ICYMI: 2018’s top science offerings | Science News for Students

ICYMI: 2018’s top science offerings

From gene-edited babies to firenados and lavanados, the year offered both stunning news and curiosities
Dec 20, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
an image showing an illustration of snowy trees and mountains with the text "2018 Editors' Top Picks" overlaid at the top of the image

Here’s our top-10 list of important events and discoveries — ones not to be missed.

Nancy Moulding/SNS

If you’re anything like us, you were bombarded this year with news feeds screaming for your attention. Can you remember the highlights? Did you take a break and go digital-free for a bit? What did you miss? Never fear. Here’s a quick update on the science highlights of 2018 — just before the new year begins dropping an onslaught of more cool news your way.    

10. Wombats’ cubic wastes

a photo of a wombat facing towards the viewer
Wombats are stout marsupials native to Australia. They use their cubelike droppings to mark their territory.

This probably isn’t news you can use — wombats, after all, are the only creatures to poop neat little cubes. How do they create that uniquely shaped scat? Some Georgia Tech engineers puzzled that out, building model systems with the same balloons used to make balloon animals — and ran a bunch of tests. (They also tested whether the poop cubes can be rolled like dice.) Intestinal elasticity, they learned, is the key to the shape of wombat scat.

9. Computers get good at making, catching fake news

fake news
Researchers are building computer algorithms that can check the veracity of online news.

The internet is a fire hose of claims and supposedly true information, and people need help sorting truth from fakery. A host of new digital fact-checkers are trying to meet this challenge. Other computer programs, meanwhile, are learning how to alter video in hard-to-tell ways. The new video can send new words out of people’s mouths or put new expressions on their faces. Watch out.

8. Kilauea demanded the world take notice

Kilauea volcano
Lava flowing from new fissures along Kilauea’s eastern flank engulfed a street in Hawaii’s Leilani Estates on May 6. 
U.S. Geological Survey

Kilauea is one of six volcanos that formed Hawaii’s Big Island over the past million years. In 2018, this beast showed it was far from a sleeping giant. Shallow earthquake activity gave rise to a fanfare of volcanic fireworks in May. Nearly two dozen fissures opened in the ground during a 3-month-long eruption. Fountains of molten rock sometimes shot up 70 meters (230 feet), setting treetops on fire. A lava whirlwind, or lavanado, even danced briefly atop one fissure.

7. Eclipse affected weather — and wildlife

a photo of the August 2017 solar eclipse
The August 21, 2017 solar eclipse, seen here from Oregon, triggered odd weather across the United States.
Frank Fichtmüller/iStockphoto

Last year’s Great American Eclipse produced a short-term cooling along its path — and more. Wind speeds changed. Some clouds evaporated in the abrupt cooling. In short, as the moon briefly threw shade, the local weather changed. People aren’t the only ones to have noticed the eclipse, though. Animals did, too, researchers are finding. For instance, bees stopped buzzing during the brief darkness.

6. Cigarette smoke can hitchhike to nonsmoking sites

close up of a teenager's hands with sparkly nail polish and holding a lit cigarette
Toxic particles of so-called “thirdhand smoke” can settle on clothing. When the smoker comes indoors, those particles can go airborne again to pollute a new site.

Exhaled cigarette smoke can glom onto walls and other surfaces. This so-called “thirdhand smoke” may end up even in supposedly smoke-free spaces, a new study showed. This means people can encounter harmful air pollutants due to cigarette smoke even in rooms where no one had ever smoked.

5. Cell phones as teen security blankets — and risks

boy texting on his phone in a classroom while his classmates work
Laptops and phones in the classroom can lower everyone’s test scores, a new study finds.

A smartphone can sometimes be a comfort in anxious situations, such as when someone is excluded from a group, a new study found. But this was true only when that phone was handy, not when it was used. These same digital “security blankets” have their downsides. For one, when used in the classroom, phones can make your grades suffer — and those of your classmates. But more importantly, they put your privacy at risk. Apps can record sounds, share a phone’s location, take photos and then extract the data — all without a user’s knowledge!

4. Wilder wildfires hit the U.S. West

A nightime photo of a wildfire engulfing a forest across a lake. Everything is tinged bright red and orange from the flames.
Extreme wildfires are becoming more common in many parts of the world.

The Mendocino Complex fire, the biggest in California history, ignited in late July and burned until mid-September. It scorched 185,800 hectares (459,123 acres) and led to one death. In contrast, the smaller Camp Fire in November took the lives of 85 people, while burning through only about a third as much land. Such fires are becoming more common in the Western United States, more destructive and more polluting. One of them even spawned a rare firenado. Has global warming been fanning the flames of these events? That’s what scientists are seeking to learn.

3. New way to measure mass will avoid unexpected weight-loss

a LEGO model of the Kibble balance
Starting in May 2019, the kilogram will be defined by measurements from a device called the Kibble balance. This is a LEGO model of that device, at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

On November 16, hundreds of scientists gathered in Paris, France, and voted to change the meaning of the word kilogram. For decades, this unit of mass been based on a squat metal cylinder called Le Grand K that lived in a French vault. Starting next May, though, the kilogram will be defined by a mathematical formula that uses Planck’s constant — a natural constant of the universe. You’ll never notice the changeover, but it will make a difference to everyone who measures weight in kilograms or pounds. 

