The big science stories of 2015

Each year at the Science Media Centre we publish our picks for what were the big science stories of the year.

What do we mean by “big”? Well, not necessarily the biggest discoveries or the most significant peer-reviewed papers. We are more interested in the science-related stories that captured the public’s attention and received a large deal of media coverage.

Some of the stories in our two top ten lists of national and international science-related stories were, on the face of it, low on science content. Think of the “blue dress” story – initially a perplexing meme that really gathered steam via social media and then with the mainstream media, finally offering a fantastic opportunity to explore how the brain processes colours.

Locally we had a good mix of policy issues, new discoveries and unexpected news events to keep us occupied. Here then is our list – featuring local and international stories. Let us know in the comments below or via Twitter @smcnz of any omissions you think we should add.

NI brown Kiwi public domain B&W

Genome reveals kiwi’s nightlife

In July German researchers sequenced the genome – the entire DNA blueprint – of the North Island brown kiwi. Not only was the kiwi genome found to be one of the largest bird genomes sequenced to date, but the team also identified evolutionary changes in its DNA that help explain the bird’s unique adaptations to nocturnality, including black and white vision and heightened sense of smell.

New Zealand experts concerned over the lack of Kiwi involvement in the research called for a 100 Taonga genomes project to map the genomes of Aotearoa’s most iconic species.

More from the SMC: Kiwi genome sniffs out bird’s evolution – Expert reaction

NZ Environment Public Domain
Environmental report card for NZ

October saw the publication of the country’s first ‘State of the Environment’ report since 2007. Environment Aotearoa 2015, jointly released by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment, drew together numerous sources of data to provide a big picture look at New Zealand’s environmental performance. The report highlighted some areas of concern includingincreased greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of farming on water and soil quality.

More from the SMC: State of the Environment report – Expert reaction

Fishy Supplements. Credit - Flickr jcoterhals
Fishy supplements

The supplements industry was in the spotlight in January when research led by scientists at the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute found that fish oil supplements sold in New Zealand contain less omega-3 fatty acids than their labels claim. Analysing 32 brands of fish oil capsules marketed in New Zealand, the researchers found that most products contained less than two thirds the amount stated. An industry analysis released in November expressed concern over the accuracy of the results.

More from the SMC: Fish oil capsules fall short on quality, freshness – Experts respond

1080 -Milk powder

1080 milk scare

Infant milk sections of supermarkets were put under surveillance and our milk powder export market took a hit in March after it was revealed that Fonterra and Federated Farmers had received an anonymous letters threatening to poison milk powder with sodium fluoroacetate -1080 poison. Discussion around the toxicology of 1080 the security of food production systems continued for weeks. The culprit, arrested in October, was turned out a 60 year-old businessman, who was charged with blackmail for financial gain.

More from the SMC: National concern over 1080 threat – In the News

Kermadec_scalyfin - Public Domain

Surprise sanctuary for Kermadecs

It was a very green announcement that came out of the blue. In September the Government declared that the Kermadec Islands and surrounding ocean – one of the Pacific’s most diverse and pristine marine environments – is to be protected from absolutely all forms of fishing and mining, including research-based sampling. The Government says the new Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will hopefully be in place by October next year.

More from the SMC: Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary – Expert reaction

El nino - public domain (via NASA)

El Nino: will he – won’t he? 

No one is arguing that we’ve got a ‘little boy’ El Ninoweather pattern on our hands now, but back in May it was a different story. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and MetService called it in mid-May, but NIWA was reluctant to back them until a more robust signal could be detected. Now, with more evidence, everyone agrees it’s on and they reckon it’s going to be a biggie; farmers are warned to prepare for droughts in eastern regions and heavy rain in western areas in the coming months.

More from the SMC: El Niño forecast debated – In the News

Queensland_Fruit_Fly_Flickr - James Niland

Fruit fly invaders put Auckland on lockdown

The February discovery of a solitary male Queensland fruit fly in Auckland had biosecurity authorities on high alert and prompted a lockdown on the movement of fruit and vegetables in the area. The full weight of New Zealand’s biosecurity system was brought to bear on wiping out any trace of the invasive insect, which posed a multimillion dollar threat to New Zealand fruit exports. Several more flies were discovered, setting off months of containment procedures and trapping in the area. Only in December was the invasion officially confirmed eradicated.

