Every year, we talk about what we loved about the past 12 months of geeky entertainment. It’s usually under the guise of discussing what to honor with our Escapist Awards, but we always seem to gravitate toward that list of five unique things that especially moved us this year. It could be cute, it could be have emotional impact, it could be just downright silly, but each of the things on these lists means something to us.
Here’s what some of The Escapist‘s most passionate science and tech enthusiasts picked for their five favorite things from 2014.
2014 saw some big headlines in the world of science and technology – topics we’ve gleefully covered on our science podcast. From historic events and major breakthroughs to stories that raise eyebrows or induce laughter, here are my five favorites of the year.
#5 – The birth of the Camelopardalid meteor shower
If you’ve never seen a meteor shower, it’s difficult to relate the majesty of the spectacle. I saw my first shower in summer 2013 – the August Perseid shower, which my friend and I serendipitously happened to witness while lying on a grassy hill, staring up at the sky, unaware that we were in for a light show.
But Spring 2014 marked a historic event for stargazers: the first ever Camelopardalid meteor shower. Almost 200 years ago, a comet left a dust trail in space, and that trail was only pulled into Earth’s orbit this year – by Jupiter’s gravity, no less. While I didn’t witness the resulting meteor shower myself, and am given to understand it wasn’t as flashy as the Perseids, everyone who did see the shower will be able to say, for the rest of their lives, that they bore witness to the naissance of an annual cosmic event.
#4 – The 2012 particle is further confirmed to be the Higgs Boson
In 1964, a particle was theorized that would be instrumental to our understanding of physics: the Higgs Boson. A 40 year search to prove its existence was launched, which culminated in the construction of the LHC, the world’s largest particle accelerator. In 2012, physicists found a particle matching many of the expected properties of the Higgs Boson – a monumental discovery. However, in order to be certain, the particle had to meet a list of five requirements.
In 2014, after thorough analyses, a fourth requirement was met, leaving only one requirement before it can be said with certainty that the particle discovered is the Higgs Boson – a requirement that can only be studied once the LHC is upgraded in 2015. Nonetheless, to be one step closer still to checking off the final box is exciting, as it will conclude the 40 year treasure hunt.
Just don’t call it the “God Particle” – you’ll get everyone upset.
#3 – “End of the World” Siberian mystery hole
Headlines about a giant mystery holy found in Siberia’s Yamal peninsula this summer had me grinning. While speculation over the hole’s origin abounded, scientists ultimately had no concrete explanation for the phenomenon and needed to organize expeditions to gather more data. It’s the perfect premise for either a sci-fi or horror flick – take your pick – and the best part of it all is that the region’s name translates to “end of the world.” Ominous!
The hole was up to 300 feet deep and almost 200 feet in diameter, with an icy lake at its bottom. The most likely cause is believed to be rising temperatures in the area that caused an “ejection” in the region’s permafrost – rapid melting of under-soil ice released gas and caused an effect similar to the popping of a champagne bottle cork.
Isn’t it hilarious, then, that we can blame this on global warming?
#2 – iPhone “Wave” microwave hoax
Shortly after the launch of the iPhone 6, a very official-looking infographic purporting to be from Apple started making the rounds, detailing one of iOS8’s new features: Wave, which allows you to charge your phone wirelessly by putting it in your microwave for a minute.
What followed were a number of incensed (former) iPhone 6 owners taking to Twitter and posting pictures of their “shockingly” destroyed devices. While some reports later claimed that the hoax was a hoax – in other words, that no one actually believed the hoax and that the “victims” were hoaxers themselves – the thought of people microwaving away a $1000 piece of technology makes me giggle sinisterly.
What really sold the idea were the directions: “60 seconds at 700W or 70 seconds at 800W. Do not Wave-charge for over 300 seconds” Those little details are what add that extra layer of authenticity to a hoax.
