SCIENCE NEWS of the Year

By Miller, Julie Ann | Science News, December 18, 1999 | Go to article overview
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SCIENCE NEWS of the Year


Miller, Julie Ann, Science News


When I was a graduate student, my professors would react with scorn to an experiment that took what they called a brute-force approach. The word that they used for admired work was elegant. In an elegant experiment, the researcher would have used a clever twist of logic to reveal a universal truth from the outcome of a simple test. Massive amounts of data had no splendor.

Times have certainly changed. This year, biologists won acclaim for their progress in a task that they are tackling with the combined force of labs all around the world. Sequencing the human genome's hundreds of millions of base pairs was unimaginable 25 years ago. Similarly, astronomers are collecting huge amounts of data in ambitious surveys of the heavens. This work is revealing distant quasars, brown dwarfs, and galaxies. Physicists, too, are sifting through enormous quantities of data from accelerator experiments to find the odd event that signifies a difference in how laws of physics apply to matter and antimatter.

Part of the change in attitude comes from the ever-increasing capabilities of computers. This month, scientists unveiled the design for a machine that would perform more than a quadrillion operations per second.

When a mass of data becomes available, however, questions often appear faster than they are answered. The recent achievement of sequencing most of an entire chromosome still leaves a daunting task. To make medical advances, scientists must pick out the 500 or so genes and learn what each one does. Such knowledge may lead to diagnostic techniques, pharmaceutical treatments, or even gene therapy.

Carrying out this work calls for more brute force but also an intelligent, even cunning, approach. In biology and other fields, future progress will require manipulating massive sets of data with powerful strategies that are also elegant.

Anthropology & Archaeology

* Researchers concluded that chimpanzees develop cultural traditions much like those of humans (155: 388).

* A 24,500-year-old child's skeleton found in Portugal sparked debate over possible inter breeding of Neandertals and modern humans (155: 295*).

* Archaeologists discovered the mummified bodies of three children sacrificed by the Incas around 500 years ago (155: 244).

* Fossils unearthed in Africa come from a new species in the human evolutionary family that lived about 2.5 million years ago (155: 262).

* A broken stone point provided direct evidence that Neandertals hunted animals with spears (156: 4). Neandertals also had a taste for cannibalism (156: 213*), although that didn't stop them from surviving a surprisingly long time in Europe (156: 277).

* A nuclear DNA analysis offered an intriguing new view of modern-human origins (155: 181). Researchers reached a stalemate in discerning what mitochondrial DNA studies reveal about human evolution (155: 88*).

* Bone flutes uncovered at a 9,000-year-old Chinese village included the earliest known complete, playable musical instrument (156: 197).

* An African fossil find suggested that ancient apes branched out in several directions 15 million years ago (156: 132), while other fossils fueled controversy over whether anthropoids originated in Asia or Africa (156: 244*).

* Observations of widely varying sleep patterns in traditional societies suggested that scientists need to launch cross-cultural studies of sleep (156: 205*).

Astronomy

* For the first time, astronomers discovered a planet by observing a slight dimming when the body passed in front of its parent star (156: 324*). Researchers also found a system of planets outside the solar system (155: 244*). These discoveries and others brought the total number of known extrasolar planets to 28 (156: 106, 377).

* Images suggested that three nearby, young stars harbor planets (155: 20*). Scientists suggested that stars with an abundance of heavy elements may be the most likely to spawn planets (155: 79) and that most newborn stars have the potential to make planets (156: 231).

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