More from the SMC: Fruit fly incursion – Experts respond

cannabis-sativa-leaf - Public Domain

Cannabidiol oil prompts medical debate

The debate around cannabis-derived medication sparked up in June with the case of Alex Renton, a 19 year old suffering from debilitating seizures. Alex’s family campaigned to to get permission to use an unproven treatment: Elixinol, a hemp derived oil containing the chemical cannabidiol. Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne eventually allowed the importation of the medication on compassionate grounds following expert advice. Although Alex died in July, public debate over the wider issue of cannabis-derived medicines continues.

More from the SMC: Cannabidiol as a seizure treatment – Expert reaction

NZ Sea Floor - NIWA

Mega-thrust quakes

New evidence of historic earthquakes under central New Zealand was revealed by GNS Science in May. Sediment cores from a salt marsh near Blenheim showed evidence of two strong subduction ‘mega-thrust’ earthquakes generated by the Hikurangi margin, where the Pacific and Australian plates meet off the east coast of the North Island. The two earthquakes took place within the last 1000 years, and one was accompanied by a tsunami, according to the research.

More from the SMC: Megathrust quake research – In the news

mtDNA - Malaghan Institute Adapted

Mitochondrial swap rewrites textbooks

Wellington’s Malaghan Institute made international headlines back in January, when researchers observed DNA moving between mitochondria -sub cellular power factories – in animal cancer cells. The discovery, according the scientists, fundamentally changes our understanding of cell biology and could lead to an entirely new field of synthetic biology and the treatment of hundreds of diseases.

More from the Malaghan Institute: Extraordinary gene transfer between cells observed

TOP TEN INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE STORIES

  Hurricane Public domain (not CC, Via NASA)

Decision in Paris

World leaders, scientists and policymakers descended on Paris this December to thrash out a deal to tackle climate change. Climate news throughout the year has been leading up to the 21st Conference of the Parties – COP21 – where over 190 countries have now agreed on an accord marking the first steps towards limiting global warming to 2 degrees.

New Zealand’s commitments, laid out in July, received some criticism. Meanwhile 2015 is likely to be the hottest year on record.

More from the SMC: UN Climate Change Conference

  Nepal_Earthquake Wikimedia - Krish Dulal

Nepal quake

Early on Saturday 25 April, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal, killing more than 3,000 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. Poor building standards were blamed for many of the casualties, although landslides also claimed lives. New Zealand experts were involved in using satellite data to create hazard maps post-quake.

More from the SMC: Nepal earthquake: Expert reaction and Q&A

Mars water - Public Domain (via NASA)

Mars moisture

Claims of ‘liquid water on mars’ made headlines not once but twice this year, prompting speculation of Martian microbial life. In April, the Curiosity roverdetected traces of water vapor in a crater, suggesting that salty water flows might be present. More evidence came in September with imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing rivulets of moisture in craters shifting with temperature changes. No little green men… yet.

More from the SMC: Liquid water on Mars – Expert reaction

DNA - Public Domain

Gene-editing human embryos

In April, Chinese researchers revealed they had used the cutting-edge CRISPR technique to tweak the genomes of human embryos. While heralded as a landmark for research into tackling hereditary conditions, the study also revealed that process was far from perfect and had unintended genetic side effects.

The intense ethical debate kicked off by the study culminated in an international summit in Washington in December to discuss and address concerns.

More from the SMC: Genome editing of human embryos – Expert reaction

Homo_naledi_skeletal_specimens CC Lee Roger Berger

Ancient cousin uncovered

In September a National Geographic Society expedition announced they had uncovered the bones of an ancient human-like hominid, dubbed Homo naledi. The remains of at least 15 individuals, recovered from a underground cave system in South Africa, suggest naledi were pretty good at both walking and climbing trees while also being capable of fine toolmaking.

More from Scimex.org: Ancient cousin Homo naledi’s human-like hands and feet

Pluto - Public Domain (via NASA)

From Pluto, with love

The heart-shaped plain on the surface of Pluto became an internet meme overnight as NASA released the first close up photos taken by the New Horizons spacecraft as it drifted past the dwarf planet. Icy mountains on the surface and a new, crisp view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, were among the the pictures collected.

More from the SMC: Pluto photos captivate the public

Sunspots - Public Domain (via NASA)

‘Mini ice-age’ mania

A small study examining sunspot cycles created a flare-up of headlines in July claiming we are headed for a ‘mini-ice age’ in as little as 15 years. Scientists around the globe subsequently poured cold water on the story, explaining that the actual impact of decreased sunspot activity would be minimal and numerous other factors played into ‘ice age’ climate shifts.

