Tag Archives: top ten science stories

What are the real top ten science stories of 2012?

This is the time of year when we list the “top ten” stories or events of the year. That we do this in late December is not totally arbitrary. A year, unfortunately (given it’s odd number of days and uncomfortable near-synchronization with lunar cycles), is not arbitrary, but rather, imposed on us by the realities of orbital geometry. That we often list the top, best, worst, funniest, most important, or whatever “ten” items is of course arbitrary. Had tetrapods evolved differently so that humans had 9 fingers on each hand, perhaps we’d be listing 18 items. Or if the development of numbers and counting gone a different way, we’d be listing things in units on base 28 (number of days in a lunar cycle).

The good news is that journalism, I think under the influence of the blogosphere and other entities on the World Wide Web, have mostly given up on the “list of ten” idea. Most, nearly all, of the lists I’ve seen have been some other number, including 18, 6, and 1+9 (that was Science magazine, which identified the discovery of the Higgs Boson as number one, and produced a separate article with the “runners up” rather uncomfortably including 9 items, but nowhere do they ennumerate even though the total is 10). So, the “tens” fetish, perhaps, is passé, or at least, not in style for the moment.

There is a problem with this years’ crop of science related “top ten” (using “ten” here as a meaningless icon referring to the days when everything at the annual scale happened in tens). As you know, a group of us recently produced a list of “top climate related stories” for 2012, and there were 18+1 (18 climate stories, and one political one added to remind people that there is a political side to this debate, not because there was only one political event). That blog post, Top Climate Stories of 2012, has resulted in considerable hate and vitriol from those who still pretend to think that Anthropogenic Global Warming and other human-caused climate change is not real. You don’t see most of the vitriol, which comes to me in the form of a few comments per hour around the clock, because I don’t allow anti-science tirades, link farms to denialist sites, threats, or unnecessary profanity not by me in the comments section except occasionally to show how stupid it is.

But that is not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that our list of 18 climate related things includes many, more than ten, that are individually among the most important science related events, stories, or findings of the year. But, Main Stream Media outlets and science journals like Nature and Science have mostly made the decision to 1) Put Higgs first no matter what; and 2) Include all of the climate related stories in one or two items on their lists.

I have no problem with the discovery of the Higgs Boson being first, as long as we assume it has actually been discovered, and not just probably discovered with more to come. It is very important because whether or not the Higgs exists, and certain details about what it “looks” like, have to do with the fundamental nature of reality. That’s got to be important. And, I’d guess that there were years in the early days of accelerator-based research, during the early days of “atom smashing” that multiple important discoveries that occurred in one year got lumped into one item on the “List of Ten.”

But I do have a problem with most of the important climate related events being mushed into one or two mentions. This is because 2012 is the year that the chickens came home to roost, or at least, started to show up in uncomfortably large numbers. There is no reasonable, normal, well intentioned person alive who could look at the events of 2012 (including perhaps a few from 2011) in the context of climate change predictions and models, and years of careful observation, and not be very alarmed and very concerned. Those who remain in the denialist camp are bad people, or badly deluded. Being misinformed is no longer an excuse, working for Big Oil is not longer an excuse, preferring to live in a state of denial is no longer an excuse.

Climate related events are numbers 2 through more than ten, if we give Higgs the top spot. The major outlets are doing us a disservice and exhibiting their usual, rather tenacious hold on quaint concepts of symmetry or balance, or some numerological bent, which makes them look silly.

Having said that, and having produced our own list of (18 or so) climate related events, there are of course other things to remember. Ancient DNA has made a strong forward play with new information about Neanderthals and their supposed contemporaries. I’m sure the current view, which makes reference to the Denisovans, is naive and very much subject to revision. We don’t know enough yet. I hope we don’t hold the Denisovan concept as too central, important, immovable, or not changeable. As more ancient samples are identified and studied, the Denisovans will be joined by many others. They might even become unimportant. The key story here is not the end product of important research that gave us important results; rather, it is a breakthrough into a new era of accumulating information about human populations prior to the takeover of the planet by a smaller subset of them, with whom they sometimes had sex.

Other DNA related news is important. Mainly genetic technology is coming of age. Expect the term “GMO” (genetically modified organism) to no longer mean something as simple as obnoxious corn owned by an obnoxious company, or a tomato plant that can grow in icky soil. In the not too distant future, GMO’s will be things you have in your house, in your pocket, on your roof, in your vehicle … maybe even as your vehicle. Nanotechnology move over. This is the new nanotechnology. In a few years we may look back at 2012 as a turning point.

The landing of a brand new and highly sophisticated robot on Mars was very important and very cool and deserves to be on any list. But, the real story from NASA’s Mars mission will come over the next year or so as that Robot starts to find stuff … or even, fails to find stuff … and the results are analyzed. I hope the spectacular landing and related events don’t become the story of Mars exploration. I hope the story is still in the future, with piles of amazing data and spectacular results.

And lets not forget the other top tens, the non science events. This will be seen as the year that the Republican Party started its shut down and those enraged that we have a non-white president are fully marginalized. This year was the high water mark of the Anti-Gay movement. This is the year something that will some day be transformed into Universal Health Care in the US (and Health Care as a right) happened (I refer here to the verification of Obamacare as constitutional). This will be the year that the gun debate turned against the gun nuts.

Of course, those things will require some more hard work in 2013, and won’t mean much if we go extinct because we have totally broken the planet. Climate change is still numbers one through some large number. Don’t forget that.