justin: Wait a second. Wait a second. Because this seems to me…
Kirsten: We need to move on. We’re running out of time.
Justin: There’s only a set list of possibilities there and at some point it kind of hit the wall. And we’re like, “Yeah, you know, costumes?” What?
Kirsten: Moving on to our number 9.
Justin: Number 9!
Kirsten: Really cool power.
Kirsten: Battery developments that are in this world but kind of out of this world in the way that they work. Using viruses – the proof of principle for using viruses to make rechargeable lithium ion batteries. That was done this year.
Justin: That’s cool.
Kirsten: Yeah. We could use viruses. They’re still not quite powerful enough to give us all the power we need. But, you know, researchers are getting there. Microbes, the microbe battery…
Kirsten: It’s moving on, moving on. And even – some researchers have even been making batteries and super capacitors with office paper, carbon and silver nano materials.
Justin: I need a battery. Oh, go get one from the printer.
Kirsten: I know. Could you imagine just having a piece of paper that could power – you crumple it up straight – paper airplane.
Justin: Paper airplanes fly further.
Justin: Well, if there’s some use – they still got to figure out the uses for it. Really, I mean, it’s almost one of those things that we have the technology. Now, we just got to figure out where to apply it.
Justin: Smarter credit cards. I like the microbes. I like the microbes. It’s both fuel source and for creating and – yeah, I mean, it is actually the fuel source that we rely on pretty heavily already.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Because microbes were the key to the process of creating oil, in the first place.
Justin: And so, you know, just figuring out a way to speed that up so we don’t need to wait another couple million years to do it again and drop it with the right type of spongy underground.
Kirsten: Yeah. But there’s – with synthetic biology also, the ability to be able to take the pieces of the genes, the pieces from various microbes that we like…
Justin: Yes, that we want.
Kirsten: …that we want say, “Hey, you conduct electricity,” or random things like, “You eat up nuclear waste.” Just put them together in a batch, make the microbe Frankenstein of our choice…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: I mean, Frankenstein has a negative connotation, but…
Justin: Does he? He was a happy guy, wasn’t he? It’s the villagers. It’s the general public that, you know…
Kirsten: Right. Poor misunderstood Frankenstein.
Justin: Yeah. He’s a good guy.
Kirsten: But create the microbe that will do what we want it to do and, you know, the battery, the fuel source of the future. But it’s true, we really haven’t – I mean, aside from these potential new less-toxic, so instead of using heavy metals for our batteries, creating batteries that are from these less toxic sources…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …could potentially – I mean, this could be a huge advancement because we have a major problem, especially with the moving forward of electric vehicles. All our reliance on laptops, cellphones, the electronic devices that we use, they all need batteries, unless you’re going to plug them into a wall all the time.
Kirsten: And the battery goes bad. What do you do when you’re finished with the battery? Oh, you put it in a plastic bag and you take it to the recycling center or whatever, but they put it in a landfill. You know, it’s all going to go some place…
Kirsten: It’s just any of leaching, of chemicals and it’s just no good. So, we have to fix the way that batteries work.
Justin: We probably send the batteries to India to be dismantled by small children…
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: … where it will start some horrible disease. Well, no, I mean, the other thing too is we can – there is actual potential for making a clean coal. I mean, I know, clean coal is like this sort of thing that’s been attached to the coal industry as a sort of fake promotional thing that’s been talked about this clean coal. It doesn’t really exist yet.
However, that microbes actually have a possible – and microbes – I should take that back – it’s mostly algae.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Algae have the potential of being used as a filter while creating a biofuel at the same time.
Justin: So, there’s some fantastic stuff that we can apply. And then, we can burn the heck out of coal. We can get it to a clean, you know, if we could turn it into a clean process.
Kirsten: If you can do it cleaner. Yeah. You are listening to This Week in Science with Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Justin Jackson. We’re moving on to number…
Justin: Number eight.
Kirsten: Yeah, number eight.
Justin: The origin of all species.
