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We discuss our picks for the first part of our annual countdown of the ten most exciting, important, and fun stories from the world of science in 2020 during this Pulsar podcast brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ERIC: Countdowns are awesome. At the Museum of Science, our favorite countdown comes at the end of every year, when our current science and technology team makes their picks for the 10 most exciting, important, and awesome stories from the world of science from the past 12 months.
The picks are in. And today on Pulsar, we're starting our journey to answer the question, what were the top 10 science stories of 2020?
I'm your host, Eric, and joining me from our Current Science and Technology team is Sarah.
SARAH: I am so excited to talk about top 10. It's the best thing that we do all year long. And we weren't going to be stopped from doing it this year. And I'm so excited we're doing it.
ERIC: No, it was kind of up in the air all year because what usually we do is a stage presentation, which we haven't done since March because of the pandemic. And by the time November rolled around, we decided to just keep going.
And so, we got a virtual meeting together with our larger team and just threw stories at the wall for two hours and saw what stuck, and we came up with our list again.
SARAH: I will say, maybe I should just try to do it once because usually for any visitors who have been to the museum during Top 10 season, it is sort of a marathon presentation.
We try to talk about the 10 biggest science stories of the year, plus usually an honorable mention that we can't bear to not talk about. And we talk about it in 20 minutes.
So it really is sort of, you're just changing direction and changing topic and all of these things. So not doing the marathon presentation is OK. I'm OK with that. But we still have to talk about all the amazing things that happened in science this year. And I'm so glad we're doing it.
ERIC: And they were all so cool. We're only going to get to the first few today, but I did want to talk about how we make our choices as a team real quick. Because we're not trying to come up with the list of the biggest stories in the news every year.
That's part of it, but we also like to include important ones you might not have heard about, or ones we thought were just really cool, or even the ones we thought were the most likely to get people interested in science.
SARAH: And sometimes, I would even say that we are looking for the stories that are about the process of science and something amazing happening. So sometimes the stories we pick are stories that everyone will have heard of and will remember.
But sometimes we pick a story that we think might have gotten lost in the news, might have gotten overwhelmed by something else, but that represents something totally awesome that we don't want people to miss out on.
And I think that's sort of is where our balance is. It's not just the ten most liked stories of the year or anything like that. It's what we think represents some of the most amazing science that happened in the year.
ERIC: And it's amazing that all the science happened at all because the pandemic from March through December caused everything to go upside down and on its head. The fact that all the science still got done is really amazing.
SARAH: Yeah, it totally shows how this sort of communication between scientists had to go virtual as well, but still worked and still happened. And yeah, I can't wait to look at what the most amazing things that we learned this year were.
ERIC: Well, as you said, we always pick 10 and then have another story that we just couldn't take off the table. Honorable mention this year was the platypus, the duck-billed platypus, the animal from Australia that is perhaps the strangest animal on the Earth.
And if you want to just talk about how strange it is before we even get to the new part.
SARAH: Yeah, this was sort of how we started this was the person who brought this platypus story was kind of like, OK, platypus is pretty weird, right? And then, we all started to try to name all the things we know are weird about the platypus.
So obviously, the duckbill - that's pretty weird. The sort of flat beavertail - that's very strange. The fact that it lays eggs - very strange for a mammal. It also sweats milk - pretty weird. The males have venomous spurs on their back claws.
And I thought that was enough. I thought that was sufficient. But we discovered something else about them this year.
ERIC: Yeah, they glow in the dark.
SARAH: What color do they glow, Eric?
ERIC: So their fur glows that green color. It's not glowing on its own. It's biofluorescence, which means when light of a certain energy hits it, it actually gets re-emitted as lower energy light.
So we see it in lots of different animals. We see it in turtles. We see it in lots of things that live in the ocean. But we haven't seen it in too many mammals. And we've never seen it before in the duck-billed platypus.
But it totally makes sense that it would do this. I mean, it's already got all the other weird things.
