By Caitlin Bromfield, Online Science and Technology Editor
Online Science Editor, Caitlin Bromfield, reviews some of the most important science news of 2018.
From warnings of future climate change disasters to fossilised human teeth, 2018 was another year of breakthroughs and discoveries with science appearing in many of the headlines. As the year draws to a close we take a look back at some of the biggest and most interesting science stories of 2018.
Jawbone of early man gives insight into human migration
The discovery of a fossilised human jawbone in Israel suggests that homo sapiens left Africa much earlier than previously thought. Isotopic dating revealed that the fossil is up to 194,000 years old, suggesting migration occurred around 80,000 years earlier than previous evidence. A paper published in the journal Science in January, reveals details of the discovery.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University who led the search at the Misliya cave site describe the discovery as “a revolution in the way we understand the evolution of our own species”. The Misliya study further confirms the possibility based on recent evidence that homo sapiens could have lived alongside, and even mated with, other human species such as Neanderthals. The find suggests that there were a number of migrations between Africa and Asia/Europe but that earlier migrations ‘failed’ for some reason, given that the living population can trace their roots back to a migration that occurred 60,000 years ago.
First laboratory grown human eggs
In February researchers from the University of Edinburgh announced that they had successfully grown the first human egg, pushing the boundaries of fertility treatment. The study provides a key insight into the growth of human eggs, a process which is not fully understood.
Women are born with all their immature eggs, which then begin to reach maturity after puberty, with some eggs maturing decades later. The successful result follows the culmination of decades of research into the area; in 2016 Japanese scientists reported the first baby mice from laboratory grown eggs. The growth of such eggs requires a carefully controlled laboratory environment; research has shown that only 10% of eggs grown in the lab are able to reach maturity.
The work conducted at the university is promising; however there are still many ethical issues to consider with this area of research.
World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking dies
In March of this year, the world famous physicist and author Stephen Hawking died aged 76. His life follows a remarkable story; he was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease at the age of 22 and told he had a few years to live. The scientist pioneered many areas of physics including introducing a theory of cosmology and the discovery of Hawking radiation (where black holes ultimately disappear after emitting vast amounts of energy). He wrote a number of popular science books alongside appearances on TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory. Hawking has been named as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century and continues to inspire a generation of future scientists.
Interesting interactions with the Higgs Boson
Following the observed interaction of the Higgs Boson with the top quark in April, the observation of the decay of a Higgs Boson to pairs of bottom quarks was made later in the year. The discovery made by ATLAS was reported at the International Conference on High Energy Physics in July. For the discovery to be made, the decay had to occur at the ‘five sigma’ level (meaning rate of decay occurs at greater than one in three million to exclude the possibility that it is a result of background ‘noise’). The observation confirms the belief that the Higgs Boson contributes to the mass of both top and bottom quarks. The work is celebrated as a great success and provides a platform for further research into our understanding of the Higgs Boson and its relation to the Standard Model.
12-mile-wide lake found on Mars
In late July researchers from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics discovered a 12 mile wide body of liquid water below the surface of Mars’ south pole. The discovery was made in partnership with the European Space Agency using radar data from their Mars Express Orbiter to detect the lake. The research follows on from the observation in 2015 of ‘dark stripes’ visible on the surface of Mars suspected of being ‘water flows’, however, this prediction was dismissed last year when a report was published suggesting that it was no more than rock granules. The discovery suggests that this is the largest known stable body of water on Mars to be discovered to date and is our most promising chance yet of finding evidence for microbial life of Mars.
Plastic discovered in our water
Evidence published by Orb Media and the State University of New York suggested that an average of 10 particles of plastic can be found per litre of bottled drinking water. The study compiled data from 250 bottles of drinking water from 11 brands (including most popular brands) bought in 9 different countries. The evidence suggested that 93% of bottled water contains microplastic particles. With all companies claiming to maintain high quality standards, the evidence suggests a wider issue with plastic in our sources. Although there is no evidence that consuming these microplastics causes harm, the findings are worrying and come at the a time when legislators are introducing measures to combat plastic use worldwide.
2018 was a year of memorable science stories, we can only wonder what 2019 will bring.
Featured Image:Nasa/ Unsplash
What was your favourite science story of 2018? Let us know!