Science: Familiar stories and would-be discoveries

Science frequently surprises us with the wholly unexpected. On occasions it reveals the blindingly obvious, and sometimes it merely confirms our deeply held prejudices. On all three counts, this year proved to be no exception. It was billed as the biggest story of the year; but the publication of the map of the human genome must have felt surpisingly familiar to those who remembered the previous year's announcement that the maps had been finished.

Science frequently surprises us with the wholly unexpected. On occasions it reveals the blindingly obvious, and sometimes it merely confirms our deeply held prejudices. On all three counts, this year proved to be no exception. It was billed as the biggest story of the year; but the publication of the map of the human genome must have felt surpisingly familiar to those who remembered the previous year's announcement that the maps had been finished.

Neither was it much of a surprise that the argument over life on Mars continued in 2001. The dispute is between those who believe that a Martian meteorite contains evidence of primitive life, and those who don't. The row is unlikely to be resolved until someone actually finds evidence for life on the red planet itself.

A less controversial piece of science this year threw up some surprising conclusions as well as confirming our suspicions about the state of the planet. Not that few people nowadays go around believing that all is well with the world, but it took a powerfully written study published in July to describe just how bad things have become – even for the vast remoteness of the oceans. Scientists showed that, far from being the last great refuge that many people assume them to be, the seas are now a sad shadow of their former glory. A team of 19 marine ecologists found that today's oceans are veritable deserts compared with what existed many centuries ago. And man, they concluded, is the culprit.

Even when humans try to improve things for endangered wildlife, they can end up making things worse. There was no better example of this than in a study published in April of the protected habitats of the giant panda in the Wolong nature reserve in central Sichuan province, China.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature established these reserves, with Chinese government help, more than 40 years ago, expecting them to help the world's most lovable endangered species. But the pandas in the reserve are having a harder time than those living in adjacent, unprotected forests. The team of Chinese and American scientists that carried out the research concluded that it was the special status of the reserves, which stimulated tourism and human activity, that had led to the panda doing so badly.

In 2001, we also said goodbye to Sir Fred Hoyle, the British cosmologist and inventor of the term "Big Bang", even though he was one of its biggest detractors. Sir Fred will be remembered best for his explanation of how the chemical elements were formed in the nuclear cauldrons of the stars – in effect proving that all of us are made of star-dust.

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