The Countdown Begins. Tis the season—if you work in the media—to start recapping the year. At Sports Illustrated we’ve already named our Sportsman of the Year (Lebron James) and our Inspiring Performers of the Year and highlighted our Pictures of the Year. My good friend Bob Sullivan, the editor of Life books, had to finish a book on the year’s most notable deaths and get it onto newsstands before December even arrived. (Hence no mention of Larry Hagman or Marvin Miller, among others.)
Discover magazine just came out with its 100 top science stories of 2012. You may have missed a lot of them over the course of the year. Discover ranks them from 1 to 100, which gives science aficionados grist for arguing (Which is a bigger story, Chinese space exploration or self-driving cars?) and gives us a chance to count them down for you. Below is the first batch of 10, starting with Big Story Number 100.
Biggest Science Story of the Year, Number 100: Spectacular eruptions on the Sun. We're at a peak in the 11-year cycle of solar activity, which makes for amazing photographs, memorable auroras and, sometimes, damaged satellites.
99: A setback in the effort to rid the world of polio The effort has been hugely successful (new cases in 1988: 350,000; new cases in 2011: 650), but decreased funding and/or political conflicts have led to the cancellation of 68 anti-polio campaigns in 33 countries and have been especially damaging in the three countries in which the disease is still endemic: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
98: Increased pressure on the world's supply of liquid freshwater. "A study published in Nature in August showed that annual demand from the world's 783 large regional aquifers is 3.5 times the amount that is replenished," Discover notes, adding that water-wasting agricultural practices need to be examined in the countries that are overtaxing their groundwater supplies the most: India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mexico and the U.S.
97: The decision by a court in Italy to convict and sentence to six years in prison a half dozen Italian seismic experts and one government official for failing to issue adequate warnings of a 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300. Writes Discover: "Colleagues across the world condemned the decision and worried that holding scientists criminally responsible for predictions will make them less willing to advise on important decisions that affect public safety."
96: The exploration of the deepest section of the ocean floor by movie director and underwater explorer James Cameron and his team using a high-tech submarine. Cameron became, as Discover says, "the first solo traveler to visit Challenger Deep, the bottom of the [Mariana Trench, a geologic "subduction zone" where the Earth's Pacific plate dives under the Philippine plate] at 35,000 feet. "
95: The first scientific research suggesting that a low-carb diet is, in Discover's words, "the best way to keep burning calories after you shed pounds." That careful phrasing reflects the study's finding that after a subject had lost 10 pounds, he or she burned 300 calories more per day if following a low-carb diet rather than a low-fat diet or a low-glycemic-index diet (eating foods that digest slowly, such as legumes and fruit). However, research also showed that a low-carb diet increases stress hormones, a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
94: The physical achievements of amputees using bionic limbs, including Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius of South Africa and U.S. software engineer Zac Vawter, who climbed 103 flights of stairs to the top of Chicago's Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) on a bionic leg controlled by his thoughts.
93: The discovery in China of the fossils of pre-historic fleas (some up to an inch long) dating back between 125 million and 165 million years. These formidable fleas, which had serrated mouth parts and lived at least 80 million years before any previously discovered flea species, are believed to have fed on feathered dinosaurs or early mammals.
92: The increased use of 3-D technology in studying and mapping the universe and its components, including the invisible, galaxy-binding stuff called dark matter.
91: The death at age 91 of Ray Bradbury. When the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars two months after the famed science-fiction author's passing, NASA decided to name the arrival spot Bradbury Landing.
90: The deaths of pioneering astronauts Neil Armstrong, at age 82 and Sally Ride, at 61.
More of our Discover countdown in the days ahead...
Swamp Dogs? As you may have read on The Naturalist's Notebook's Facebook page, the New Orleans Hornets pro basketball team has trademarked five potential new team names, all taken from real or legendary animals. The choices are the Pelicans, Bull Sharks, Swamp Dogs, Mosquitoes and Rougarou. That last one is a werewolf-like creature said to prowl the swamps, fields and forest of Louisiana. The odds-on favorite is Pelicans, but I do like Mosquitoes as a metaphor for a team that plays pesky defense.
If (like me) you're unfamiliar with the term Swamp Dogs, the answer is that it's slang for alligators. If you are so inclined, you can even buy a purple, alligator-skin dog collar made by a Louisiana company that goes by the name Swamp Dog.
The New Orleans basketball franchise was originally the Charlotte Hornets before it moved to the Big Easy in 2002. I'd never thought of Charlotte as particularly hornet-infested, but in fact the name Hornets came from Charlotte's fierce resistance to British occupation during the Revolutionary War. Lord Cornwallis called the city "a veritable nest of hornets."
A few years from now, perhaps we'll hear rival NBA teams refer to New Orleans as "a veritable nest of pelicans." Or, even better, "a veritable swamp of Rougarou."
Answer to the Last Puzzler All of these are TRUE: a) Beavers can close their lips while keeping their teeth exposed, enabling them to swim while carrying branches and keeping water out of their mouth. b) Beavers can hold their breath for more than 15 minutes. c) Beavers store fat in their tails.
The mallards shown in the photo above spend most of their time in the saltwater bay by our house. The question: Can they drink salt water?