SARAH: Yeah, I mean, and this is sort of similar to, if anyone's ever had those little glow in the dark stars that you would put on your ceiling. And you know that they would start to get kind of dim.
You put it in the sunlight, and then suddenly, they glow more. It's kind of the same idea. It's not something that is very obvious to see. It's kind of a dim fluorescence from what I can tell from looking at the pictures.
But like you said, Eric, there are other animals. I mean, there's some that we've known about for a long time. Like, scorpions are really, really bright, and they emit UV light.
We have some at the museum, and we'll sometimes show people. It's one of the coolest demonstrations we do. However, there is kind of this question of why, though? Why would an animal need to absorb UV light and then emit it as faint, green biofluorescence? It's very strange.
ERIC: Yeah, for a lot of the animals, it's communication or to hide from predators or involved in reproduction. But they've kind of ruled out a lot of those options for the platypus. So we don't really know. We have to keep studying it.
But that's kind of my favorite part of the story, is that we've known about this animal for thousands of years. People have been living alongside them. We've been studying them with modern science for 100 years or so.
And we can still discover something basic about them, like if you shine a UV flashlight on them, they're going to glow.
SARAH: Something that you mentioned when we were first talking about this story that made me laugh so much was that you were working at the museum when they discovered that sea turtle shells fluoresce.
And you were like, I could have been the one to discover this. That's amazing to think about.
ERIC: Right. I went in our closet, and I used the UV flashlight, and the turtle shell started glowing. And I thought if I had done this a week ago, I would have been in the news for discovering this.
And so, there's still so much biofluorescence out there in nature that we don't know about. We should probably just go around to all of our animals and collections and see what glows.
SARAH: I think it's a good idea, although, oh, boy, there are a lot of animals in our collection.
ERIC: All right, so for our actual countdown, our number 10 story is sometimes one where we have to cram another story in. We have to pick between a couple. And just sneaking in to the countdown this year was the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. It wasn't huge news, but it did break a couple of records.
SARAH: Yeah, I mean, it broke a lot of records. I think that part of this is that hurricanes are remembered often for their destructiveness. And sometimes, we don't necessarily notice if there's a lot of not that destructive hurricanes.
I will confess that a colleague of ours was really, really pushing this story and was telling us, this is a big deal. Weather people are really fascinated by the 2020 hurricane season. And I had to be convinced, but I was convinced.
ERIC: Yeah, 2020 and 2005 were the only years on record that we had to use the Greek letters because we ran out of letters in our alphabet. There were so many storms.
SARAH: Right, because we name storms alphabetically. We skip a few letters that are hard, that don't have that many names, like Q. X doesn't have that many. But yeah, they had to start going alpha, beta, gamma, all the way down to iota.
ERIC: Yeah, the first ever Hurricane Iota, ironically the largest and strongest storm of the whole season. But 2020 had the most named storms, the most landfalls in the US, the latest category five hurricane in the season. There was a lot going on.
SARAH: And there were hurricanes that made landfall, like in Mexico, and traveled all the way across to go to the Gulf of Mexico. There were lots of storms that just sort of were really intense, did make very intense landfall on the contiguous United States.
We saw this amazing graphic that the entire coastline of the United States from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine was under hurricane warning at some point, except for this tiny, little part of the panhandle of Florida, which managed to be sheltered from all the storms. So it was really a pretty remarkable hurricane season.
Eric, I know that hurricanes are really, really, really complicated. But do you remember any of the sort of reasoning behind why this season was kind of intense like this?
ERIC: Yeah, scientists had sort of predicted that this year was going to see a lot of activity, based on some things like warmer ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic, lower wind shear in the Caribbean, meaning strong storms could stay strong, and even an active monsoon season off the coast of Africa, where Atlantic hurricanes form.
So a lot of long-term and short-term patterns that can cause more or less hurricanes were all working together this year to allow 30 different storms to form.
SARAH: This does definitely show us that getting a better understanding of how hurricanes form and of the greater, really complicated systems that lead into them hopefully will get us better at predicting landfall and predicting wind speeds and things like that.