Kirsten: Life’s origins.
Justin: Yeah. Where do we come from? Who’s our parents?
Kirsten: I know who our parents are.
Justin: (Are we orphans on) planet Earth.
Kirsten: I know my parents, yeah. Where did everything come from? Some really interesting studies this year. Scientists took a look and found some very simple reactions that could have led – that did in the laboratory – could have led to the first RNA molecules.
And RNA, there’s the RNA hypothesis of life’s origins that it was an RNA world before it was a DNA world. So, there is this possibility that we find these building blocks of life, the amino acids in various places. There are simple chemical reactions that could take place in particular environmental situations that, it might have been just one step after another and suddenly that’s the progression of life. Chemical building blocks to RNA, to DNA, to bacteria and viruses, to – I guess viruses probably would have come first. Really interesting stuff.
The idea about comets bringing life to Earth.
Justin: And it’s kind of interesting because I have always thought of the panspermia as being sort of not answering the question, but sort of putting it off to some other place.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Like the idea that there was life on a comet in some form when it arrived on Earth. But really, what this panspermia concept is turning into is some of the key ingredients for the – like, you’re saying for the RNA, for these things to have been formed…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: …don’t seem to be here. Naturally or in any…
Justin: But there are signatures of meteorites that fit those missing ingredients that we would have needed in the primordial soup that brought life to our planet. So…
Justin: …it’s not necessarily that life already was somewhere else and arrived here. But that the ingredients…
Kirsten: The ingredients could have been brought here. And so, building block of proteins were found in samples from an icy comet, meaning that those building blocks could have hitched a ride here.
Another idea that comets may have brought all the water on our planet to Earth.
Justin: Yeah. Atmospheres, oceans…
Justin: …all from outer space.
Kirsten: It’s all from outer space. And so, if that happened once here and we’re finding – we just at the beginning of December found possibly – possibly found an Earth – a sun-like star with a Neptune-sized planet orbiting at a distance that our outer planets are orbiting at. So, very similar – so far, very similar make up to our own solar system.
So, for finding that, you know, you just put the pieces together, the probability with all the billions of…
Justin: Not billions, 70+ sextillion.
Kirsten: Okay, great.
Justin: …which is a whole lot more.
Kirsten: Which is divisible by billions.
Justin: Yeah. But even if you divide it by billions, it’s still a very large number that I don’t know…
Kirsten: The probability…
Justin: …off the top of my head…
Kirsten: …of other…
Justin: …because it’s really big.
Kirsten: …life-bearing solar systems with possibly Earth-like planets within the solar systems similar to ours is there. I think it’s there. I think the possibility is there.
Kirsten: Interesting research this year, stuff that really gets your head thinking and spinning. This is the stuff I really like. Number…
Justin: What number are we – seven! Lucky number, seven. (Environmental).
Kirsten: And this year, as last year, bisphenol A was a huge concern. But this year, there was some really interesting new studies that came out looking at – animal studies showing that bisphenol A can leach from plastics and affect heart arrhythmias and they change genes important for reproduction. Some foodware products labeled as BPA-free contained detectable amounts of BPA. Boys being exposed or children being exposed to BPA had gender-specific behavior alterations as toddlers. You know, there have been behaviorally distinct and…
Justin: I’m showing Kirsten this…
Kirsten: What are you showing me this picture of?
Justin: …she doesn’t know what it is. It is the atomic energy lab…
Kirsten: The atomic energy lab.
Justin: …which was, I think back in the 50’s, a home kit that kids could play with…
Justin: …that came with actual samples of uranium. This – and a little geiger counter.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: This is apparently one that was actually safe enough to play with.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: But throughout the 20’s and 30’s, they used to add radium, radioactive materials to things like medicinal waters.
Justin: To things like – I mean, we used to irradiate ourselves thinking we were going to get some medical benefit for it.
Justin: Because we didn’t know what the effects were going to be.
