Dec 29 2009

Skeptical Musings about 2009

Published by under General
Comments: 10

This is the time of year for looking back at the big news stories of the previous year. I’m not going to give any numbered top-ten list – but will simply reflect, in no particular order, on those science news items that made an impression on me this year.

Ardipithecus ramidus

Ardi, as he is known, was certainly the coolest fossil of the year. The remains of 17 individuals were actually found in 1993 and first described in 1994, but this year the first full analysis of these fossils was published, along with the new genus designation of Ardipithecus. Ardi is the oldest hominid species now known, displacing Lucy – an Australopithecus afarensis.

Ardi is an excellent example of how a fossil can reinforce what we already know about evolution, while simultaneously surprising us. It is an outstanding transitional species – getting very close to the common ancestor between humans and chimps. Ardi walked upright, but had a small chimp-size brain, and had features indicating they still spent time in the trees. It dates to a time and place we would expect for such a transitional species also. There is no way around the fact that Ardi is powerful confirmation of evolutionary theory, and specifically human evolution.

And yet, Ardi surprised us in the details. It was thought that bipedalism evolved on the plains of Africa, but Ardi suggests that bipedalism evolved while our ancestors were still in the trees.

Ardi also reminded us that the common ancestor between humans and chimps was not a chimp, but something else. Chimps are as evolved from that common ancestor as humans.

Darwinius masillae

As much of a sensation as Ardi was, Ida was equally a flop. The fossil itself, of a primate ancestor that might link the branch that led to monkey and apes with the older branch of prosimians such as lemurs, is a beautifully preserved specimen. It also fills in a gap in the picture of primate evolution.

What flopped was the media blitz surrounding Ida – reminiscent of the fanfare accorded King Kong. The scientists tried to be media-savvy – to use the media, new and old, to promote not only their interesting find, but science in general. And to be blunt, they blew it.

First, they oversold the science. They tried really hard to say that Ida finally connects mankind to the rest of the animal kingdom – because it links (potentially – that has not even been settled yet) two branches of primates, one of which contains humans. It was a stretch no one bought. And – what about all those hominid fossils?

It seems that the more they tried to hype their fossil, the more skeptical people became.

Lesson learned – you can’t sell real science like a used-car salesman. Leave that to the pseudoscientists.

Ida earns my science-media fail for 2009.

Large Hadron Collider

The LHC came online in 2009 and started smashing protons and even producing publishable science. The LHC represents big-ticket science – it shows that we are committed to investing billions in a massive engineering project just so we can understand the universe a little better.

And the science that the LHC is likely to produce will be as awesome as the machine itself. At half power, the LHC is already the most powerful collider in the world. As soon as protons started colliding, all the delays and mishaps were forgotten.

Water on the Moon

It had been hypothesized that water from comets might be permanently frozen in the shadows of deep craters at the lunar poles. This speculation was confirmed this year when NASA smashed a couple of probes into one such crater, finding water in the plumes.

This can potentially have a huge significance for a future lunar base. The limiting factor of any such base may be raw materials – water, oxygen, fuel. If there is water that can be mined from the lunar regolith, then all three are already there on the moon waiting for us. This increases the feasibility of a lunar base.

Apollo 11

While I am on the moon – this year was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. NASA finally admitted that they lost the original footage of the Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the moon.

But on a brighter note – the Lunar Recon Orbiter (LRO) took pictures of the Apollo landing sites. You can see not only the equipment left behind, but the paths through the regolith of the shuffling walks of the astronauts as they went on their missions.

This is smoking gun evidence that NASA really did go to the moon, several times. This won’t, of course, make the lunar hoax nutcases go away, but it will make them seem even more ridiculous as they try to explain away this evidence.

Methane on Mars

This year we discovered that there is methane on Mars. This is significant because methane is a highly reactive molecule so it doesn’t hang around for long. Therefore, if there is methane in the martian atmosphere it is being replenished from somewhere.

One possibility is that it is being deposited by asteroid and comet impacts on Mars.  But this has been ruled out by astronomers – there simply aren’t enough impacts, by orders of magnitude, to explain the amount of methane on Mars.

Another possibility is geological activity – methane is trapped beneath the martian surface and is being released. However, there is currently no known geological activity on Mars that can explain the release, nor is there the other elements we would expect to be released if such activity were present.

The third and most intriguing possibility is that there is life on Mars – microbes that produce methane as part of their metabolism. Anything that increases the possibility that there could be alien life within reach of human scientists to me is mega-cool.

All the more reason why we should make sending people to Mars a high priority.

Conclusion

There is so much more, but I think that’s enough for one blog post. These are the items that stuck out in my memory.

Let me know which science/skeptical news items made the biggest impression on you.

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