More from the SMC: Claims of a ‘mini ice-age’ ahead – Expert reaction

BACON

#BaconCancer

The WHO review of meat and cancer risk dominated the news media in October and left carnivores despondent with the conclusion that processed meat, including bacon, should be classified as carcinogenic. The unclear way the classifications were made (they don’t state how carcinogenic a substance is), led to much confusion and unfounded comparisons with cigarettes and even plutonium. In short, bacon slightly increases your risk of cancer – but is not radioactive.

More from the SMC: WHO report: Red meat linked to cancer – Expert reaction

Dress fair use

‘That dress’

A bizarre twist of human visual perception had the world’s population split on the colour of a dress in a photo: gold and white or blue and black? The image quickly went viral in February as viewers simply couldn’t believe others were not seeing the same colours as they were. The illusion was explained as a quirk of how our brains try to accommodate for different levels of lighting, but that didn’t stop it being a global phenomenon.

More from the SMC: Gold and white (or is it blue and black?) dress conundrum

Tim Hunt via Wikimedia Commons

Tim Hunt sexism row

The scientific community engaged in some serious soul searching after Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt made sexist comments at a conference in Seoul in June. His remarks on the “trouble with girls” triggered a social media furore that led to Prof Hunt losing a number of institutional positions, and some commentators decrying ‘trial by Twitter’.

The episode drew attention to ongoing discrimination facing female scientists, as well as spawning a backlash campaign on Twitter: #distractinglysexy.

More from the UK SMC: Blog – Call off the hunt

Image credits: All public domain other than: Fishy supplements: Flickr, jcoterhals; Fruit fly invaders: Flickr, James Niland; Mega-thrust quakes: NIWA; Mitochondrial swap: Malaghan Institute; Nepal Quake: Wikimedia, Krish Dulal; Ancient cousin uncovered: Lee Roger Berger; #BaconCancer: Flickr, Kim Ahlstom.

5 Comments

  1. Derek Syms

    Thanks for the reply regarding Quantum spookiness, sort of sounds like the longitudinal electrical waves Nicola use to talk about.
    As for curved space time, I am not a believer as it stops serious research into other phenomenon in the universe. So I would say in terms of the greatest Mind of last Century I would give that title to the man who contributed most to the advancement of technology. Who said of Relativity’s curved space time “”It might be inferred that I am alluding to the curvature of space supposed to exist according to the teachings of relativity, but nothing could be further from my mind. I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved, is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view.” N Tesla New York Herald Tribune, September 11, 1932.“
    “Einstein’s relativity work is a magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king… its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists. “Nikola Tesla . New York Times (11 July 1935)

    On Earth here we are living on a magnet so is it no conceivable to think more of space being charged electrically than that of being dominated by gravity ? The sun is a highly energetic magnet..
    We are slowly becoming more aware of these electrical forces around our planet , in the magnetosphere and the Electrical nature of the sun.
    Would be great if science looked at it from this perspective. Rather than one dominated by so many unknowns’..

  2. Peter Griffin

    You are right Derek, we probably should have included that one – our colleagues in Australia did… here’s what they had to say about it: Spooky! We learned that even Einstein’s genius had its limits

    2015 was a bad year for the greatest mind of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein; we learned that even he could make mistakes when several research teams provided the most convincing evidence yet that quantum entanglement, which the famous German physicist called ‘spooky action at a distance’, exists. Einstein believed spooky action – the idea that pairs of tiny particles can be invisibly and instantaneously connected despite being in different locations – must be impossible, because information would have to travel between them faster than the speed of light. He maintained that particles could only be affected by their local environment. But in March, Australian researchers split a single photon between labs to show spooky action exists. Then, in October, Dutch scientists trapped entangled electrons in diamonds and placed them 1.3km apart. The electron spins were the same, which can only be explained by spooky action, said the researchers. In November, an Austrian team performed a similar experiment, but increased the distance between entangled particles to 143km, and the final nail in the coffin also came in November, when an international team sent entangled photons through fibre optic cables to two separate detectors, and again found strong evidence for spooky action. But perhaps Einstein wouldn’t have been too upset, as he’s thought to have said himself: “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

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