Justin: As soon as people started having these ill effects, cancers, having to remove jaws, getting holes in their skulls, you know, odd things from having used all these health products…
Justin: …that were considered absolutely fine and even desirable. They came at a premium, they came at a cost. We eliminated them from the market.
Kirsten: I want that radioactive little kit.
Justin: That looks really awesome.
Kirsten: I want that little kit.
Justin: So if anybody has it – like government, company, the something atomic energy lab, it looks really awesome.
Kirsten: I want one.
Justin: I want one. And it came with uranium and like all sorts of little nuclear experiments that you could do. But we, you know, as soon as we figured it out, like this is bad stuff to be, you know, digesting, we eliminated it from the market. Why is bisphenol A still there?
Kirsten: Yup. It’s questionable.
Justin: Can you tell me?
Kirsten: Yeah. We’ll see what happens with it this next year because it’s still in the market. It hasn’t – we’ll find out.
Justin: We got through our, the first six…
Kirsten: We did.
Justin: …so this is probably a good time to get take a break.
Kirsten: No, we’ve gotten through the first four.
Kirsten: Yeah. We have a station break…
Justin: Oh, we got to what? Oh, gees.
Kirsten: …and we have to get through six in the second half of the show. There’s a lot of jibber jabbering going on.
Justin: There’s more jibber jabbering on the second half. Look at all these. Oh, wow! There’s a lot more jibber jabber coming up.
Kirsten: There’s a lot more science coming up on This Week In Science with our Best of 2009 show. We’ll be back in just a few moments.
Justin: Thank you for listening to TWIS. If you rely on this show for weekly science-y updates, please understand that we rely on your support to keep bringing those to you. Donate. Keep the science-y goodness on the air.
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And we’re back.
Kirsten: That’s right. We are back with This Week In Science and our Best of 2009 Top 11.
Justin: Because ten is good enough for the other guys, but not good enough for you.
Kirsten: That’s right. You need more. So, let’s get to it because we don’t have much time. What is number six?
Justin: Number six is clever creatures.
Kirsten: Clever creatures?
Justin: Smart little animals…
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: …running around this planet.
Kirsten: Yeah. And this year was – there was a lot of animal behavior research just describing how clever and amazing the animal kingdom actually is. Most recently, octopuses using coconut shells as tool…
Justin: Armor and…
Kirsten: …as armor.
Justin: …camouflage. Brilliant.
Kirsten: That’s right. Invertebrates with brains.
Justin: We had, of course, birds, lots of birds using tools. Chimps using tools. The ones that were hacking rocks at people from the zoo.
Justin: They were collecting them, plotting them, premeditated rock hurling.
Kirsten: That’s right, that’s right. Oh, chimps. Oh, birds. I know that those birds that wait overhead until you, little – the birds are planning on dropping, so I know it.
Justin: And it doesn’t, you know, like living out here, we see it a lot, I think. At least, I do because I go out to the farm and as I pass by, there were lots of black birds are out there or lots of – what do you call them, ravens?
Justin: Lots of corvids out there. And it’s almost a daily thing to see where they will go out and drop walnuts out there on the road in front of a…
Kirsten: The (welts).
Justin: …as a car is coming.
Justin: And hopes that the car will run it over and break the shell.
Kirsten: That is something that’s a bit of an anecdote that it’s – the crow is hoping that they’ll do that even though it seems like it. The research has been…
Kirsten: Yeah. The research to date has been…
Justin: Do you think there’s just out there dropping them on the road, (voluminous).
Kirsten: On a hard surface because it’s easier to break them on the road, the nuts. And that the cars happen to drive by.
Justin: I’m telling you, they wait…
Kirsten: That’s what the research shows do far.
Justin: Well, they’re wrong. I’m telling you, I drive out there heading out to the farm land and they will wait until you’re coming and drop it, not just on the road somewhere, but in your lane. And not just in your lane…
Kirsten: Under your tire.
Justin: It will go down, wind up with your tire. It’s the most amazing cool thing.
