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!
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.