Top 10 Science Stories Of 2013: From Drone Delivery To Exploding Meteors

By Ben Wolford on December 24, 2013 12:00 PM EST

If you only read science news this year, you'd think we were living in some dystopian, high-tech world where there are superstorms, exploding meteors, soaring atmospheric carbon levels, drones whizzing around and computers that learn and carry on conversations. All of that happened, and while, granted, some of the technology is in early stages, it's been a momentous year for scientific discovery.

The International Science Times has gotten together and created the top 10 science stories of 2013, a snapshot of the current state of research, health and design.

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1. Chicken Little was right. Chelyabinsk Meteor hits Russia.

A photographer captured the meteor trace. Photo/Flickr
A photographer captured the meteor trace. Photo: Flickr/Alex Alishevskikh


For the first time in living memory, a meteor exploded against the earth's atmosphere, causing about 1,000 injuries in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February. The Chelyabinsk Meteor was 12,000 tons, traveled toward us at 40,000 mph and got so hot on entry that it burst, unleashing a force 30 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb.

2. Now available: The spermless stem cell.

Scientists have cloned the embryonic stem cell using skin cells. Photo: Oregon Health and Science University
Scientists have cloned the embryonic stem cell using skin cells. Photo: Oregon Health and Science University


Human embryonic stem cells hold immense promise for medical treatments because they can become any cell. Harness that potential, and scientists can help people replace damaged cells. The problem was always the ethical quandry of destroying cells that could turn into a baby. This year, instead of using fertilized eggs, researchers in Oregon have cloned stem cells by removing the DNA from the nucleus of an egg and replacing it with the DNA of an 8-month-old's skin cell.

3. Carbon emissions still rising.

Scientists say carbon emissions set new records again. Photo: Shutterstock
Scientists say carbon emissions set new records again. Photo: Shutterstock


Carbon emissions rose by more than 2 percent in 2013, setting new pollution records at a time when climatologists say the earth is heating at a dangerously fast pace. As expected, China and the United States are the world's leading exporters of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, though the U.S., it turns out, has done a nice job cutting back. (China and India, notably, have not.)

4. The age of the drone.

Drone technology has taken off this year.
Drone technology has taken off this year. Photo: Shutterstock


Everybody's talking about drones these days. Jeff Bezos made the biggest splash when he promised same-day drone delivery from Amazon. But drone technology has been growing and becoming more affordable. And we're not just talking about flying, helicopter-like spies/couriers. People are designing cheap underwater explorers priced low enough to turn anybody into Jacque Cousteau.

5. Early humans had inter-species sex (with Neanderthals, etc.).

Humans interbred with other sub-human species, genome analysis suggests. Photo: Shutterstock
Humans interbred with other sub-human species, genome analysis suggests. Photo: Shutterstock


You may be part French or part Puerto Rican. But new research suggests that most of you are also part Neanderthal — about 2 percent, they say, if your ancestry is non-African. According to the analysis of genetic data, native people of Oceania are part Denisovan, and there's another bit of non-human genetic information there, the species of which is a mystery. All of the research, revealed at the Royal Society in London in November, suggests that early humans had more interesting sex lives than previously thought.

6. We're (probably) not alone.

There are potentially 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy. Photo: Shutterstock
There are potentially 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy. Photo: Shutterstock


Scientists answered a key question in the search for extra-terrestrial life: How many habitable planets are there? In our Milky Way galaxy alone, about 40 billion, according to an estimate released in November. The revelation was so groundbreaking, a University of California Berkeley astronomer said, "I'm feeling a little tingly." All the planets are roughly the same size as earth and the same distance from their suns.

7. A breakthrough in the fight against HIV/AIDS

A newborn was
A newborn was "functionally cured" of HIV. Photo: Shutterstock


Eighteen months after ceasing aggressive treatment of a newborn with HIV, the toddler remained free of the disease. Scientists say the child was born to an HIV-positive mother. Treatment began promptly, and the virus never took hold in the immune cells. "The child's experience, the authors of the report say, provides compelling evidence that HIV-infected infants can achieve viral remission if anti-retroviral therapy begins within hours or days of infection," Johns Hopkins University said.

8. The biggest storm ever to hit land happened.

Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful storm ever to make landfall. Photo: Shutterstock
Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful storm ever to make landfall. Photo: Shutterstock


According to Scientific American quoting experts, Typhoon Haiyan was "the strongest storm to ever make landfall." Three other recorded storms were stronger, but none hit land as Haiyan did on The Philippenes in November. Its sustained winds were 190-195 mph when it hit. All told, Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people, and thousands more remain missing.

9. Computers keep getting smarter and faster.

This computer, called the Never Ending Image Learner, can
This computer, called the Never Ending Image Learner, can "see" parts of images and piece together bits of common sense knowledge.


They aren't self-aware yet, but computers are becoming more and more capable of learning and interacting with humans. Researchers in Pittsburgh have created a computer that looks at millions of pictures and begins to see relationships between them: Babies have eyes, for example. There are robots in development that learn how to bring elderly people the correct medication. And the Japanese just sent a robot into space intended to one day be able to converse on such a level that it will ease the loneliness of isolated people.

10. And finally: The world's slowest drip finally fell — and researchers finally saw it.

The drip finally dropped after seven years. Photo: Screenshot/Trinity College Dublin
The drip finally dropped after seven years. Photo: Screenshot/Trinity College Dublin


One of the world's longest-running lab experiments is finally over. It involves tar pitch, a substance that seems to be a solid at first glance, but is actually a tremendously slow flowing liquid — and it takes about seven to 13 years for a drop to form and fall. When the drip drops, though, it falls in the blink of an eye. That's what's been so frustrating. At Trinity College Dublin, scientists have been trying to witness the drip since 1944. In the early days before good cameras, they had to watch it. You can imagine how that went; they kept missing it. For 69 years they missed it.

In 2000, they put a camera on the drop. But when it fell, the camera malfunctioned. This year, finally, with a webcam live-streaming the slow-motion entertainment across the globe, it fell at 5 p.m. July 11. You can watch a video of the drip here.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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