#1 – Obama takes a strong stance on net neutrality
Let me preface this by saying that I am not an American citizen and have no political opinion of President Obama. I remain willfully ignorant about his platform and why people love and/or hate him. That said, with Obama being in his final term, he no longer needs to win a popularity contest with the American voters, and yet he still chose to come out with a strong stance in support of net neutrality by calling for the internet to be reclassified as a utility. This would put a definite end to this whole “fast lane” and “slow lane” – rather, “super fast lane” – nonsense.
If, by chance, you’re not up to speed on the very important net neutrality issue, then John Oliver spells it out in a very entertaining way.
So those were my five favorite events in the world of science and technology in 2014. There are a handful more that didn’t make the final cut – including saying farewell to the USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – and here’s to hoping that 2015 will provide me with some more difficult decisions to make when whittling down a top 5 list.
Science moves in all directions. Technology can help us create the world we want to live in, and it can reveal the realities of our history. So many amazing discoveries and inventions happened in 2014, it was hard for me to narrow down a list of favorites. The events that did make my list were things that make me marvel at the world around us, and the effect that we have on it.
#5 – Franklin’s Arctic Ghost Ship, Found
The story of Franklin’s doomed expedition is a famous Canadian mystery, and the discovery of one of his ships, nearly intact, is the result of many fields of science coming together. While the grisly fate of Franklin’s crew was known, the details of how their quest to find the North West Passage went so terribly wrong has puzzled historians for almost 170 years. Solving that mystery started when archaeologists and researchers in the Canadian territory of Nunavut located artifacts, and used those to calculate a likely location for one of Franklin’s ships. A combination of remote controlled underwater vehicles, sonar, and photography led to the discovery of a largely intact ship, the HMS Erebus.
Modern robotic technology was integral to the find, but the discovery also confirmed the accuracy of Inuit oral history about Franklin’s ice-locked ships. What excites me about the find is how it integrates robotics, naval technology, archaeology, and Aboriginal histories. Without any one of those components, the HMS Erebus might have remained hidden under the ice. Now, many more scientific fields will be needed to recover, analyze, and conserve what remains of the doomed ship.
#4 – “What If” by Randall Monroe
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we put up artificial boundaries to math and science. Scaling up the ingredients needed to make six batches of icing for your ambitious birthday cake is math. Tracking your gas and estimating your mileage is math. Figuring out how much you can afford to save each month in order to take your dream vacation is math. We often don’t acknowledge how often we use math and science in our everyday lives, and often build them up as hard and inaccessible subjects.
What I love about “What If” and books like it is that it works to break down those barriers. Author Randall Monroe, creator of the popular web comic xkcd, makes investigating these “What If” questions with science and mathematics accessible and interesting, and more importantly, his analysis is fun to read. Putting our minds to solving hypothetical questions, like what kind of density the planets in Mario Galaxy would need, isn’t a waste of time. It’s making mathematics manageable and pleasant by pursuing knowledge, by applying the scientific methods, challenging our assumptions, and doing it all for the joy of answering questions, even silly ones.
#3 – Solving the Mystery of Death Valley’s Sailing Stones
Growing up, I devoured books about cryptozoology and unexplained mysteries. I loved reading about strange occurrences, impossible happening, and mystical explanations. The sailing stones on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley fascinate me as much today as they did then. What forces make these stones move, sometimes in concert with many others, and sometimes completely independently? Advances in technology have allowed a team of researchers to collect the data needed to explain this bizarre natural phenomenon. Using hardy time-lapse cameras and GPS tracking, including placing GPS trackers inside rocks on the Racetrack Playa, the researchers were able to discover the extremely specific conditions needed to make the rocks move. When the rainfall and temperature is just right, a shallow pond will form on the playa.
When the temperature drops in winter, it becomes an ice sheet. The rocks on the playa are trapped in the ice sheet, and when the temperature warms during the day, the ice sheets begin to melt. This creates a layer of water underneath for the ice sheets to float on. The winds slowly move the floating ice sheets, and the rocks trapped within move with them. When the ice sheets splinter and break, the rocks no longer move in concert. The researchers caught the whole process on video, showing rocks sliding across the playa at a leisurely 3 feet per minute. There’s a beauty in the scientific complexity of the true explanation. The required climate and weather conditions needed to create the playa, and then to produce the ice sheets, and then to move them, is so much more fascinating to me than any alien communication theory or mysterious power.
