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Science 2008 – Part 2 December 31, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.

Everybody have their water wings on?  It’s time to continue our swim through Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year!

5. Pica Pica Perception


This year researchers in Germany showed that the European Magpie (Pica pica) deserves to join the elite class of animals we consider to be self-aware.

A rudimentary “sense of self” is usually judged by testing if an animal can make the cognitive leap from seeing its reflection in a mirror as another animal to seeing its reflection as himself.  This mirror test is a simple but profound one.  Typically a small mark will be made on an animal in a spot that can only be seen in the mirror.  If the animal tries to remove the mark from itself purely by seeing its mirror image then this shows that it has constructed an abstract sense of self that can encompass an external image into its identity.  It’s much more tricky than it sounds and up till now only humans, great apes, bottle-nose dolphins and elephants have been shown to have this level of awareness.

That is, until we decided to test the Magpie.  This is the first non-mammal found showing signs of self-recognition.  Considering that the human evolutionary lineage diverged from birds roughly 300 million years ago this means that the ability to be self-aware has evolved separately in corvids and primates.  That is, drastically different brain structures are being evolved to serve very similar functions of self-awareness and social interaction.  Very cool stuff.

4. Smile, You’re an Exoplanet


In 2008 NASA verified that Hubble has taken its first ever picture of a planet outside of our solar system!  No that’s not the all seeing Sauron Eye of Mordor.  See that little non-descript blip in the square? That’s a picture of what has been dubbed planet Fomalhaut B after its parent star Fomalhaut.  It may not look like much but this picture is a huge leap forward in our ability to detect planets around other stars.

A short explanation of what exactly it is we’re looking at is probably in order:  since the star is millions of times brighter than the planet itself, Hubble had to mask the light of the star itself, which is why there is a big black spot in the middle of the picture.  Around the star is a ring of ‘protoplanetary debris‘ 21.5 billion miles across, and because of a gravitational anomaly in the ring, NASA scientists hypothesized back in 2004 that there may be a planet warping the ring’s shape.  And so they watched and waited.

Sure enough, exactly as hypothesized between 2004 and 2006 they observed an object moving with and orbiting Fomalhaut.  This year NASA has confirmed that this object is in fact a planet. Fomalhaut B is about the mass of Jupiter and is about 10 times the distance from its star as Saturn is from ours, orbiting Fomalhaut every 872-years.  This is such a incredible advance because up until now we only had evidence that exoplanets existed by watching the light from stars ‘wobble‘ as objects passed in front of them but we had never actually seen a planet itself.  While we already had a pretty good hunch that exoplanets were there this picture is incontrovertible evidence that our solar system is not alone.

3. Goodbye Bush, Welcome Obama!


What!? Number 3 is political?  How is this a science story?!? Well, before you get your chonies in a bunch, let’s not forget that science isn’t just obscure experiments where geeks like me get their jollies.  Science actually has real world implications for our safety, health, the environment, etc.  The way our society receives, interprets and reacts to scientific discoveries (i.e. public policy) has significant impacts for the future of both our nation and the world.  Unfortunately, the Bush administration couldn’t have been worse when it comes to scientific literacy and leadership.

Bush’s treatment of science was dismal beyond party lines.  Seth Shulman’s book Undermining Science outlines Bush’s war on science, “…the Bush administration has systematically misled Americans on a wide range of scientific issues affecting public health, foreign policy, and the environment by ignoring, suppressing, manipulating, or even distorting scientific research.”  He has prioritized political ideology over scientific facts in a dangerous trend that will set America back decades in the global market.  For a short list, he has been unwaveringly wrong on stem cell research, evolution, global warming and environmental protection.  Unfortunately, this looks like it may be a right-wing trend: the McCain/Palin ticket wasn’t much friendlier to science.

On the bright side, 2008 was the year of Obama and of much needed change which will hopefully restore scientific integrity to the federal government.  The early signs are good.  Obama’s team has already demonstrated an understanding of the issues far outshining Bush and has nominated actual scientists to contribute to his cabinet.  His answers to Science Debate 2008 were encouraging.  We’ll see what the next 4 years bring.

2. Large Hadron Collider


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was completed this year.  Straddling the border between Switzerland and France 300 feet underground and 16 miles around it’s the largest, and possibly most complex, piece of machinery ever built, ever.  Without even knowing what it does this fact by itself is just cool.  Luckily, what it does only makes the LHC sexier.

The LHC is a particle collider, not the first of its kind, but definitely the biggest.  With carefully orchestrated magnetic fields it will accelerate two strings of protons up to 99.99% the speed of light in opposite directions and then…whaamo!  They smash them together.  The theory is actually pretty simple here: if you want to know what’s inside a particle that’s too small to dissect, you need to smash it apart.  If we want to know what the universe is made of at the smallest of scales (remember quantum mechanics?) the LHC will get us closest to the answer.

