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SMC Heads-Up: Top science stories of 2012, next SAVVY

Issue 212 21 December - 10 January


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The big science stories of 2012
2012 was mercifully free of major disaster-related science stories for New Zealand with the exception of this month's fatal "microbust" in West Auckland.

But plenty of science-related stories captured headlines and kept the SMC busy. Check out our archive of rapid round-ups to see some of the commentary we gathered from scientists on fracking, freshwater quality, infectious diseases, Tongariro eruption, Ross Sea protection, alcohol and tobacco policy, the Kiwifruit blight and many more issues.

Here's our picks for the top science stories of the year - picked from a top 10 list put together by our colleagues at the AusSMC in Adelaide.

1. Physicists found signs of the Higgs boson - CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) announced in July that the long-sought-after Higgs boson is real following a series of experiments conducted in the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs boson, first postulated by Peter Higgs in the 1960s and often referred to as the 'God particle', explains why mass exists, and is the final particle required to confirm the Standard Model of physics.

2. Curiosity landed on the red planet - NASA's $US2.5bn rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August. After a 36-week voyage, the rover has started studying potentially habitable Martian environments.

3. Our genome was unravelled - Far from being junk, the vast majority of our DNA acts in at least one biochemical event in at least one cell type, according to the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project. Analysing the entire genome to map regions of function and modification has expanded our understanding of how our blueprint is modified, and has identified new leads for understanding the genetic basis of many common diseases. ENCODE was published in over thirty research papers in four journals, including Nature.

4. First embryonic stem cell study in humans was completed - In the first report of embryonic stem cells being used in humans for any purpose, US researchers reported that transplants for eye disease (macular degeneration) in two patients appeared safe and gave them some improvement in vision after four months. This was published in the The Lancet.

5. Rare transit of Venus returned - In June, the planet Venus passed in front of the Sun for only the eighth time since the invention of telescope, and onlookers in cloud-shrouded New Zealand were lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

Interestingly, in the top Google searches for NZ in 2012, the Transit of Venus came third after Kim Dotcom and Tongariro in the news event category, and ahead of the Marmite crisis and the new Give Way rule.
On the science radar...
Champagne cork warning, Christmas tree ecosystems, bonobo handymen, Antarctic alien invaders and the punchline to human hand evolution.
Science Media SAVVY - Auckland
The SMC will be holding another two-day Science Media Savvy training programme in Auckland in March 2013, following on from the very successful workshop in Christchurch earlier this year.

Save the date: The workshop is planned for the 14-15th of March 2013. More details on applications will be sent out early next year.
Apocalypse...later?
New Zealand academics are not expecting the world to end today, citing the poor track record of doomsday predictions thus far, but they note that human belief systems don't always follow rational lines of thinking.

The date December 21st, 2012 (today), is at the centre of a number of vague theories which predict an impending apocalypse and have attracted growing media attention.

Actual believers in the 2012 predictions are very thin on the ground, but this hasn't stopped the media from covering the issue extensively.

In response to growing interest, the US space agency NASA has provided a number of resources offering more information about the 2012 phenomenon and debunking many of the assertions made by doomsday theorists.

Earlier this week, the Science Media Centre in New Zealand has contacted experts seeking insights into the basis of such theories and why they persist in the face of contrary evidence.

Dr Matthew Dentith, Faculty Member, Department of Philosophy, University of Auckland, said:

"All doomsday theories thus far have relied upon controversial interpretations of their supporting evidence. For example, the Mayan Long Count Calendar does not predict a catastrophe on the 21st of December but, rather, the end of a cycle. To infer that the end of a cycle entails an apocalypse is like claiming the world is going to end because the year is coming to a close.

"Even if the evidence wasn't controversial, the actual argument doesn't strongly suggest, let alone entail, that we should believe there is going to be a worldwide calamity this Friday. Given the poor track record of doomsday predictions in general and the various other rival, non-doomsday hypotheses, the 21st of December, 2012, is likely to be as interesting as the 21st of December, 2011 or, indeed, any random day of the year.

Prof Marc Wilson, Victoria University Wellington, noted that even the outright absence of cataclysmic event may not lead to some people admitting they were wrong:

"What will happen when people awaiting doomsday inevitably wake up on the 22nd and everything's still there?

"This is a fundamentally uncomfortable position to be in because we all have a drive to believe that we're rational and sensible rather than gullible and credulous! The phenomenon is technically called cognitive dissonance.

