Proof of a bioterror program is hard to come by. In the Iraq conflict, impatient
politicians and media jumped to conclusions.
On February 5, before a rapt U.N. General Assembly, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell presented the case for invading Iraq. Using an array of evidence -- satellite photos of suspicious activities at missile facilities, sinister audio tapes of Iraqi scientists -- he delivered a clear message: Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program not only persisted but was tailored to evade U.N. inspections. Notably, Powell cited seven mobile labs, each capable of producing "enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people."
For oenophiles and chocoholics, it was a very good year. For clean air: not so much.
Are we dreaming? Pinch us: Daily 3.5-ounce doses of dark chocolate lower blood pressure, according to researchers at the University of Cologne, and a team led by molecular biologist David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School reported that an ingredient in red wine extends life span up to 70 percent -- the life span of yeast, that is (future research will test the effect in mice). The beneficial ingredients: natural plant chemicals called polyphenols.
Is selective memory erasure more than a Hollywood fantasy?
Ben Affleck probably wishes he could eradicate every last trace of the Gigli debacle from moviegoers' minds and, appropriately enough, his rebound debut, Paycheck, explores the ramifications of clean-slate mental engineering. In the movie, which is based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name, Affleck has a lucrative career as an engineer who cracks copyright codes. The catch: his memory is selectively wiped after each job.
Physicists are increasingly certain a mysterious force is driving the universe apart. If only they knew what it was.
For astronomers, 2003 brought some answers, more questions and a deepening conviction: Something strange is happening to the universe. In February a satellite operating a million miles from Earth made a series of measurements that were as baffling as they were precise. A mysterious repulsive force called dark energy accounts for 73 percent of the entire mass-energy of the universe, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) found; 23 percent consists of invisible dark matter, and only 4 percent of the universe is ordinary matter and energy.
Fame descended on these newcomers in 2003.
Insanely Large Rodent of the Year
The discovery of a buffalo-size guinea pig fossil in Venezuela was announced in September -- the first complete specimen ever found. Scientists suspect Phoberomys pattersoni's size -- 10 feet long, 4 feet tall -- drove it to extinction eight million years ago: Burrowing to escape giant crocodiles was decidedly out of the question.
Most Convenient Genetically Modified Organism of the Year
Funny songs about math and furniture.
Jonathan Coulton is a professional software writer and sometime recreational robot-builder who happens to be an extremely funny songwriter. His songs scan a vast, weird range of subjects with the sort of wit, edge and self-deprecation heard in vintage Loudon Wainwright III or They Might Be Giants, or in newer bands like Fountains of Wayne -- but he's funnier than any of them.
War. Disease. Disaster. Science played a key role in a good deal of the year's bad news. But the discoveries were astonishing, too.
IT WAS THE YEAR OF THE NASTY SURPRISE: a war fought over weapons that might not exist, an epidemic that looked like it might be the viral Big One, and a shuttle tragedy. In each case, science was eclipsed by politics. If the Bush administration had heeded evidence from U.N. weapons inspectors, any subsequent invasion would likely have won crucial international support. If Chinese officials had been more concerned about public health than public image, SARS might not have spread to Taipei, Manila and Toronto.
Columbia disaster: When Columbia disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts, it was shades of Challenger. Will NASA be undone by its obsessive focus on the shuttle?
Six months after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas, experts concluded that the immediate cause of the February 1 disaster was an errant piece of insulating foam -- but that the fundamental fault lay with the space agency itself. "NASA's organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as foam did," the Columbia Accident Investigation Board declared in its 248-page report, released in August.
Frightening as the epidemic was, worse plagues may await.
In the end, severe acute respiratory syndrome didn't turn out to be the viral Big One that epidemiologists have been warning about -- a pandemic causing the deaths of millions. But SARS did prove that the worriers have a point: Emergent diseases can spread with great speed; the public health response
is inadequate; and the economic impact can be huge.
Your DNA holds the secrets of your ancestry, and at least a dozen companies offer to crack the code. But there's more than a bit of hype here.
It all started, as so many quests do, on the Internet. Just a random link on a random Web site, but something made me click it. And before I knew it, I was scrolling through what felt like an online genealogic red-light district, a sensory overload of temptation and promises of fantasies fulfilled: "Use DNA to illuminate the past and bring ancient ancestry to life" ... click ... "The only way to know where you come from is by reading your DNA" ...