A Sampling of Science Hightlights from 2010

 Even though, in 2010, the radio and TV were preoccupied with political prattle, there actually were some interesting discoveries and/ or findings in science, that went largely ignored. Here are just a couple that caught my eye. I’ve included scientific names where appropriate to make for easier googling for more information.

 * Bothersome biting bedbugs are back. They have even been found infesting movie theaters, department stores, hospitals, and motels. There are two causes for the recent infestations seen in several areas: increased international travel, and evolving resistance to pesticides. More a nuisance than a health threat, they will suck blood, leaving bites that often go unnoticed, or may look like a small row of mosquito bites. This bedbug symptom is often referred to as “breakfast, dinner, and supper.” You may also find dark fecal stains on bed sheets. An exterminator can rid your place of bedbugs, but it’s not easy. It can cost a thousand dollars for a two room apartment. 

 * 2010 was a good year for paleontologists. Dinosaur fossils were found in Africa which predate the oldest known dinosaur by at least 10 million years. The Asilisaurus, found in Tanzania, was determined to have lived in the middle Triassic, some 243 million years ago.

 *  A new hominid fossil may help bring more focus to our growing awareness of human ancestry. Australopithecus sediba was found in the Malapa cave site in South Africa. It lived between 1.95 and 1.78 million years ago, and shares some characteristics with our genus, Homo. It’s a good candidate for early human ancestor.

 * Two incredibly well preserved dinosaur fossils from Liaoning Province, China,  Sinosauropteryx (between 131 million and 120 million years old), and Anchiornis (between 160 million and 150 million years old), have allowed researchers for the first time to determine the color of dinosaurs. The beautiful patterns on these bird-like dinosaurs provide a much more true-to-life view of these amazing animals.

 * We may have to adjust life’s timeline on Earth back a billion years. Dr. Stefan Bengtson and his team found evidence of multi-cellular organisms dating back an incredible 2.1 billion years. It was previously assumed these complex organisms didn’t appear until a billion years later.

 * According to a U.N. report released in October, forest loss worldwide has slowed. Over the past decade the loss has been 13 million acres annually. During the 90’s it was 20.5 million acres per year. This decrease is largely due to new government regulations in places like Indonesia and Brazil. But, we’re not out of the woods yet…. No reforestation programs extend beyond 2020. As populations continue to burgeon forest loss will escalate. 

 * Plant life in the oceans is declining. This can threaten ocean ecosystems and contribute to global warming. It’s been estimated that phytoplankton worldwide has declined by 40 percent since 1950, largely due to rising ocean temperatures, plus there is deceased circulation between higher and lower levels in the water column. This results in fewer nutrients welling up from colder waters. Trouble is, tiny aquatic phytoplankton fix more carbon dioxide than all terrestrial plants combined. This impact will extend well beyond aquatic ecosystems.

 * The public remains sharply divided over global warming, despite strong consensus among expert scientists. Several researchers set out in 2010 to determine whether consensus statements actually impact people’s opinions. It was discovered that, in general, regardless how strong the scientific consensus, it doesn’t change people’s minds if it conflicts with personal beliefs. Therefore it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments. It’s estimated that a 2 degree celsius rise in average temperature is an upper limit in order to avoid disaster. The problem is immediate. Unless we change our ways within a five year timeframe, we’re likely facing a four degree celsius rise by 2060, which would result in ecological chaos. Making matters worse are self-serving politicians who refuse to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

 * This year’s huge quake in Haiti signals future shocks. The quake activated a fault system which has lain dormant for the last century and a half. It is now apparent that the fault system that underlies the Caribbean is far more complex than previously believed.  Only part of the built up pressure was released and it is now believed that this troubled region is in for another major quake.  

 * You are a community. Microbiologist, Jeffrey Gordon did one of the first comprehensive descriptions of the ecosystem within the human gut. More than 80 percent of the viral gene sequences he found were new to science. By sampling intestinal bacteria and viruses over time, he discovered incredible stability, and uniqueness to each individual. His research indicates that the relationships between viruses and bacteria within the intestine are mutualistic. Viral genes, for example, when incorporated into bacteria can aid metabolism. What Gordon is suggesting is that the microbial community is effectively an organ within an organ. Your inner microbes have such an impact on your health that doctors some day may pay more attention to them. In a very real sense, we are a composite of species.

 *  Bill Nye (The Science Guy) may have been just a bit surprised. He received the prestigious 2010 “Humanist Of The Year Award” from the American Humanist Association (AHA). They are recognizing Nye’s commitment to science education. He has spent his life building enthusiasm for science and promoting science literacy. He refers to science as “the best idea we’ve had so far.”According to AHA, “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Previous winners include some very impressive folks: Stephen Jay Gould; E.O. Wilson; Richard Dawkins; Kurt Vonnegut; Betty Friedan; Carl Sagan; Isaac Asimov; R. Buckminster Fuller… and the list goes on.

 For more information: Discover Magazine; Science News; Earth Magazine; AAAS; ucsusa.org

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