Science headlines in 2004
01.13_PANDEMIC PANIC A flu virus that originated in birds kills three people in Vietnam, raising fears that the potent strain may spread unchecked if it becomes capable of human-to-human transmission.
01.26_MAD-COW IN THE CHOW? After a cow in Washington State tests positive for bovine spongiform encephalo- pathy at the end of 2003, agricultural officials strengthen an existing ban against including cow parts in cattle feed. Bovine tissue is known to harbor disease-causing prions.
02.06_IS THAT ENGINEERED CORN IN MY TACO? Researchers in Wales test commercial foods labeled “organic” and discover that 40 percent contain ingredients derived from genetically modified plants. The results underscore the difficulty of keeping modified and nonmodified foods from mixing, either through airborne pollen or in grain silos.
02.13_STEROID HAWKERS CHARGED Operators of the California lab BALCO are slapped by federal prosecutors with 42 counts of distributing illegal substances. BALCO allegedly tweaked the steroid THG to make it undetectable
in existing drug tests.
02.14_DIVORCE EQUATION Eye-rolling won’t cut it if you want to stay married, says social psychologist John Gottman of the University of Washington. After observing bickering couples for a decade, he devises a mathematical formula that associates contemptuous facial expressions with divorce.
02.18_BRAINS AGAINST BUSH A Union of Concerned Scientists report details the Bush administration’s “undermining” of
federally funded research. By November, 5,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel laureates, sign the document.
03.13_NOT QUITE READY TO RUMBLE Robotic vehicles
tear up the desert outside Mojave, California, in the DARPA-
sponsored Grand Challenge race. The contestants all peter out long, long before reaching the finish line–indeed, half never even make it to the mile-one marker.
03.15_PLANETOID ON THE EDGE Caltech and Yale University astronomers announce that they have glimpsed a mysterious object tracing a slow orbital path way out in the Oort Cloud. The planetoid, dubbed Sedna, is three times as far from the sun as Pluto, making it the most distant known orbiting body in the solar system.
03.30_SMASHING THE SPEED RECORD NASA’s unmanned X-43A scramjet flies under its own power for the first time, cruising for 10 seconds at an unprecedented seven times the speed of sound.
04.09_CAT LOVERS GO WAY BACK A cat skeleton uncovered in southern Cyprus near a 9,500-year-old human burial site suggests that humans had tame feline friends about 5,000 years earlier than had been thought.
04.30_KEEPERS OF THE FLAME Israeli archaeologists unearth telltale burned wood, seeds and flint at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov excavation site, indicating that humans were able to control fire as early as 790,000 years ago. Previous evidence dated humankind’s first use of fire to just half a million years ago.
06.02_THE UNIVERSE’S PRIMAL SCREAM Drawing from observations of background radiation emitted by the young universe, astronomer Mark Whittle of the University of Virginia puts together a “soundtrack.” Hear it here.
06.29_ATKINS HITCH? Would-be mothers on the Atkins diet may be damaging their chances of giving birth, say scientists at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine. Their study showed that 33 embryos conceived by mice who ate a high-protein diet were 16 percent less likely to develop into viable fetuses than were embryos conceived by mice with normal eating patterns.
07.27_THEY’RE JUST LIKE YOU-OO-AHHH Yawns are as contagious among chimps as they are in human gatherings, according to a study by Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University. The finding suggests that great apes possess humanlike self-awareness and empathy.
07.28_SCIENTISTS EMULATE NOAH The Frozen Ark “boards” its first endangered passengers, including the Arabian oryx and the spotted seahorse. Spearheaded by three British institutions, the project aims to collect and safeguard frozen DNA from a variety of threatened species.
08.12_GROW FAST, DIE YOUNG By counting the “age rings” in Tyrannosaurus rex bones, paleontologists conclude that the dinosaurs had prodigious growth spurts as teenagers, ballooning from one to six tons in just four years. The dinos usually died by age 29, only a decade after reaching their full size.
08.12_SIX-LEGGED SCOURGE A 62-mile-wide supercolony of voracious Argentinian ants converges on the Australian city of Melbourne. Scientists believe the colony’s size is the result of
the ants’ genetic homogeneity, which prevents them from
fighting with one another.
09.27_FLORIDA FIASCOS In one of the worst tropical-storm
seasons on record, hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne pound the Florida coast in quick
succession, leaving thousands homeless. Scientists are undecided whether global warming contributed to the deadly quartet.
10.06_FLU SHOT FOUL-UP After British officials shut down flu-shot supplier Chiron for alleged bacterial
contamination of its vaccine, the U.S. is left with only 54 million doses for the winter season–half its usual supply.
10.13_MENTALLLY CLICKING “SEND” A 25-year-old
quadriplegic man composes
and sends e-mail using nothing but his mind–and a penny-size brain implant made by
Cyberkinetics in Massachusetts. The device, dubbed BrainGate, contains 100 electrodes that pick up on signals transmitted by neurons in the patient’s brain, allowing him to control a computer or television.
10.20_JUNK-FREE GENOME? Mice born without large
sections of their “junk” DNA are physically and mentally
normal, say scientists at
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The finding challenges the widely held belief that the junk region, which makes up about 90 percent
of each organism’s genome,
has a specific (though
10.20_SCOOP ON THE CHEAP Using cheap laser range finders, researchers in Italy and the U.S. observe that two satellites’ orbits are dragged out of position by a few feet every year. The data seems to confirm one of Einstein’s principles, which describes gravity as a curvature of space. The results scoop NASA’s $700-million Gravity Probe B, launched in April to
test the same principle.
10.25_SEXUAL DEVIANT? The duck-billed platypus, already famed for its unorthodox
10 sex chromosomes–the largest number found in a mammal. Females have 10 X’s, while males have 5 X’s and 5 Y’s. The jury is still out as to why.
11.05_STAY OF EXECUTION Breathe easy. Theoretical
physicists at Stanford University say that, based on their
calculations regarding dark energy, the universe won’t
self-destruct for another 24