It was the beginning of a new decade, and the birth of a new Sunday newspaper. We had decided to make science one of our main areas of specialist interest. As we look back more than a quarter of a century, many of the science-related stories we covered during that first year of The Independent on Sunday’s existence still have resonance today – whether it concerns human genetics and IVF embryo research or fears over the “dual use” of science for civil and military purposes.
During 1990 we attempted to document the onward march of scientific progress, denoted by “breakthroughs” in everything from DNA fingerprinting technology, which allowed the police to identify criminals from a single hair shaft, to fresh insights into the origins of the universe.
If journalism is the first draft of history, then we can perhaps be forgiven for overlooking the importance of some of the scientific achievements that were to make their mark in the coming decades. However, there were still many topics we covered that have turned out to have long-lasting implications for science and society.
The first Gulf War was still a year away, but Saddam Hussein’s apparent attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction occupied many column inches. Iraqi nationals had been caught trying to smuggle small electronic devices known as krytons through Heathrow airport.
Krytons are super-fast triggers for switching high-voltage currents and are used in a range of innocuous scientific applications. As we revealed, they were to be found lying around many a university laboratory. However, they can also be used to detonate the conventional explosive charge of a nuclear bomb, which is what Iraq was thought to be interested in.
A few weeks later, the media’s attention focused on Iraq’s apparent attempts to build a supergun, a massive artillery device that could fire munitions – possibly including nuclear devices – over many hundreds of miles. It was thought to be a neat way around the military problem of delivering an atomic weapon when your air force or missile systems were not up to scratch.
Scientists were called in to advise on whether pipes made in a Sheffield steel plant and destined for Iraq could have the dual function of delivering oil as well as artillery. It was not such a daft question. A year earlier, a freelance artillery “genius” called Gerald Bull had been assassinated in Paris, almost certainly because of his role in advising Middle East states on the use of giant superguns.
Bubbling away in the background was a health scare in the making. Cows up and down the country were going wobbly at the knees before keeling over and dying. The press called it “mad cow” disease, while scientists preferred the official name of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
That year, government ministers went into overdrive in their attempt to reassure the public. Perhaps the most memorable photo opportunity was that of John Selwyn Gummer, the then agriculture minister, attempting to feed a hamburger to his reluctant four-year-old daughter, Cordelia.
“British beef can continue to be eaten safely by everyone, adults and children,” Mr Gummer later told the House of Commons while criticising the “alarmist reporting” by newspapers for highlighting concerns about the spread of BSE to humans.
But in the same year, other things happened that should have raised alarm bells. A cat called Max developed something remarkably similar to BSE and calves had apparently been infected with BSE from their mothers. Six years later, government ministers had to perform one of the biggest U-turns in political history by admitting that BSE can indeed be transmitted from cows to humans by eating infected beef products. It became one of the decade’s defining public-health scandals, where politicians made unqualified statements about there being “no risk to health”.
Meanwhile, the Human Embryology Bill was working its way through Parliament. Ever since the Warnock report of the previous decade, scientists had been a central part of the debate over the new technology of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The Bill would put Britain ahead of the world by enshrining in law the legal right for scientists to research on IVF embryos up to 14 days old.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
Advisers had recommended a 14-day time limit because this was before the appearance in human embryological development of something called the “primitive streak” – the first unambiguous tissue in an early embryo.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was a pioneering piece of legislation in many ways, which would control the new IVF fertility techniques through properly licensed clinics. However, developments in science soon meant that the legal framework became hopelessly out of date. The Act underwent a major revision in 2008 to allow, among other things, the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research purposes– something that would have been considered science fiction just 20 years earlier.
There were other serious issues involving science that were to loom much larger in the public consciousness. The most notable perhaps was a little-known problem known as global warming. It burst on to the political scene in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher delivered a remarkable speech on the wider significance of climate change. We were probably the first newspaper to highlight the scientific unknowns in temperature projections – called positive feedbacks – when a rise in temperature can in itself lead to change in the climate system that causes further temperature increases.
Not everything was doom and gloom back in 1990. Batsmen in county cricket matches were scoring record runs. Many experts – including the IoS's cricket-mad news editor, Peter Wilby – thought it might have something to do with the new balls introduced that year by the Test and County Cricket Board. The board hoped that the lowering of the ball’s seam height would redress the balance between batsmen and bowlers. But some thought the board had gone too far and brought in scientists to prove their point. In the event, everyone had to agree that swing bowling relied on factors other than seam height, such as how much beer a batsman had drunk the night before, and was ultimately beyond scientific analysis.Reuse content