Kirsten: Yeah. Over all though, for this research, into the smarts of animals, it’s about time. And it’s just going to – the evidence of how intelligent animals are and how we share a very intelligent place in the universe with the entire animal kingdom.
Kirsten: I think that’s very important. Humans for a long time, we have great brains. We get good things done. We build things. We create things. We write. We have art. We have all these things that we do that make us very special.
However, we’ve used it as this wedge to keep us away from the rest of the animal kingdom and look down on animals, you know, as not quite as good as the rest of us. And it’s historically – and it’s about time, animals are right up there. There’s a lot going on.
Justin: Yeah. They just learned to bathe themselves.
Kirsten: Instead of just licking.
Kirsten: Yeah. Number five.
Justin: Number five, genetics.
Kirsten: Genetics. It’s been huge. Yet again, this year found the first draft of the Neanderthal genome. It found also the genomes of maize, cattle, cassava, and the pig, cucumber, the horse, the panda and the common cold virus…
Justin: And cancer…
Kirsten: Yeah. And the potato famine pathogen.
Justin: …the most extensive…
Kirsten: Yes. And the cancer genome, yes. This year, in terms of genetic decoding, it’s been amazing. And the price drop in how much it costs to sequence the human genome? It’s dropped significantly just within the last year. And we’re going to see further drops in the next year.
We also found – this year also, a foreign gene was introduced into marmosets and that gene was then passed on to the next generation. It’s the first time we’ve seen the creation of transgenic primates, first time.
Justin: They’ve done it in mice, too.
Kirsten: Yeah. Mice, we do it very regularly but not in primates. And so, this is the first time that we have created transgenic primates. Gene therapy, injecting genes into the eyes of monkeys to cure their color blindness. Yeah.
Justin: How can you tell when a monkey is color blind?
Kirsten: I haven’t done those studies.
Justin: What’s that selection process like?
Kirsten: Yeah. And then, moving on from the genetic side of things to, which I think is very related to the stem cell side of things. Stem cells are very controlled by genes. And what we’re learning about them has a lot to do with which genes control their development. This year, we saw stem cells turned into reproductive cells, germ cells. Researchers took human embryonic stem cells and created sperm and eggs.
And researchers took – additionally, they took pluripotent stem cells and went past just creating sperm and eggs but created live mice.
Kirsten: So, from stem cell to living organism. This is very, very far along the path.
Justin: Oh, absolutely. We’re almost to the stage where I could have a sperm and egg made from my own DNA.
Kirsten: Almost, almost.
Justin: And then…
Kirsten: We’re not there yet but we’re almost there.
Justin: …prepare the gene.
Kirsten: You seem pretty good at parenting and fathering already. So, I know it’s…
Justin: Yeah. Well, no…
Kirsten: You’ve been successful.
Justin: If I can do the whole thing in a lab and just have, you know, five more kids without the bother of, you know…
Justin: …spouses and all that kind of stuff.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, there is some really amazing, amazing stem cell work going on. And additionally, stem cells this year were used therapeutically to repair damage to the eye. So, injecting stem cells or putting stem cells into the retinal area and improving macular degeneration.
Justin: And to date, none of those seem to have shattered human dignity.
Kirsten: Not yet.
Justin: No, yeah. So, we’re doing all right.
Kirsten: We’re doing all right, getting good grades. Moving on to…
Justin: Number four, epigenetics.
Kirsten: That’s right. Even though genetics was super big this year, the epigenome…
Kirsten: …epigenetics. It’s kind of bigger.
Kirsten: Yeah. The first epigenome was sequenced, pretty much. It was – what the epigenome is was defined. And we found some really interesting results in identical twins.
So, looking at humans, a lot of epigenetic stuff has been done on rodents and other species. And what we’ve seen in plants and rodents has not really translated to humans. We’re like, “It happens in these other species,” but we don’t know if it really happens in us.
Justin: I know.
Kirsten: You’ve been saying it for a long time.
