Here’s the science you loved in 2018 | Science News for Students

Here’s the science you loved in 2018

Diamonds and smartphones and chocolate, oh my!
Dec 21, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
an lillustration of a bird sitting on a branch during a snowfall, with the text "2018 Reader's Top Picks" in the middle of the image

What were you all reading this year? Read on!

Nancy Moulding/SNS

What’s the most popular news? It’s news you can use. The most-read stories on Science News for Students were about subjects close to home, such as smartphones, e-cigarettes, shark movies and chocolate. Why? Those are subjects people encounter in their everyday lives. Here’s what you were reading in 2018:           

10. How the phone in your pocket is telling your secrets

teens on smartphones
Smartphones have become essential companions. But they can reveal important data about you without your knowledge, and often without your permission.

Some people depend on their smartphones so much they walk, run, eat and sleep with the devices nearby. But these handy assistants are full of sensors collecting data on where you are, how fast you’re going and much more. But that means your phone could tell a bad app a lot about you — without your being aware of it. Here’s how

9. Editing our way out of extinction

kiwi bird
This kiwi is among the native species in New Zealand preyed upon by invasive rodents. Scientists think a new twist on “gene drive” technology could control the pests and save the birds.

We bring lots of baggage when we travel to new places — and not just the suitcase kind. Our travels can spread invasive species that can drive native residents to the brink of extinction. Now, scientists are thinking about ways to edit our way out of the problem. The key is a technology called a gene drive. But just because we can, does that mean we should?

8. Chocolate: The most delicious science of all

chocolate hearts
Chocolate is one of the most prized treats. But ensuring there will be enough of the raw ingredients to satisfy our hunger for it has candy-makers and farmers consulting scientists around the globe.

Chocolate is so popular that people spend more than $90 billion on it every year! Here’s how scientists are helping farmers protect this precious crop from nasty diseases. They’re also making chemical strides to boost chocolate’s health benefits. 

7. Why we should care about dirty air

Mexico City
Mexico City is one major urban area frequently plagued by heavy air pollution. Studies conducted there and elsewhere show now link such pollution with lesions in the brains of adults and even children.

Very dirty city air can make it hard for people with diseases such as asthma to breathe. But it also can do much more. Scientists are now finding that exposure to dirty air — and the many particles in it — can cause memory problems and even lesions in the brain. It also can boost chemicals in the body associated with stress — another excuse to get out of the city.

6. Spend a lot of time on the phone? Forget about it

A young woman is smiling and talking on her cell-phone
A new study finds that teens who get more exposure to cell-phone radiation — and hold their phones on the right — do worse on one type of memory test.

People who spend a lot of time on the phone with it pressed against their ear may be harming more than their data plans. Teens who talked on their phones a lot, holding their phones against their right ears, were exposed to more cell-phone radiation. They also scored lower on certain memory tests compared with teens who didn’t gab so much.

And that’s not all for smartphone science. Another study showed that college students who were allowed phones in class didn’t retain information as well as those where smartphones weren’t allowed. That was true even if the students didn’t check their phones; just having them around was distracting.

5. Packing for Mars

Mars colony
This artist’s illustration depicts what a possible mission to Mars might look like. To make it reality, though, scientists must first solve a lot of problems.

Going to Mars is much more challenging than simply sending a rocket there. Mars colonists will have to grow food and make objects, such as tools and spare parts. They’ll have to be creative — and might even have to use their own poop. After all, they can’t just go to the corner store for more supplies. But science is tackling the technology that will help us survive on the Red Planet.

4. Blue diamonds are born deep

a blue diamond
A blue diamond gets its color from the element boron. Tiny bits of minerals inside the gem suggest that diamonds of this hue form at very great depths. 

Blue diamonds are stunning, expensive and rare. They get their color from the element boron. But there’s not a lot of that element in the Earth’s mantle, where diamonds are born. Where do they get it from? Shifting pieces of the Earth’s crust send boron deep into the planet.

3. Here’s what happens when animal species mix

a photo of a liger lounging on some rocks in a zoo enclosure
If a zoo keeps a male lion and a female tiger in the same enclosure, a liger can result. It has a mix of its parents’ traits.
Алексей Шилин/Wikimedia Commons

Two different species don’t always stay separate. Sometimes, when one species moves into new territory, or can’t find a date, it might mate with a very similar species. A hybrid can then result. Scientists are studying hybrids to find out what happens when two sets of different DNA unite. 

2. A nicotine-free e-cigarette can still cause harm

vape liquids
Liquids for electronic cigarettes come in a variety of flavors — with and without nicotine. A new study finds that vapors from even those without nicotine can still poison cells.