2.  Science links many extreme events to climate change

a mailbox is almost underwater in front of a house during a flood from Harvey
Hurricane Harvey caused flooding in many areas around Houston, Texas, in 2017. Scientists now know that climate change made the storm wetter.
Revolution Messaging/Flickr (PUBLIC DOMAIN MARK 1.0)

Human-caused climate change has been altering the planet. Driving that change is a growing rise in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. And 2018 will host the world’s highest CO2 levels in modern times. That is causing many aspects of our world to change. Among them: extreme weather, such as hurricanes and heat waves. Scientists are now able to solidly link some extreme weather events to global warming. September’s Hurricane Florence, for instance, ended up bigger and dumped 50 percent more rain than in a world with no human-caused warming.

1. Scientist claims to have edited babies’ genes

a photo of Chinese researcher Jiankui He presenting data on his claim of creating two gene-edited babies on November 28
At a research conference, Jiankui He gave scientists their first glimpse of data from the creation of two gene-edited babies. Many in the scientific community have decried the work.
S.C. Leung/Sopa Images/Lightrocket/Getty Images

A Chinese scientist surprised researchers from around the world in late November with the claim that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies. Their altered genes should make them less vulnerable to the AIDS virus (which infects their dad), the researcher said. And it forever changed the DNA in ways that can be passed down to all future generations. Reactions were swift. Experts condemned the move. Altering the genes of human embryos is premature, they said, and could pose unneeded health risks.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

AIDS     (short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) A disease that weakens a body’s immune system, greatly lowering resistance to infections and some cancers. It is caused by the HIV virus.

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

attribution science     A field of research, largely used in climate studies. It seeks to test whether — and by how much — climate change may be responsible for certain extreme weather events, such as droughts, extreme flooding, hurricanes, excessive heat or odd storm trajectories.

carbon dioxide (or CO2)    A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels like oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

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.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

digital     (in computer science and engineering)  An adjective indicating that something has been developed numerically on a computer or on some other electronic device, based on a binary system (where all numbers are displayed using a series of only zeros and ones).

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.

eclipse     This occurs when two celestial bodies line up in space so that one totally or partially obscures the other. In a solar eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth line up in that order. The moon casts its shadow on the Earth. From Earth, it looks like the moon is blocking out the sun. In a lunar eclipse, the three bodies line up in a different order — sun, Earth, moon — and the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, turning the moon a deep red.

embryo     The early stages of a developing organism, or animal with a backbone, consisting only one or a few cells. As an adjective, the term would be embryonic — and could be used to refer to the early stages or life of a system or technology.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

eruption     (in geoscience) The sudden bursting or spraying of hot material from deep inside a planet or moon and out through its surface. Volcanic eruptions on Earth usually send hot lava, hot gases or ash into the air and across surrounding land. In colder parts of the solar system, eruptions often involve liquid water spraying out through cracks in an icy crust. This happens on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is covered in ice.

extract     (v.) To separate one chemical (or component of something) from a complex mix.

firenado     A true tornado that can suddenly develop from conditions that accompany a wildfire. These cyclones stretch down from a rotating cloud base above. They are different from firewhirls — far smaller, twirling whirlwinds of fiery debris that often rise up from a blaze on the ground.

fissure     (in geology) A long, narrow opening that emerges in ice or rock. It starts when pressure causes the material to crack and eventually split open.

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.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

greenhouse gas     A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.

hurricane     A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.

internet     An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).

lava     Molten rock that comes up from the mantle, through Earth’s crust, and out of a volcano.

lavanado     A term created by combining “lava” and “tornado.” It refers to a whirlwind of lava. It forms when intense heat from the volcano causes air to swiftly rise into a tall column, then strong winds force it to rotate.

marsupial     A type of mammal that carries its young for a period after birth in external pouches. There the developing babies have access to their mother’s nipples — and milk. Most of these species evolved in Australian and have especially long hind-legs. Examples of marsupials include kangaroos, opossums and koalas.

model     A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.

molten     A word describing something that is melted, such as the liquid rock that makes up lava.

pollutant     A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

premature     Too early; before something should occur. Premature births, for instance, are when babies are born weeks or months early — potentially before they are ready for life on their own, outside their mom’s protective womb.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

scat     The feces shed by a wild animal, usually a mammal.

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

thirdhand smoke     A term for the pollutants (many of them toxic) emitted by a burning cigarette and exhaled by smokers that will later settle out of the air and onto surfaces. They can remain on those surfaces for days or weeks, contributing to the stale "smoky" smell that is common in rooms where cigarette smoking has occurred.A mix of air pollutants that linger in air long after a cigarette has been smoked. Some can be quite toxic remain available to breathe in 18 hours or more after a cigarette has been smoked.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.