ICYMI:  The Top 4 Nerdy Science Stories of 2015

Written by Russ Dobler

It’s a new holiday tradition! Drink for a week straight then take the rest of the month off before coming back to list the old year’s top nerdish science stories just before Valentine’s Day. Be mine?

1.  Zombie Mammoth

No, it’s not a Walking Dead prequel, it’s one of the many stunning achievements of a new gene-editing technology call CRISPR – presumably named for the part of the fridge where ancient mammoth DNA has been frozen like Captain America in a block of ice. In 2015, Harvard’s George Church and his colleagues used the revolutionary technique, forecast to one day help engineer nutritious super foods and knock out many genetic diseases, to do the same thing you or I would do. He spliced some ear, fat and hair genes from a preserved mammoth specimen into the skin of a modern Asian elephant.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s really just a proof of concept right now, as it would take a lot more work to coax those genes into actually displaying typical “woolly” traits on our more familiar pachyderms, but it’s an important first step on the way to true hybrids which could, with a little more tweaking, eventually produce cold-loving behemoths functionally indistinguishable from their extinct forbearers.

Great! Just in time for their habitat to be wiped out!

2.  On the Road to Mad Max

Sorry mammoths, but after (possibly) wiping you out the first time, it looks like we may have delayed our next regularly-scheduled, woolly-friendly Ice Age by as much as 100,000 years. But hey, at least I don’t have to carpool to work with Racist Frank.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015 was the hottest year the Earth has ever experienced since human beings have kept records, by the widest margin ever, smashing the previous record set way back in … 2014. Got yer War Rig gassed up? You’ll need it in the desert hellscape we’re headed toward.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

2015 was also the year that anthropogenic climate change deniers had the word “skeptic” taken away from them in the press, thanks in part to efforts from the Center for Inquiry, who also brought into question the oft-quoted statistic that 97% of all climate scientists accept global warming’s reality. Turns out, it’s more like 99.9%. And that supposed “hiatus” those deniers have been harping about, when temperatures didn’t rise as quickly as predicted? Thank the Indian Ocean for hiding all that heat.

So can we stop arguing and do something about it? If Furiosa’s taught us anything, it’s that no one’s gonna save us if we don’t save ourselves.

3.  Beam Me Up

I guess if we end up not being able to live on Earth, we could boldly go out into the universe and look for a new home. While NASA’s practically got enough money for a Starfleet now, sadly, the tractor beam developed by Bruce Drinkwater and others simply wouldn’t work in space. The University of Bristol engineer made headlines in 2015 for finding new ways to manipulate objects with sound.

“Levitating” something with some loudspeakers is easy; just find the proper pattern so the sound waves constructively interfere to form a sort of shelf that keeps it aloft. Drinkwater’s team was able to do it with a fraction of the usual equipment, though, and, with the help of a special algorithm, found the optimal ways to prompt vertical and lateral movement, and even rotation. The most likely application is in surgery, though using the sonic tractor beam to create artificial gravity like that on the bridge of the USS Enterprise is not out of the question.

4.  I’m Not Saying It’s Aliens ….

If we did want to relocate, our best bet of finding some neighbors might be 1,500 light years away around KIC 8462852, better known as “Tabby’s Star,” nicknamed after the person who discovered something strange about it, Tabetha S. Boyajian. Boyajian observed bizarre dips in the star’s brightness, leading a few people to conjecture the presence of an “alien megastructure” around the otherwise normal-looking object.

As the idea goes, a highly-advanced civilization should be able to build something called a Dyson Swarm – basically a whole bunch of high tech solar panels arranged in a pattern – to harness the energy of its local Sun, providing almost limitless power to its people. It’s a logical end for a technological, space-faring civilization, and a good reason that aliens who could travel to Earth would never actually need to pillage our resources. Sorry, Stephen Hawking.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Boyajian herself suggested a swarm of comets instead, but that idea’s lost some credibility thanks to astronomer Bradley Schaefer uncovering that Tabby’s Star has actually been observed over 1,200 times in the last hundred years, with its brightness continually declining, but not in any kind of regular pattern. Comets shouldn’t be able to hang around that long so close to the evaporating heat of a star.

But if it is aliens, it looks like they’ve stopped using radio waves to communicate. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence trained some of its powerful telescopes on KIC 8462852 in October and found exactly squat. So it’s probably not aliens. But it is something really, really weird. The truth is still out there – we may just never be able to identify it.

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