#2 – Google’s Self-Driving Car
This year, Google unveiled its prototype self-driving car, and I started thinking about opening a savings account to get one. One of the most common daily risks we take is driving cars. When you zoom out from its everyday banality, driving a car is really just hurtling a huge heavy death machine around with moderately controlled explosions, and human error or inattention can quickly turn a routine commute into a disaster.
The attraction and the promise of self-driving cars for me is a promise of a world where no one ever fails to check a blind spot because all of the vehicles are aware of all the others, and each one is optimizing the paths they take for safety. It’s the promise of a world where car accidents are a rarity. A robust and accurate automatic system for driving our cars has the potential to prevent so many of the common causes of collisions, and to avoid the pain and grief they cause. Self-driving cars would completely upturn the taxi industry and possibly bussing as well, in ways I don’t think we’ve even started to predict yet. It’s a huge departure from how we think about transport, and I can’t wait to see what happens with it in my lifetime.
#1 – The Lettuce of the Future
Industrial farming isn’t new, but the way Shigeharu Shimamura and General Electric is growing lettuce in Japan takes it up a notch. By growing lettuce in densely packed trays from floor to ceiling, the lettuce is being grown at a much higher rate than is possible in a traditional farm, increasing productivity 100-fold. By essentially farming in a cube rather than on a flat plane, the density of production is massively increased. The optimized lighting, able to deliver an ideal spectrum of light to the plants and controlled by software to deliver the most optimal day and night cycles, further increases the farm’s efficiency. Moreover, growing lettuce indoors removes a number of pests (bugs, rabbits, even viruses and bacteria) that could damage a traditional crop, resulting in much less waste. Water and minerals are also used much more effectively, because it is not lost to the soil or the ambient air.
Beyond amazing me at its efficiency, this kind of farming also has the potential to help combat hunger. As Earth’s population continues to grow, finding solutions to our inefficient farming methods is paramount to ending hunger, and compact food production is extremely important if we want to venture further out into space. You can’t afford to irrigate a 100 acre farm on Mars, but you might be able to set up a lettuce cube.
And that’s that! Five science and technology stories that made me look at the world differently in 2014. I didn’t even have room to mention IBM’s accidental polymer creation, or all of the terrifying things we learned about sharks this year. Well, on to another lap around the sun and another step closer to getting a Holodeck.
As I’ve mentioned in our incredibly awesome podcast from time to time, I’m very much a scientific layman. My background is liberal arts and pop culture, which means I spent less time reading about how things work than figuring out what would make cool explosions and action set pieces for movies. But I still have an immense appreciation for science and its impact on my everyday life, highlighted by the fact that you’re reading this on technology that would’ve been considered highly advanced 70 years ago.
With that in mind, here are five of my favorite Science & Tech discoveries of the past year. Whether you’re a layman like me or an advanced quantum physicist, we’ll probably all agree that these things are super cool.
#5 – Mystery object survives black hole
Black holes have long been considered one of the creepier elements of space, thanks to their ability to seemingly consume and crush all physical matter to the point that even light cannot escape it. But apparently, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to survive a black hole, as shown when a mysterious gas cloud passed one without being torn apart.
After taking a closer look, scientists now suspect that the gas cloud might not be a gas cloud after all. Instead, the object is believed to be two stars that collided with each other, leaving a thick haze of dust and gas around it. We also suspect that this new object may have been formed thanks to each star’s proximity to the black hole, leaving behind something that was able to continue its regular orbit unaffected.
If that’s the case, perhaps saying objects can “survive” black holes is a bit of a stretch, since those stars were still permanently altered. But it’s an unexpected way that our knowledge of black holes has expanded in recent years, which might help us understand the one that exists at the middle of our own galaxy.
#4 – Iron Man gauntlets
There’s a common belief that for all of science’s many wondrous achievements, humanity only focuses on the ones that blow up. I’m not sure that’s the case now that smartphones are the norm, but the person who designed real-world Iron Man gauntlets probably isn’t helping the case.