Justin: Yeah. Thank you.
Justin: I like to think of epigenetics as the confirmation of Justin’s brilliance or at least some predictions I’ve made a long time ago that now have a fact or two.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, recent work this last year found similarity in the epigenome of identical twins’ DNA. And tissue-specific, methylation signature – so methylation is one aspect of epigenetics in the genomes – and so very specific epigenetic signatures between individuals. They also found that the environment – this was an interesting one.
Kirsten: So, mice reared – female mice – reared in an environment that gave them a lot of enrichment. So, intellectual stimulation, at least intellectual stimulation for a mouse.
Justin: Reading to them.
Kirsten: That’s right. Shakespeare. And these mice were genetically designed to have a detriment in their long-term potentiation which is related to memory. And what they found is that the female mice that had the enrichment, they got a little smarter. And then, they went on and they had children that were a little smarter. And their children’s children were a little smarter.
So, three generations down the line in these LTP defective, deficient mice, they found cognitive improvement for, like two generations down the line past.
Kirsten: Just fascinating. Amazing!
Justin: That’s – yeah.
Justin: And it makes perfect sense. And they also…
Kirsten: You can rationalize that with the other stuff…
Kirsten: You’re like, “Of course it makes sense.”
Justin: This always made sense to me.
Justin: But they also found a study where they’ve tracked this in humans. It was in Sweden – I think it was in Sweden, the study – they found this village that had kept copious records, just over, like a couple hundred years.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: And it was very sort of rural farming community that had sort of feast or famine situations that sometimes would last like two to four years.
Kirsten: Is that this last year though?
Justin: Yeah. It was when it’s reported, I believe.
Kirsten: Yeah, yeah. Cool.
Justin: And what they could track is, you know, that the young boys and pregnant women who were in those times of famine, their offspring were different than those young men and pregnant women who were around in times of plentiful harvest.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: So that the kids that, you know, whose parents have the rough times might develop diabetes easier and this – so there was, they could sort of track just based on what the harvest situation was like and see what the people whose next generation if they’d been, you know…
Justin: So, that’s – it’s all coming to the front – it might be a little…
Kirsten: There’s a lot…
Justin: …it might take time to find a little Lamarckian, Darwinian middle ground out there which I think is what epigenetic is.
Kirsten: Which is what seems to be the case. And I think with epigenetics, there’s a lot more to be learned. And one of the most important things that we’re leaning about it, especially we now have a cancer genome sequenced. And if we understand now more about the epigenome as well, the epigenome is highly involved in cancer genetics.
So, what genes – what cancer genes are expressed or not expressed. And whether or not a person has a certain epigenetic signature will determine most likely whether or not if they have a cancerous mutation, that cancer actually comes to the forefront.
So, understanding the really delicate interplay between epigenetics and genetics is going to be a very important area of research going forward and so that’s why these areas together, I think are so amazing and interesting this past year.
Moving on. You’re listening to This Week In Science. And we’re talking about our Best Science Stories of 2009.
Justin: Number three, exploring the universe.
Kirsten: Exploring the universe, yeah.
Justin: We did a lot of that this year.
Kirsten: Oh, my goodness. It was the International Year of Astronomy. So, it’s no doubt that so much amazing news came from the astronomy sector this year. Astronomers and cosmologists around the world are keeping their eyes not only on the universe but also on our own planet. And we’re learning so much.
This year has just – it’s been a voyage this year. And I hope that, as we move forward and we leave the International Year of Astronomy that, it won’t be left behind. That it’s just going to become more amazing.
What happened this year? We had anti-matter detected…
Justin: In lightning.
Kirsten: …in lightning, on our own planet. They took a space telescope, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and aimed it at the planet. Instead of looking at our space, they’re like, “Yeah, we look for anti-matter out there, all the time. Let’s look at our planet.” Anti-matter, positrons in lightning storms. It’s kind of cool.
Justin: That’s amazing.
Kirsten: Really neat.