ERIC: All right, so our number nine story is one that you brought and you focused on. And it's such a cool archaeology story. And it's such a different story than a lot of the ones we've covered. So why don't you tell us about this mummy that got its voice back?
SARAH: Yeah, for a bit of behind the scenes here, Eric and I, having been top 10 just fanboys for years, we tend to, all year long, save stories. So when we read some really, really cool news story, we'll bookmark it and be like, OK, when top 10 season comes around, I'm going to pitch this.
And good thing we did because this story is from January 2020, the before times, before a lot of things started happening in the world. And it's an amazing story.
Yeah, this is a story about a mummy. The mummy is named Nesyamun. I mean, he's an old mummy. All mummies are old, I guess. But he was discovered several hundred years ago in Karnak, which is one of the major citadel locations in Egypt. It's not Cairo, but they go there in The Mummy Returns. So you see it in action.
But this is where that mummy was found. He was a priest and an incense bearer, so he had some sort of a ceremonial role in ancient Egypt. He died around 1,100 BCE. And he was really, really well mummified, like perfectly preserved.
He was discovered and brought to the University of Leeds around 200 years ago. So he's also known as the Leeds mummy. And lots of studies have been done around him.
But this year, a study was done around his voice. The reason for that is because he was some sort of a ceremonial speaker or something like that. On his sarcophagus, the hieroglyphs said Nesyamun, true of voice. And so this year, some researchers decided to try to see what that voice might have sounded like.
ERIC: Yeah, put him in a CT scan machine and 3D print his vocal tract - piece of cake.
SARAH: No big deal. Yeah, so the vocal tract is what humans talk with. So all of the parts of our body that go into making the noises that make up language pretty much goes from your lungs to your nose. It involves the sinuses and the mouth and the tongue and the teeth and the lips.
But it also, sort of the primary vocal tract goes from our larynx or voicebox up to our mouth. And Nesyamun, true of voice, these were very, very well preserved due to the position in which he was mummified and how well that preservation took place.
And so, by scanning him with 3D printing technology, they were able to recreate, 3D print, his windpipe with its own sort of unique ridges and indentations and things like that. And then, they put a little speaker box on the bottom, and they made a sound through it that would be the sound that you would get through that vocal tract.
Now, it's not the same as hearing a language. That's not something we're capable of yet. However, this is wild to imagine that we can do this sort of non-invasive, non-destructive science around ancient humans to begin to get a better idea of how speaking worked for them and how languages developed.
And all of these different questions that we can start to dig into with this, it's wild.
ERIC: I love that part of the story that they didn't have to take a mummy and then take it apart and then try to put it back together. It's completely non-invasive. So they could just scan it and then still have it.
They could preserve it. All these kind of technologies that we have now for studying all these ancient sites and ancient artifacts without destroying them or affecting them really at all, it's amazing what we can do now.
SARAH: They're also really great models for any sort of biological 3D printing, what we're talking about. So we've done stories in the past about 3D printing a pharynx to be used as an organ transplant, which is pretty crazy to think about that people are actually talking about 3D printing body parts for humans.
And this sort of technology develops, and this is a really, really cool way to learn about it. And I think now, with no further ado, do you want me to recreate the sound?
ERIC: Please do.
SARAH: OK, so they made a vowel sound through it. I brought this story to the group, as Eric said. And I got everyone all hyped up around this cool story. And then I was like, are you ready to hear the sound? And the sound is basically ehh.
Let me do it one more time. Ehh. I know it doesn't sound impressive. It is really amazing that they were able to make a vowel sound through this.
They have other sort of plans to try to see what they can do to try to change their speaker box, voice box, and see what sort of different things they can make.
Moreover, this is just a story about the triumph of technology and archaeology and how it can help us to be non-invasive, while still learning more about these amazing civilizations, like ancient Egypt, that fascinate us all so much.
ERIC: That's it for part one. We'll continue our countdown with number eight in Part Two. Until next time, keep asking questions.
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