The Top 10 ScienceNOWs of 2013

David is the Online News Editor of Science.

Need some conversation-starters for all those holiday parties? Look no further. This year has seen its share of scientific breakthroughs, such as human cloning and cosmic particle accelerators. But we here at ScienceNOW like to celebrate the quirkier side of research. To wit, our top 10 stories of the year. Some of these are our most popular of the past 12 months. Others are editors’ favorites. But all are exciting—and sometimes shocking—reads. Enjoy!

10) Fear of Death Makes People Into Believers (of Science)

Hiding in foxholes and other highly stressful situations can turn even the most adamant atheist into a believer. The same may be true for a belief in science. People forced to confront their own mortality or who were about to compete in a high-anxiety race were significantly more likely to turn to the comforts of science than their less-stressed counterparts, according to the results of this study.

English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language

Juan Darien/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

9) English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language

“Mother,” “hand,” “pull.” Speak these words and you may be talking the way humans did 15,000 years ago. A handful of common words have hardly changed since the last Ice Age, researchers discovered this year. The finding supports the existence of an ancient Eurasiatic language passed down to peoples in North America and Europe.

Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitrašinović, Phys. Rev. Lett., (2013); Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitrašinović /University of Belgrade

Shape up. Solutions to the three-body problem, such as the "figure eight" and "yarn," can be viewed on an abstract shape-sphere (top) or in real space (bottom).

8) Physicists Discover a Whopping 13 New Solutions to Three-Body Problem

It's the sort of abstract puzzle that keeps scientists awake at night: Can you predict how three objects will orbit each other in a repeating pattern? In the 300 years since this "three-body problem" was first recognized, just three types of solutions have been found. Now, two physicists have discovered 13 more. It's quite a feat in mathematical physics, and it could conceivably help astrophysicists understand new planetary systems.

Andrew Winning/REUTERS

Hands off our baby! A study suggests that monogamy evolved because it protects babies from being killed by male rivals.

7) Monogamy May Have Evolved to Prevent Infanticide

Though we’ve been known to stray, humans are a surprisingly monogamous species. Why have we evolved to honor our vows? This study comes to a surprising conclusion: Humans and other primates may stay together to keep their babies from being killed by rival males.

Courtesy of Garry Nolan

Otherworldly? X-rays show that Ata is no hoax, but its DNA will disappoint UFO buffs.

6) Bizarre 6-Inch Skeleton Shown to Be Human

Certainly our strangest story of the year, this item concerns a curious find in Chile’s Atacama Desert: an alien-looking 15-centimeter-long skeleton reportedly discovered inside a pouch in a ghost town. Is it a space invader? A deformed fetus? A hoax? Science to the rescue!

5) Cyborg Cockroach Sparks Ethics Debate

Just in time for Christmas: a real cockroach you can control with your iPhone. RoboRoach #12 caused a sensation when it appeared at a TEDx conference in Detroit earlier this year—and not just because a lot of people wanted to play with it. Some say the tiny cyborg could turn kids into psychopaths.


Hitching a ride. Hurricanes lift many kinds of microbes into the atmosphere, where they can survive for days or even weeks.

4) Microbes Survive, and Maybe Thrive, High in the Atmosphere

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with all the pollutants and greenhouse gases floating in our atmosphere, now scientists say there are bacteria up there as well. Billions of microbes fill the skies, potentially affecting the weather and forming an active ecosystem high above the surface of Earth.

The sand flea Tunga penetrans, here in a scanning electron microscope several days after penetrating the skin. The abdominal opening protrudes on the right.

Eye of Science/Science Source

Foot fetish. The sand flea Tunga penetrans, here in a scanning electron microscope several days after penetrating the skin. The abdominal opening protrudes on the right.

3) Sex and the Single Sand Flea / Invasion of the Nostril Ticks

A tie for third place. Sometimes scientists get a little too close to their work. Take these two somewhat icky tales we covered this year. A researcher trying to understand where the sand flea has sex let one grow inside her foot. Another scientist may have identified a new species of tick—after discovering one nestled in his nostril.


Timeless. In standard entanglement swapping (top), entanglement (blue shading) is transferred to photons 1 and 4 by making a measurement on photons 2 and 3. The new experiment (bottom) shows that the scheme still works even if photon 1 is destroyed before photon 4 is created.

2) Physicists Create Quantum Link Between Photons That Don't Exist at the Same Time

The bizarre world of quantum physics just got a bit stranger. Physicists have long known that quantum mechanics allows for a subtle connection, called entanglement, between quantum particles. The tangle happens when measuring one particle can instantly set the condition, or "state," of another particle, even if it's light years away. This year, experimenters in Israel showed that they can entangle two photons that don't even exist at the same time.

Brian Mautz

Sizing up the competition. Male figures representing average (center) and extremes (left and right) in height, shoulder-to-hip ratio, and penis size.

1) The Final Word on Penis Size?

Why are we here? Where did the universe come from? Does size really matter? The jury is still out on those first two questions, but scientists finally have a handle on the third. Our most popular story of the year has the long and short of it.


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