Justin: Many, many, many more planets were discovered out there.
Kirsten: Yeah. Last year was, the exoplanet year.
Kirsten: But again – and I think the number is going to grow exponentially.
Justin: We’ve gotten some new data on the dark matter. We’ve got that a little better to find. We have our heliospheres…
Justin: …are better to find.
Kirsten: Dark matter though is really interesting. We possibly – not just more information on dark matter – possibly actually detected it.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: Yeah, but only a couple. They need more data points.
Kirsten: So, they’re going to keep looking, make their instruments, tweak their instruments, make them stronger and more sensitive. And maybe we will detect more dark matter which is an amazing, amazing concept. This thing that just a few years ago, we didn’t even…
Kirsten: …it’s just this idea of – well, maybe it makes up, you know, 26% of our universe.
Justin: We re-clocked the speed that our galaxy is moving and its overall mass. We know more about our heliosphere, the shape of our…
Kirsten: Yeah. I think that’s neat…
Justin: …tiny solar system bubble.
Kirsten: …that we’re like this little fireball. Like a tennis ball on fire with a trailing tail.
Justin: No, no, we don’t have a trailing tail.
Kirsten: We do have a trailing tail.
Justin: I thought, the whole point of that – no, no, we’re a bubble. We’re like a perfect bubble.
Kirsten: I thought, we were stretched at the tail.
Justin: They thought we had a tail but we don’t. That’s what was – that was the new development. They used to think we had a tail, like solar winds coming on this way and then – but no, there’s a perfect bubble.
Kirsten: Oh, no.
Kirsten: I don’t – okay.
Justin: We’re going to have to fight. Arm wrestle, arm wrestle for the truth. Arm wrestle for the truth!
Kirsten: But beyond that, the solar systems has already been wrapped around it. And that pretty much the electromagnetic sphere or ribbon around our universe is in a perpendicular orientation to the interstellar medium.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: It’s kind of cool, very cool.
Justin: And the solar system.
Kirsten: And the solar system, right.
Justin: And the magnetic – yeah, we’re sort of figuring out a little bit more about the magnetic, electromagnetic forces that are out there that are helping keep stuff together as well.
Kirsten: Mercury, we sent Messenger – a few years ago sent Messenger – off to Mercury and it did three flybys of Mercury this year getting close up images of Mercury that we’ve never had so much detail before about its geology, the magnetic field of the planet. It’s just amazing.
Justin: I learned that you can have four suns orbiting each other.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: That was pretty incredible. We have a lot of(tweaks to perhaps or a lot of questions that were raised about the way that we track distances in space…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: …in terms of candle lights and some of those things that we thought were like set – set candle light sort of things that we could mark out there and the supernovas.
Justin: We went back and found ancient galaxies, billions and billions of years earlier. We’ve done quite a bit. It’s so amazing actually it has been this year that if you took what we’ve learned this year and made that suffice to start all our knowledge, we would have so many parts of the puzzle.
If we start it all over, with just this year is knowledge, we could have done this whole figuring out, you know, how the universe works out there to this point. I could have done it like a decade.
Kirsten: Right. So, also here on this planet, we have the Large Hadron Collider. I’m going to include this in number three and looking at the way everything works…
Justin: I think, I remember that one.
Kirsten: …exploring our universe.
Justin: That was – gosh, that was years ago. Like did they ever do anything with it?
Kirsten: I think it was our number two story last year.
Kirsten: This year, it’s tied up in number three. The Large Hadron Collider turned on this year. It didn’t break except, you know, there was that poor incident with the baguette, it’s the problem.
Justin: When a bird can drop a baguette and ruin a multi-billion dollar science project, somebody didn’t think something through.
Kirsten: Right. But it has broken a record. It has set a record of 1.18 trillion electron volts…
Kirsten: …throwing protons at each other at energies – 1.18 trillion electron volts. That’s huge. And it’s just going to get higher. They’re going to keep going after the winter’s over. Turn it up, turn up the juice. Let’s see if we can find that HIGS yet. I know, you don’t think so. But we’re going to see if we can…
Justin: Wait for my prediction show.