"Well, people will deal with this through rationalisation. Some will rationalise it by claiming they didn't believe it in the first place (sour grapes type behaviour) and they will really convince themselves that this was the case. Some will rationalise it by revisiting the evidence and finding the flaw that leads to them to what the REAL date will be (and it starts over again)."

You can read extensive further commentary from both these researchers on the Science Media Centre website.
Seasons greetings from the SMC team!

It has been a busy year for the Science Media Centre and we've enjoyed working with old friends in science and the media and welcoming newcomers to the fold. Thanks for your support in what has been another big news year.

SMC Christmas/New Year hours:

Dec 21st - closed from 2pm
Jan 9th - SMC re-opens

We'll be on hand to help with queries throughout the holiday period should breaking news require scientific input. Contact SMC manager Peter Griffin - (021 859 365 peter@sciencemediacentre.co.nz) should you require assistance over the holiday break.

Merry Xmas and a safe and happy New Year!

Quoted: The Press

"If people actually believed in the end times - and economists have done work on this - then people would have pulled all the money out of their banks, they would have stopped saving and wouldn't be investing."


- Dr Eric Crampton, University of Canterbury


New from the SMC

Reflections on Science:

Skeptical: In the New Zealand Herald, Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to Vicki Hyde, spokeswoman for the NZ Skeptics Society, just ahead of this week's supposed End of the World.

Experts Respond:

Apocalyptic: Experts explore why some people believe in doomsday predictions like the Mayan 2012 theory.

Evan approaching NZ: Climate expert Jim Salinger comments on the possibility that a weakened cyclone Evan will continue on from Samoa and Fiji to New Zealand.

Mental health : A UK expert comments on mental heal issues associated with mass shootings, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
In the news:

Einstein Medal: A New Zealand scientist has been awarded a prestigious medal in recognition of his furthering the work of Albert Einstein.

Is Modern Medicine Killing You?: the titular question posed by a recent NZ TV series, got a full check-up on Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch this weekend.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Return of Forensic Scientist! Anna Sandiford is back with a rundown of the most intersting and downright odd forensic science presentations she has given over the year.
Forensic Scientist

Pluralism and health - You can put the gross smoking picture on the box, but can you stop an individual from covering it up? wonders Eric Crampton.
The Dismal Science

What causes didymo blooms in NZ rivers? Freshwater ecologist Cathy Kilroy tackles the slippery issue of the invasive 'rock snot' in New Zealand streams.
Waiology


Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Overindulging could knock hours off your life: Taking it easy on the food and drink this festive season can have a positive effect on you life expectancy - but how can we quantify it? A UK statistician has devised a system of breaking down life expectancy into 'microlives '(loosely equivalent to one millionth of life after age 35). He calculates that, averaged over a lifetime habit, a microlife can be "lost" from smoking two cigarettes, being 5 kg overweight, having a second or third alcoholic drink of the day, or eating a burger.
BMJ

TV Dinners: Celebrity chefs might be out to tantalise your tastebuds but they certainly don't have your waistline in mind, according to a new study. Researchers compared the nutritional content of television chefs' recipes with that of supermarket ready to eat meals and found the chefs' dishes contained significantly more energy, protein, fat, and saturated fat than their humble supermarket counterparts.
BMJ

Possum vaccine: Possums are a major contributor to the spread of TB in livestock. The latest results from an ongoing New Zealand research programme show that oral vaccine confers TB protection in wild possums for up to 28 months. The authors state that the "longevity of protection demonstrated here shows that an operable wildlife vaccine against TB is feasible," and say that the next step is field trials at a population level.
Vaccine

Making a meal of mealworms: Food enthusiasts interested in sustainable farm practices may soon have a new meat alternative: insects. Beetle larvae (called mealworms) farms produce more edible protein, require less land and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional farms for chicken, pork, beef or milk.
PLOS ONE

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Food safety: New Zealand this week signed an agreement with the US recognising each other's food safety systems as providing a comparable degree of food safety assurance.

Mental health: The Ministry of Health has this week signalled the launch of 'Rising to the Challenge', a new national five-year plan for mental health and addiction setting priorities for action until 2017.


Upcoming sci-tech events
Making Science Work - Public lecture by Sir Paul Nurse - University of Auckland 17, Jan Wellington, 18 Jan, Auckland
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


ENDS

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