So were these built in a cave, like the first Iron Man film teased? Probably not, but we’ll never know for sure, since its creator thinks the idea is too stupidly dangerous to provide detailed schematics online. That said, the finished product is about as authentically Iron Man as you can get without Marvel slapping a copyright symbol on it. Its functionality includes switches in the glove to arm and fire the rocket, and even a palm laser capable of popping balloons. Not that the gauntlet is completely safe to begin with, as an accident with the rocket actually left burns across its users biceps.
Okay, so maybe having Iron Man‘s weapons isn’t the best idea… but how about some of those rocket propulsion boots as a consolation prize?
#3 – Fusion reactors
Fusion power has long been the pipe dream of clean energy: A process using the nuclear fusion normally seen in stars to produce clean, reliable electricity. While the concept is theoretically possible, generating fusion power in a way that’s feasible (or more importantly, safe) is another matter. So we’ve been redirecting efforts towards other green initiatives with some success, but given current population trends, having a reliable electricity system that won’t destroy the atmosphere is in high demand.
That’s why it’s so encouraging to hear that Lockheed Martin thinks it can have a working prototype in about five years, right at the deadline where we need to axe carbon emissions or end up with a planet that looks like the surface of Venus. Even better, if it works as advertised, the reactor wouldn’t be much bigger than a jet engine yet could be reworked to replace nuclear and coal plants. And for those of us who get really excited about space travel, fusion reactors could do that as well, powering starships without needing to bring massive reserves of fuel along for the ride.
While it’s still a little early to see whether Lockheed Martin’s research will pay off, it could have revolutionary potential that is well worth considering for future generations.
Speaking of Fusion Energy…
#2 – It’s Possible To Turn Light Into Matter
Science has long known it’s theoretically possible to turn light into matter, which when you think about it, gives the biblical phrase “Let there be light” an all-new meaning. But even though we knew this was possible on a cosmic scale, humanity had no realistic way to control the process directly.
But now, thanks to a by-product of fusion energy research, we’re a lot closer than we were before, which hopefully means our children will have Star Trek replicators that listen for voice commands like “Earl Grey, hot”. Sure, it’s still a theoretical process until we actually build the machinery for it, and even then it only works on the atomic level, but it’s still pretty amazing. All you have to do is construct an apparatus that fires lasers at a gold vessel, which transforms the light photons into positrons and electrons. It’s a process that occurred en masse within the first 100 seconds of our universe to generate the very building blocks of matter (again, let there be light), so this device could have huge applications for applied and theoretical sciences alike.
Although now I’m wondering if space aliens out there have stumbled across the same technology, because it turns out that…
#1 – Eighty Percent of Light In The Universe Is Missing
Seriously, how do you lose light? I mean, technically it’s the sort of thing you can’t even hold onto in the first place, right? Regardless, scientists noticed an especially bizarre discrepency: there was all kinds of evidence of light existing in the universe without, you know, seeing the actual light to back it up.
It started when scientists examined the hydrogen rivers that formed between galaxies and noticed that there were higher-than-normal amounts of ionized hydrogen. Why is that odd? Because hydrogen ions are charged when struck with ultraviolet light, and there simply weren’t enough light sources nearby to justify their appearance. After crunching some numbers, scientists concluded that either 80% of the light in the universe was missing, or else some other phenomenon was charging the ions. And that’s not just scientists blowing smoke either, because hydrogen is an element we understand very, very well. Saying “something else is charging these” really throws a lot of our knowledge about the universe into doubt.
But the really weird part is that light is only disappearing in local space. If you look at distant corners of the universe that still appear young, ultraviolet light and ionized hydrogen match each other in the right numbers. So whatever is stealing light is (a) very close to us and (b) started doing so very recently in cosmic terms.
I’m not saying light is being stolen by hyper-intelligent aliens to fuel their replicators. I’m just saying that if they were, they’re so close they could be behind you right now.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to work all of these into a sci-fi movie pitch.