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My Favorite Science Facts Learned in 2013: Mini Brains, Iceland's Volcanoes, Whale Evolution

By Erin Biba

Our science correspondent Erin recalls the favorite things she learned in her research from this past year!

Scientists Find Cosmic Neutrinos in Antarctica

There are so many cool things about this story. First, there’s the awesome fact that one of science’s biggest discoveries happened 1.5 miles below the icy surface of a frozen Antarctica glacier. Then there’s the fact that scientists detected a form of subatomic particle that passes right through solid matter. Actually, they didn’t just detect one, they detected 28 of them. It’s unprecedented. If you’re not familiar with a neutrino, they are subatomic particles released by fusion reactions happening in the sun (and other nuclear reactions around the universe). Trillions of them pass through us every second, but they never physically interact with matter, so it’s nearly impossible to know they even exist. Physicists at the IceCube observatory in Antarctica detected them by burying 5,000 sensors deep down in a glacier and looking for flashes of light released by debris that the neutrinos create. Now that science has been able to detect them, scientists say they are able to see the universe in a whole new way. In other words: we have just witnessed the birth of a new field of space science. How cool is that?!

Photo credit: NASA

Man-Made Mini Brains

Scientists have grown lots of human appendages in the lab over the years (remember that poor mouse with a giant ear on his back?) -- but this year’s growth was definitely the most miraculous. Researchers in Austria managed to coerce human stem cells to grow what they called “cerebral organoids.” In non-scientist-speak that means they grew braaaaaaaaains. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The cerebral organoids are all only about the size of a pea (roughly equivalent to the size of a brain inside a nine-week-old fetus), but the cells self-organized into brain regions including an early hippocampus. They’ve already used the samples to recreate the development of a rare brain disorder. But there is so much more that science will learn from them going forward. Plus, in the case of an apocalypse, we can now synthesize little zombie snacks to avoid disaster! Woohoo!

Image credit: Nature

Iceland Volcanoes Indirectly Caused the French Revolution

I spent some time traveling in Iceland this year and meeting with researchers there who are studying the tiny country’s more than 100 active volcanic systems. Aside from learning that Icelanders are some of the friendliest and hardiest people on the planet (with almost no trees the landscape is so harsh it’s a wonder anyone is able to survive there), I also learned that their country is one of the most geologically bizarre places on earth. For starters, it sits right smack on top of a spot where the European and North American tectonic plates are separating. That means the country itself is growing wider at about the same rate that your fingernails grow (a few centimeters every year). And this separation of plates makes lots and lots of volcanoes. But it’s so cold and so far North that the majority of volcanoes are plugged with glaciers. Which means when they erupt they build up pressure and then explode. I wrote a few stories about this (scientists studying the volcanoes for WIRED, and a tour of one of the country’s many geothermal plants they use to harness volcanic heat for making power at Popular Mechanics)

But here’s my favorite thing I learned about Iceland volcanoes that didn’t make it into any of the stories I wrote: A volcano violently erupting in Iceland indirectly caused the French Revolution. For eight months starting in June 1783, the Laki volcano erupted and spewed sulfur and ash all over Europe. Crops across the continent died and ships were stuck in port -- unable to navigate through the cloud. As you can imagine, the result was widespread famine. Now, remember back to your high-school world history class. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back in France and launched the public beheadings of Kings and Queens in 1789? A long-term famine that Marie Antoinette is famously misquoted as solving with the phrase: “Let them eat cake.” We could go even further and say that, since America’s revolution wouldn’t have happened without all that help from the French (who were brewing their own revolution at the time), we can owe our entire country to one fateful eruption. Thanks for the revolution, Iceland!

Whales are Amazing

There is always something fascinating to learn at the American Association for the Advance of Science annual meeting. This year I stumbled into a session about whale research. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be that fruitful, but I had time to kill and I didn’t know much about what is going on in whale science these days. More the three hours later I was totally rapt and am now basically obsessed with the scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding the largest living beings on our planet. I wrote about some of the most interesting whale facts for the site!

My favorite fact from the session totally floored me: Whale evolution works in such a way that they have actually gotten bigger over time. Much, much bigger. The fossil record shows that 55-million years ago whales were about the size of a modern-day dog. WHAT?! That’s bananas. This type of evolution is known as gigantism. The most familiar beings that evolved this way were the dinosaurs. But we have some other species today that followed this path: elephants, rhinos, hippos, and giraffes, for example. One of the reasons scientists thing getting so big has an evolutionary advantage is that the bigger you are, the slower your metabolism is. So if you’re tiny you have to eat all the time. But if you’re big you just eat a little bit and survive just fine (which is good news because if you’re really big you have a lot more trouble getting around). Still, no land animal since the sauropod has grown beyond 20 tons. Whales are truly unique and amazing creatures.

Nutmeg Toxicity

Did you know you can overdose on nutmeg? That’s weird. Acute nutmeg intoxication can lead to anxiety, fear, and hallucinations.

Photo credit: Flickr user tessenwee via Creative Commons

Every Single One of My Awesome Jobs Scientist Profiles

Each month I profile a field scientist for Tested. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do and I feel like I should get my own Awesome Job profile talking about how great it is. Field scientists turn out to be some of the most energetic, passionate, and fascinating people in science. They risk their lives and sanity to understand our world better. Just a few of the interesting things they’ve taught me this year are:

  • The Himalayas are weird geologically in some places (even though the mountain ranges there are created by the Earth’s plates smashing together, there are some spots where the plates are pulling apart…and there’s still a mountain).
  • The Amazon has so many trees (200 to 300 species in a few acres compared to about 10 species in a few acres in the US) that about 50 to 70 percent of them are either misidentified or not identified at all.
  • Ocean science for the most part has only studied about 6 km below the surface, but the ocean goes down to 11 km. That’s a lot of unknown territory still to be discovered.
  • Operating a research ship can cost $30,000 a day.
  • Science doesn’t really understand why lava comes out of a volcano. But they have a lot of theories. Maybe it’s because pulses of rising and falling magma happen over and over until the chamber over-pressurizes and pushes lava to surface.

And a preview: for the next installment of Awesome Jobs in January I interviewed a researcher who managed to study a volcano in North Korea that’s almost unknown to science. She’ll talk about what North Korean scientists are like, why it’s tough to be a woman there, and why it’s easier to get to Antarctica than North Korea. Stay tuned!

Correction: Changed inference about Icelandic volcanoes' influence on French and American revolutions.