Poison spinach! User-generated content! Space tourism! Global warming! With wars raging on several continents, a political tug of war playing out in the U.S., billionaires touring the cosmos, and a new virtual economy blossoming online, the world saw its share of amazing moments in 2006. Throughout the year, PopSci.com provided perspectives on the most important sci-tech events, and here, in the spirit of bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new, we offer a recap-our roundup of the most interesting and influential happenings of the auld lang syne. As we tip our hats to ’06 and welcome in the new year, let’s remember the PopSci motto: The future is going to be better.
[Launch the gallery here
Hairy Lobsters Emerged from the Deep
PopSci´s Invertebrate Hero of the Year award goes to the deep sea-dwelling crustacean Kiwa hirsuta, a hairy white beast discovered this year on the slopes of undersea volcanic vents. Scientists remain unsure what function the hairs on the so-called Ã¢a’¬YetiÃ¢a’¬ crab´s legs play. One theory posits that they are bacteria farms that provide the lobster with a steady food supply.
E. coli Reared Its Tiny, Ugly Head
Potentially poisonous gut-dwelling bacterium E. coli made a spectacular comeback in 2006, first tainting the fresh spinach supply, then victimizing patrons of Taco Bell, and finally taking its vicious toll on diners at an Olive Garden in Ohio. Nationwide, we worried about the integrity of our food supply.
Google Monster Ate YouTube
The voracious Googleplex got bigger this year, gobbling up video-hosting site YouTube for a reported $1.65 billion (yeah, we got a little woozy reading that, too). The wild popularity of YouTube and other user-generated content sites across the Net spurred Time magazine to name â€You (yes, You)â€ its Person of the Year. Anyone up for a round of â€Kumbayaâ€?
The Virtual World Got Real
Second Life, the immersive online world, became a place where politicians, rap stars and intellectuals go to boost their tech credibility quotient (and the rest of us go to pretend we´re furries). Also in 2006: Second Lifer Anshe Chung earned over a million real-world dollars developing, managing, and selling virtual land to Second Life’s two million registered inhabitants. In others realms-namely, Azeroth-the massive online game World of Warcraft claimed its seven millionth active subscriber in September. That´s a lot of night elves and dead quillboar.
Things Looked Ducky For Space Tourism
Rejoice! Space tourism is no longer the realm of the uber-wealthy male with money to burn-now uber-wealthy women are in on the game too. On September 18, the first female space tourist, Anousheh Ansari (benefactor of the 2004 Ansari X Prize), rode up to the International Space Station on a Soyuz rocket, kicked around the station for 10 days, and became the first person ever to blog from space. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic unveiled its designs for SpaceShipTwo, and 200 lucky souls plunked down $200,000 apiece to secure spots on the suborbital waiting list.
Pluto Got Demoted
After much Sturm und Drang, the International Astronomical Union did what it had threatened to do for years: It bounced Pluto back to the minors, stripping it of planet status and demoting it to a piffling â€dwarf planet.â€ Protests were howled, bogus bills to reinstate Pluto were enthusiastically passed by the California House of Representatives, astronomers shook their heads in grim agreement. Pluto, meanwhile, continued its lonely 248-year off-ecliptic trek around the sun. Look for more Plutonian shenanigans in 2009, when the New Horizons spacecraft finally makes a rendezvous and reconnaissance pass.
Diet Coke and Mentos Guys Make it Big
Proving that humans love a spectacle, especially if it makes a mess, viewers flocked to sites featuring the delicate craft of Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz. Their contribution to culture: really bitchin´ soda volcanoes. The Coca-Cola Corporation was initially unimpressed, stating that it hoped people would drink its product rather than play with it (uh, no?) but eventually relented and joined Mentos in sponsoring the duo’s future exploits in a reported five-figure deal.
Poisoning Got Elemental
Think politically motivated clandestine assassinations are a thing of the past in Russia? Think again. On November 23, Russian ex-spy and vocal Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital after being purportedly poisoned three weeks earlier with the highly lethal radioisotope polonium-210. Even with its relatively short half-life of 138 days, there were still enough detectable polonium traces for investigators to follow the trail of radioactivity to British Airways airplanes and, finally, to Moscow, where two Russians (reportedly tied to the KGB) were also hospitalized with unspecified â€poisoningâ€ symptoms.
Al Gore Became a Movie Star
Former VP and erstwhile presidential hopeful Al Gore rocketed into the spotlight again with the release of An Inconvenient Truth, a movie that lays out, in damning detail, the consequences of a fossil-fuel dependent society. In the end, those who believe the evidence that the climate is changing as a result of human activity continued to believe so, but global-warming naysayers continued to deny its existence. Words were volleyed; few minds were changed. What will it take, people?
Space Became the New War Zone
Reversing 25 years of diplomacy, the Bush administration declared that it would not honor any nonproliferation pacts guaranteeing that space remain peacefully demilitarized. Instead, in its revised National Space Policy, the U.S. staked a nonnegotiable claim to space supremacy, calling it â€vital to national interest.â€ Worst-case scenario: The policy could fuel a new arms race with space-capable countries like China and Russia. After the announcement, the world community collectively crossed its fingers, looking eagerly for 2008 to get here, like, now.