Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yearly Science Roundup: 2014

It's that time again. Time to do the impossible and select my top five science stories of the year. After much deliberation, I've settled on the following:

5. A Swimming Dinosaur

Credit: Mike Bowler.

Spinosaurus splashed into headlines this year, when new research indicated that its skeleton had limbs suited for swimming. Most of this dinosaur was lost to science for almost a century, but then new fossils were found in Morocco that gave paleontology a more complete picture of this animal. This is the first time a non-avian dinosaur has been shown to have adaptations for a semi-aquatic lifestyle, and that earns it a place in my Top 5. For more information, check out my SVP blogpost from a few weeks ago.

4. Earth Is Not Alone

Enceladus. Credit: NASA.

The more we learn about space, the more we find we have in common with other worlds. In 2014, we learned Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, has oceans of water below its surface. We also learned that Europa--a moon around Jupiter that we've known to have liquid water under its surface--also has tectonic plate movements. It's the first body beyond Earth to demonstrate these! Meanwhile, Curiosity found the building blocks of life on Mars, and we finally found a rocky exoplanet that's in the Goldilocks zone of another star (where it's not too hot or too cold for liquid water) and is similar to the size of Earth. Wow!

Every single one of these things deserves its own post, but I only have 5 slots, so I was forced to clump them together. Regardless, if we learned all of this in 2014, I can't wait to see what we learn about space in 2015.

3. Ebola Outbreak

Ebola virus, color-enhanced. Credit: T.W. Geisbert.

There's no nice way to put this. Over 6,000 people died this year from Ebola, and over 17,000 were infected.

Past outbreaks had deaths numbering in the dozens, and more rarely, the hundreds. This outbreak was like nothing ever seen before, and most of it can be attributed to poor health care methods. There is no real cure for this virus other than helping a patient through their symptoms, which means assisting patients at their most contagious stages. Healthcare providers rapidly became patients themselves this year. There is an intense effort now to find treatments and vaccinations to prevent this type of outbreak from ever happening again, and to continue to find better ways for workers to aid patients without risking infection themselves. Hopefully, some of these problems will be solved by medical science in the near future so I'll never have to write another post like this again.

2. We Landed on a Comet, and Avoided Another!

Cheers upon hearing of Philae's landing. Credit: ESA.

In 2014, we landed scientific equipment on a comet, and saved other scientific equipment from getting beaned by one. I think that's pretty great, which is why it's so far up on my list.

On November 12th, Philae touched down on Comet 67P, making the ESA's Rosetta Mission a success. Thanks to this mission, we've learned that at least on this type of comet, the frozen water it carries is a different form than the kind found on Earth. This makes it unlikely that these comets were the depositors of the initial water on our planet, which is pretty big news. We also got to hear what a comet's magnetic field sounds like, which is just plain awesome.

Meanwhile, a few weeks earlier than Philae's touchdown, Mars was dodging the bullet of Comet Siding Spring. Five satellites had to be moved to avoid the debris this comet would bring as it sailed within 87,000 miles of the surface of Mars, including the new MAVEN and MOM missions. Mars survived, our equipment survived, and here on Earth, some people took some pretty great pictures.

1. Half of All Wildlife Dead

We're doing this.
And for one last, sobering entry, we have this news. According to the latest research and counts from the World Wildlife Fund, over 50% of all wildlife has died in the last 50 years. That's not an exaggeration. This is the reality we're living in. Please let that sink in. Half of all wild things have died in less than a single human lifetime.

It is up to us to make the changes necessary to slow this decline.
“High-income countries use five times the ecological resources of low-income countries, but low income countries are suffering the greatest ecosystem losses,” said Keya Chatterjee, WWF’s senior director of footprint. “In effect, wealthy nations are outsourcing resource depletion.”
This isn't an issue for future generations. This is happening now. By us. In 2015, make it a resolution to do something about this. I won't pretend to tell you what you should do, other than to please not forget that our world is in our hands, and we are letting it slip away. I know I post a lot about great space stuff, but I never lose sight of the most important planet: ours. It's why it's the back drop for my entire blog.

Please. In 2015, make it a personal goal to be a better tenant of Planet Earth. I'll leave my blog posts of 2014 on that note.

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