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Published on January 23rd, 2015 | by Russ Dobler

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ICYMI: The Top 4 Nerdy Science Stories of 2014

Come with me as we travel faster than light, into the past – all the way to the year 2014! 

Okay, it wasn’t that long ago. Chances are you’re still putting that number on your checks (or you would, if everything wasn’t digital). Yes, we live in the future! And we were in such a hurry to get here, that we skipped right over December! So I figure it’s okay to jump back a bit and examine the advances from last year that matter most to nerd culture. Forget Ebola outbreaks and plastic rocks; how close are we to CYBORGS?

1.  Mind-Controlled Prosthetic Limbs

Closer every day. Although really, with hip replacements, cochlear implants and pacemakers, it’s not hard to find folks that already have a little Terminator in ‘em. Still, that’s not exactly our vision of a man that’s part machine. Show me a metal arm, Bucky!

The Winter Soldier can control his cybernetic limb with his thoughts, just like it was part of him, and now double-amputee Les Baugh can do the same. Baugh lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, but in 2014 he was the subject of work performed by Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that fitted him with programmed prosthetics that know what he wants. The artificial arms read Baugh’s muscle movements and, behold, obey accordingly:

Huffington Post

As you can see, Baugh’s not quite ready to slug it out with Captain America, but it’s a lot better than a hook hand. And, unlike Bucky Barnes, nothing’s permanently attached; the prosthetics slip right off. Good for Baugh, because the arms are a work in progress and he probably doesn’t want to be stuck in the lab like a brainwashed assassin while they’re perfected.

2.  Return of the Martians

Most famously in H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” invaders from the red planet were popular earthling antagonists for ages, until we got a closer look at the fourth rock from the sun and realized it’s a cold, desolate place with almost no atmosphere to speak of. But it wasn’t always like that.

Life has never been confirmed on Mars, despite hold-your-breath moments from the Viking landers and a Martian meteorite that, in the end, couldn’t quite pass muster. The evidence for lots of liquid water –the most essential thing for life – continues to pool, though, again thanks to both probes and meteorites. The Curiosity rover identified lake bed sediments that probably took 10 million years or so to form, and new meteorite research suggests a good deal of that missing Martian water may actually still be there, under the surface.

Sedimentary rocks? From NASA

Perhaps more important was Curiosity’s first ever confirmation of organic carbon on Mars. The rover also detected occasional bursts of methane, the natural gas that’s often associated with past or even present biologic activity. Unfortunately for those seeking little green men, Mars is a strange place where inorganic processes can fool us by producing the stuff, too. And while it sounds enticing, it’s not like we haven’t noticed methane there before. John Carter might want to hold off a bit before planning his empire.

3.  Where no Man Has Gone Before

Mars too close to home for ya? Think the in-laws might still be able to pop in unexpectedly? Hoping you could boldly go deeper into space and not spend a lifetime doing so?

In “Star Trek,” the crew of the USS Enterprise uses what they call a “warp drive” to overcome the cosmic speed limit enforced by light itself, deforming space around the vessel and breaking the law on a technicality. While still solely in the wheelhouse of science fiction, NASA engineer Harold G. White claimed in 2014 that a two-week journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our system at four light years away, is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Depending on the interpretation, Einstein’s relativity can allow for something like warped travel to really happen, but nothing like it has ever been shown experimentally, even at small scales. White tried to create “warp bubbles” in the lab last year, but his results came up inconclusive and not many of his colleagues were persuaded. Not to mention that such a mode of transport, according to the original model, would require an unfathomable amount of fuel. But hey, at least he’s keeping it on the table!

And there are some new concept images! Pretty! Let your imagination run and hope you live another 500 years to potentially see it.

From NASA

4.  Abstract Brutes

Come back to Earth for a second and consider that imagination that lets us envision interstellar voyages and allows the creativity inherent in producing our favorite genres. It’s long been known that Neanderthal man was not one of our direct ancestors – more like a cousin – although recent discoveries have shown that a few of the rugged hominid’s genes still exist in us, so at least some interbreeding must have occurred. But could they have thought like us, too?

Credit: Stewart Finlayson

Conventional wisdom has held that one of the things separating us from other species of humans is the capacity for abstract thought. The representation of ideas through symbols or art is staggeringly difficult to comprehend and little evidence exists to suggest Neanderthals or other hominids had such proficiency. That is, until this rock carving was discovered in Spain:

It’s no graphic novel, but researcher Clive Finlayson is convinced these gouges, found in a known Neanderthal hangout, were deliberate and meaningful. Finlayson and his team estimate that 300 strikes were required to create the grid pattern; the creator obviously had something to get off his chest. Of course, this is no proof of regular Neanderthal art, but symbols are only a step away, so they may have been more like us than previously believed. One can only imagine if the ancient, stout humanoids also argued about the continuity between sequential grid patterns.  

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About the Author

Better known as "Dog" to friends and weirdos, Russ specializes in the intersection between science and culture. He helps promote critical thinking with the New York City Skeptics, blogs at The Thoughtful Conduit and drinks beer wherever he can find a nice tap selection.



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