Some of the discoveries the LHC team is hoping for include the illusive Higgs Boson (a theoretical particle that could explain why mass itself exists), the source of Dark matter (undiscovered material literally knitting the universe itself together), the physics of the Big Bang and possibly even hidden dimensions!  Is anyone else getting goose bumps right now!?

There is one reason and one reason only that the LHC is not #1 on my list:  in early testing this year it broke.   Not to worry, things like this happen, especially with a machine that is juggling the most extreme temperatures, vacuums and speeds known to man.  Luckily the LHC will be back up and running in 2009 so we might get to revisit it with next year’s list!

For more pics of the LHC check this out.

1. Phoenix Mars Lander


Pulling into the number one position (by a nose) for Valence’s Top Science Story of 2008 is the Phoenix Mars Lander.  In a hugely successful mission, this May NASA landed a remarkable science lab on the Mars northern polar cap.  Now, just the act of getting anything safely to the surface of Mars automatically quadruples your cool points, but this lander was then able to dig, analyze, film and even listen once it got there.

What were we looking for on Mars?  Well, life of course!  Now we don’t have any expectations that we’ll be digging up any critters but we can sure look for the evidence of past life.  That is, water and organic compounds. From geological formations we suspect that the Martian surface was once a very wet place.  The Phoenix Lander was placed at the north pole of Mars because there was almost guaranteed to be sheets of ice just below the Martian soil.

On a mission that lasted months longer than the NASA scientists had expected the equipment to hold out, Phoenix did in fact find ice below the Martian soil in addition to finding clay and calcium carbonate (compounds that only form in liquid water when here on Earth).  Phoenix also observed for the first time humidity and snow in the Martian atmosphere.

As the Martian winter set in, Phoenix’s solar panels did eventually give out in September and now the lab sits frozen at the pole with little hope of ever being revived.  However, Phoenix did gather a ton of information that is just now being analyzed and as we start to really sift through the data in 2009 perhaps we’ll be able to start answering questions like: Why did Mars go dry? or Was there ever life on our neighbor? 

In any case, even though the Phoenix Lander literally only scratched the surface of the red planet, it was still a huge leap forward in understanding Mars!


All right Valencers, thus concludes Valence’s Top 10 Science Stories of the Year! Vote below for what you think was the best story (I’ve included Enceladus from the 10-6 list since it won last week’s poll).

Have a Happy New Year everyone!



1. Antony - December 31, 2008

Man-oh-man, you saved all the good ones for the last five. I had to vote for the politics because I’m just wired that way.

But the Large Hadron Collider is pretty incredible. In fact, so incredible, Radiohead wrote a song about it…have you heard “Super Collider”?

But the new story for me was the Pica Pica’s self-awareness. That’s really interesting and begs one of those great ethical questions – what does self-awareness mean? And what should I response be to those who have it?

Great list Casey. I look forward to more Valence in 2009!

2. Paul - December 31, 2008

LHC ftw. My favorite part of that story, is the infinitesmal chance we could all get sucked into a black hole from it. Makes me think of that bad horror film Event Horizon.

3. Eric - December 31, 2008

Indeed, great list — and I went for the Bush-out-Obama-in story for the same reasons as Antony. Obama’s choice of Steven Chu for Energy Secretary made my year.

4. hicks - December 31, 2008

I’m pretty sure that even with it’s current broken state, the Large Hadron Collider wins my vote. Even if I have to wait a year, Hidden Dimensions, Dark Matter, Why Mass Itself Exists, coupled with the most amazing photograph can’t be beat. Not even by Photoshop and a lame-duck President–who also won’t officially be out till next year…

The sheer size of the LHC makes me want to be Swiss-French. Do they give tours? Can we go?

5. caseyww - December 31, 2008

(RE: Comment #4)

I’m so happy to see your inner nerd on display! Now you’ve got my hopes up for going to CERN…thanks a lot.

6. bear - January 1, 2009

Okay, so if you are a fan of the Collider, you must must must read this article, “The 5 Scientific Experiments Most Likely to End the World,” from cracked.com—and I warn you, this website is addictive.


Happy New Year…


7. hicks - January 1, 2009

Bear-that web site is awesome. I laughed a lot. Don’t think it will end the world at all, but that guy is funny.

Yes Casey, I am a nerd. It is not “inner” either…I’m gonna be in Germany this summer and we have a YWAM campus in Geneva, so I’ll seriously plan a trip if you and Jess want to come–screw Puerta Vallarta.

8. Lisa G - January 3, 2009

I vote for the Large Hadron Collider. It’s seems pretty crazy that something so big and powerful is required to break apart something so small, but even crazier that it could be made…

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