E-cigarettes don’t need the addictive chemical nicotine. Some vape liquids are just flavors. Being nicotine-free, though, doesn’t make these e-cigs harmless. The flavors that are safe when they come in food or drink form may have very different effects when they are inhaled. 

1. The real science behind “The Meg”

an underwater image from the movie showing a megalodon shark swimming past a person in a clear polycarbonate cage
In this image from The Meg, a megalodon shark swims past a polycarbonate “cage” containing a biological oceanographer, played by Li Bingbing. 
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Science went to the movies this year with a film about a huge, long-dead shark called Megalodon. But was “The Meg” really that big? And could it really have survived for millions of years in the ocean deeps? Well, we hate to tell you this…but here are all the things wrong with “The Meg.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

app     Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

asthma     A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

boron     The chemical element having the atomic number 5. Its scientific symbol is B.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

crop     (in agriculture) A type of plant grown intentionally grown and nurtured by farmers, such as corn, coffee or tomatoes. Or the term could apply to the part of the plant harvested and sold by farmers. 

crust     (in geology) Earth’s outermost surface, usually made from dense, solid rock.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

diamond     One of the hardest known substances and rarest gems on Earth. Diamonds form deep within the planet when carbon is compressed under incredibly strong pressure.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

e-cigarette     (short for electronic cigarette) Battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. These devices heat up a flavored liquid until it evaporates, producing vapors. People use these devices are known as vapers.

Earth’s crust     The outermost layer of Earth. It is relatively cold and brittle.

element     A building block of some larger structure. (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

extinction     The permanent loss of a species, family or larger group of organisms.

flavor     The particular mix of sensations that help people recognize something that has passed through the mouth. This is based largely on how a food or drink is sensed by cells in the mouth. It also can be influenced, to some extent, by its smell, look or texture.

gene     (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

gene drive     A technique for introducing new bits of DNA into genes to change their function. Unlike other such genetic engineering techniques, gene drives are self-propagating. That means they make more of themselves, becoming part of every unaltered target gene they encounter. As a result, they get passed on to more than 50 percent of an altered animal’s offspring, “driving” themselves quickly into populations.

hybrid     An organism produced by interbreeding of two animals or plants of different species or of genetically distinct populations within a species. Such offspring often possess genes passed on by each parent, yielding a combination of traits not known in previous generations. The term is also used in reference to any object that is a mix of two or more things.

information     (as opposed to data) Facts provided or trends learned about something or someone, often as a result of studying data.

invasive species     (also known as aliens) A species that is found living, and often thriving, in an ecosystem other than the one in which it evolved. Some invasive species were deliberately introduced to an environment, such as a prized flower, tree or shrub. Some entered an environment unintentionally, such as a fungus whose spores traveled between continents on the winds. Still others may have escaped from a controlled environment, such as an aquarium or laboratory, and begun growing in the wild. What all of these so-called invasives have in common is that their populations are becoming established in a new environment, often in the absence of natural factors that would control their spread. Invasive species can be plants, animals or disease-causing pathogens. Many have the potential to cause harm to wildlife, people or to a region’s economy.

lesion     A tissue or part of the body that shows damage from injury or disease. Lesions come in all shapes and sizes, both inside the body and on its outside. A pus-filled wound on the skin is one example. Cells with holes in them or missing parts due to disease represent a totally different class of lesions.

mantle     (in geology) The thick layer of the Earth beneath its outer crust. The mantle is semi-solid and generally divided into an upper and lower mantle.

Mars     The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.

megalodon     An extinct shark species, Carcharocles megalodon, that lived between the early Miocene (an epoch which started some 23 million years ago) and the end of the Pliocene (roughly 2.6 million years ago). Most scientists believe it was the largest fish to ever live. Its name comes from the Greek and means gigantic tooth. The average adult member of this species could have spanned more than 10 meters (33 feet) and weighed 30 metric tons (66,000 pounds) or more.

native     Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.

nicotine     A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the “buzz” associated with smoking. Highly addictive, nicotine is the substance that makes it hard for smokers to give up their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.

particle     A minute amount of something.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, the object must be big enough to have pulled neighboring objects into the planet itself or to have slung them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

radiation     (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.

Red Planet     A nickname for Mars.

resident     Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)

rocket     Something propelled into the air or through space, sometimes as a weapon of war. A rocket usually is lofted by the release of exhaust gases as some fuel burns. (v.) Something that flings into space at high speed as if fueled by combustion.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

shark     A type of predatory fish that has survived in one form or another for hundreds of millions of years. Cartilage, not bone, gives its body structure.

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.

smoking     A term for the deliberate inhalation of tobacco smoke from burning cigarettes.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

vaping     (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.