COVID-19 dominated the headlines this year, and our Breakthrough of the Year as well. But there was a lot of other important science news, and some fun stories to boot. For those of you looking for a pandemic break, here are some of our most popular non–COVID-19 stories of the year, along with some personal favorites—almost all of them stories we reported first.
Are they alive? Are they dead? Viruses are some of the strangest things on Earth. Now, scientists have discovered one that has no recognizable genes, making it the weirdest among an already weird bunch.
When it comes to weird, however, quantum physics may have biology beat. Scientists have long known that a particle can be in two places at once—yet we only ever see it here or there because the act of observing the particle “collapses” it. Now, one of the most plausible mechanisms for this collapse—gravity—has suffered a setback. Looks like it’s back to the drawing board.
No year would be complete without a cute pet story. Scientists have discovered that dog noses can sense weak thermal radiation, including the body heat of mammalian prey. The find could help explain how pups with impaired sight, hearing, or smell can still hunt successfully.
Atomic bomb testing in the early 1960s may have boosted rainfall thousands of kilometers away, researchers have found. The work could have implications for small-scale weather control—no nukes needed—and could help astronomers better understand weather patterns on other planets.
It may not be the most glamorous job in the bee world, but undertaker bees have an important role: scouring their hives for deceased comrades. Scientists have now figured out how the insects sniff out their dead, thanks to some experiments that involved heating up the corpses of perished honey bees.
If this year made you want to leave Earth behind, we have some good news: Life can theoretically survive on a planet orbiting a black hole. But a few days there would likely have you longing for home. A foreboding blackness would fill half the sky, and the black hole’s intense gravity would stretch out time so that one single year on the planet would equal thousands around an ordinary star.
Cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso may have been on to something. When everything from icebergs to rocks break apart, their pieces tend to resemble cubes, a study found. “It’s a very beautiful combination of pure mathematics, materials science, and geology,” one fan says. But not all scientists are convinced.
Computers may not need us puny humans for much longer. New software borrows concepts from Darwinian evolution to build artificial intelligence (AI) programs that improve generation after generation—all without human input. One day, this AI could even make its own AI.
It sounds like a Hollywood movie, and it might just become one. The ancient Egyptians created a backgammonlike game called senet, which, over nearly 2 millennia, evolved into an activity with deep links to the afterlife, played on a board that represented the underworld. One version of the game—sitting in a California museum—may capture the fleeting moment when senet was beginning to transform into a game of death.
How do you make our most popular non–COVID-19 news story of the year? Start with a popular dietary supplement. Add a dash of bodybuilder. And top it off with data showing antiaging effects. But before you put this one on your Christmas list, keep in mind that the study was only conducted in rodents. Oh well, it was mice while it lasted.