Kirsten: Yeah. Number two.
Justin: Number two! Old life that’s new to us.
Kirsten: Yeah. Ardi I think, was one of the biggest stories. Ardipithecus ramidus, it was a fossilized find that actually was found a decade ago, you know, over ten years ago. But they’ve taken their – the paleontologists working on it have taken their time putting a story together and figuring out what Ardi possibly was. Ardi was an upright ape basically. This link 4.4 million years old that goes back to one of our – she is the earliest known primate human ancestor.
Kirsten: Yes. She – it’s a female skeleton. The most interesting thing was that, she was upright. So, her skeleton walked up – the characteristics are such that they think she walked upright like we do. However, she had very long fingers and toes for – that would have been great for climbing.
And so, shared a lot of characteristics between the hominid characteristics and earlier ones. They don’t think that she was a transition between Australopithecus and chimpanzees. They don’t think that at all. They found derived features that tie Ardi to later hominins including Lucy species, so, Lucy who used to be the oldest. It’s very, very exciting.
So, a new piece, a new find – they’re trying to figure out exactly where she fits. They don’t know yet where to put her in our family tree. But she is definitely – they suggest a hypothesis that Ardi gave rise to Lucy’s genus, Australopithecus and that led to our genus, Homo of which we are Homo Sapiens.
Justin: Which will make her our great, great, great, great, great, great, great…
Kirsten: Great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grand aunt. Oh, no! Then there was Ida who was like the biggest fossil media fury ever this year – they thought Ida was a missing link.
Justin: There was a family resemblance, you know…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: …she showed up at the – the family reunion but nobody knew her.
Kirsten: Nobody knew her, yeah. So, it turns out Ida’s more likely a lemur’s uncle than a monkey’s. But it was a lot of fun. It got a lot of people interested. The media circus around it got so – I mean, so much attention for this fossil that – that is just very exciting what Ida did for paleontology.
Dinosaur birds, there were – the oldest feathered dinosaurs discovered older than archeoptrics, a 150 million year old creature.
Kirsten: Some really interesting things.
Justin: There was the birds that were found to have everything they needed for venom.
Kirsten: Venomous birds, I know.
Justin: Can you imagine, like…
Kirsten: Yeah, whales. Whales were more tightly tied to their land ancestry. Ancient whale fossils including a pregnant female had the characteristics that suggested they did give birth on land. So, it was a…
Kirsten: …transitional fossilized whale species, really exciting.
Kirsten: Yeah. The world’s smallest carnivorous dinosaur was found, little tiny chicken-sized T-rex.
Justin: Like the largest one was found in the ocean, something that’s just massive, massive, massive creatures.
Kirsten: Yeah. So, a lot of pre history, just so exciting.
Justin: A redefinition to a number of species that were – we sort of did downsize the number of species to some extent.
Justin: By going through and analyzing and realizing that, in different regions, they were being called different things. But chances are the dinosaurs just managed to travel our world a little better than we thought.
Kirsten: That was a really interesting idea that the number of dinosaurs or the names of dinosaurs, they’re going to have to trim the family tree a little bit.
Justin: They trimmed the…
Justin: …they trimmed a few of the families and also, there’s a number of juveniles that were considered to be smaller species. Now they’ve been determined that they’re just beautiful…
Kirsten: But they were just younger.
Justin: …and have different morphology that the morphology changes more from youth to adult than it was perhaps originally suspected.
Kirsten: Yeah. That was exciting. So much but the…
Justin: But the signs keep pouring in. I mean, we are literally at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dinosaurs and ancient life on this planet. We’ve got to keep digging. Keep digging!
Kirsten: And going towards our number one.
Justin: Number one.
Kirsten: That’s right. Water!
Justin: Water! Water everywhere.
Kirsten: That’s right. This year’s number one – we think here that it has to be finding water on the moon. And NASA, for the sheer gumption of launching a projectile at the moon.
Justin: Trying to bring democracy to the moon. Only way we know how.
Kirsten: Yeah. It’s just – NASA is moving forward, doing ever more with an ever shrinking budget. And I’d like to say that over the last year, NASA has done some amazing work, amazing PR for getting people interested in science and space and what we’re doing.
So many times this year, I heard people on Twitter and other places talking about NASA and going, “Oh, look at NASA TV and let’s see the space mission and, you know.”
There was the Hubble servicing mission. Let’s keep Hubble going a little bit longer. We’re going – we’re sending astronauts up there anyway. Let’s just, you know, fix it. Let’s do some work.
We saw the launch of a couple more projects launching telescopes and satellites into space to keep more imaging. And this – finding water on the moon which is huge.
Justin: For out Moonifest Destiny.
Kirsten: That’s right. And beyond that…
Justin: Our Marsifest destiny.
Kirsten: Exactly. And by the way, water was more confirmed on Mars this year.
Justin: It’s extra wet there.
Kirsten: Extra, extra. That’s right. Water, water everywhere. And also, if we talk about the comets bringing water to the Earth…
Justin: Yeah. Our own planet was, you know, made wet from somewhere else out there.
Kirsten: Yeah. Water which is so important to us as a species is also becoming a scarce – fresh water is becoming a scarce limited commodity and will become one of the most important issues going into the future.
So, looking at the future and looking at what we have found so far and what we know so far about where water resides, you know, maybe finding water on the moon gives us a little hope for what we’ll be capable of and what we’ll be able to do moving forward. So, looking into the past and bringing up the future.
Justin: Well, if there’s – not enough fresh water, global warming might be good. I think we can get precipitation. We can get…
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: …more of that rainfall and snow everywhere.
Kirsten: And that’s it for our show this week. We have given you our top 11 science rundown of 2009.
Kirsten: It’s a fun show. I love talking about things people have discovered and hopefully next year, we’ll have even more amazing mind-bending discoveries. I’m sure we’ve missed lots of science. We couldn’t put everything in this list. It’s not – we only have an hour and it’s not the top 1 million science stories of the year.
Justin: Well, we missed a lot. I mean, the thing is even with 50 shows plus…
Kirsten: We still missed…
Justin: Like 50…
Kirsten: …a lot of science.
Justin: …over 50 hours of…
Justin: …just reading off stories. And there’s so much more out there.
Kirsten: Yeah. And if we can just give you a place to start searching for what exists in the world, we’ve done our job. So, next week, we’ll be back. We will be predicting the future.
Justin: We’re going to be both are running down the predictions that we made last time, last year, this time.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: We made predictions about the year to come which was the year now that was. And we will determine how accurate our predictions were.
Kirsten: That’s right. How did we do?
Justin: How did we do?
Kirsten: And what is – we’re going to come up with what will come to pass in 2010. What’s going to happen? I’m going to try and get Tom Merritt from CNET and also the FourCast Podcast.
He has a podcast where – on a weekly basis. He and three others, so four people, fourcast, a play on words, they predict the future and talk about it. So, I think, he’s very well vetted for this kind of an episode and hopefully, we’ll be bringing him in. I know he has to be heading to the airport that day. But we’ll see how it works.
And shoutout – love to shout it out on this last show of the year, to all the Twisminions. But especially those of you who send us stories, have donated money who simply write us to keep us in line, that kick in the shins that we need sometimes.
You keep us going. You are the TWIS life blood. Thanks for everything this year. And it’s been great. And it’s only going to get better in 2010. We’ve got some great things planned. We’re looking forward to some really exciting stuff.
Justin: Maybe it’s going to be out of this world.
Kirsten: It will be out of this world. So in the meantime, Happy New Year everybody!
Justin: And we’ll see you next time. If you remember anything that you’ve learned from today’s show…
Kirsten: It’s all in your head.