2014, the year that was: Science + Technology

The future of the Parkes radio telescope in doubt in a climate of cutbacks. Flickr/Steve Dorman, CC BY-NC

It’s been a year of incredible feats in science and technology but also a year of uncertainty too as the Australian government’s budget proposed changes to the funding for universities and cut funding to a number of research bodies.

There were job losses at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and a loss of valuable expertise which the staff association fears will continue in 2015. Doubts too over the future of research at some CSIRO facilities including the Parkes radio telescope.

The other funding cuts hit the Australian Research Council, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and Australian Institute of Marine Science, described by Suzanne Cory, then President of the Australian Academy of Science, as a “backwards” move for Australia and lacking any “overall long-term strategy”.

But despite the gloom over funding and cutbacks for science and technology, what were the achievements over the past 12 months?

The future for science

Many of the challenges facing science over the next decade or so were highlighted in our Australia 2025 series, beginning and ending with articles by Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb.

The conversation continued on how to engage people in science. The battle continued against climate change denial with more advice on how to deal with any climate change myths.

We dealt with conspiracy theories and trolls and found a way to get people to understand a scientific argument was to listen first to their concerns.

Then tragedy strikes

One of the biggest tragedies of the year was the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March en-route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. From the very beginning it was unclear what could have happened to the aircraft with 239 passengers and crew on board.

A search over the original flight path found nothing. A relook at the limited aircraft data saw the search diverted to off Western Australia, some of the toughest ocean waters in the world.

Listening for pings form MH370 – The Bluefin 21 Artemis autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is hoisted back on board the Australian navy vessel Ocean Shield. Flickr/Official US Navy, CC BY

The searchers turned to satellite images of potential aircraft debris for help and underwater listening devices in the hope of locating the flight data recorders – the famous black box that was an Australian invention.

The search for any debris is continuing off WA and the ongoing mystery of the disappearance raised questions about the technology used in tracking commercial planes.

The airline suffered another tragedy in July when flight MH17 was downed over the Ukraine on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board. This time the debris was easily located – though in a region of rebel fighting – and it turned to forensic investigators to try to identify as many of the recovered bodies as possible.

The mysterious universe

The ongoing mysteries of the universe continued to throw up some interesting results including the discovery of what is thought to be the oldest known star and early images from the new ASKAP radio telescope array in Western Australia.

There was much excitement too following the announcement of the first evidence of gravitational waves in the afterglow of the Big Bang. But that was short lived though as the findings may have been clouded by dust within our own galaxy.

Still, it raised the debate of the origins of the universe – even the multiverse. There was debate too on a new way of thinking of parallel worlds.

Closer to home the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to orbit a comet and land the Philae probe on its surface caused much excitement.

The Rosetta deploys Philae to land on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam, Author provided

The probe bounced off the surface of the comet before eventually landing on its side which reduced its solar-powered potential. Still, it did manage to send some interesting data back on organic matter on the comet before going to sleep.

Breakthroughs this year

New discoveries of the year included Element 117, also known as ununseptium, adding to our understanding of superheavy elements.

More thinking on how dinosaurs evolved to be smaller and became birds. Birds too got some attention looking back on bird evolution from dinosaurs.

Marks on a shell prompted a rethink on early humans dating back half a million years while hashtag marks found carved into rock could be the first example of Neanderthal artwork.

We found fish had sex sideways, and that the first sexual organs in fish evolved as an extra pair of legs.

Our series on understanding research highlighted the stuff-ups we make in interpretation, discerning when nothing means something and why “proof” is a hollow word.

We learnt more about insect evolution, how to repel mozzies, how different creatures see the colour world and indulged in a few night sky observations including a supermoon.

Out with the old

Microsoft finally ended support for its Windows XP operating system, despite the software’s popularity. But its Windows 8 proved unpopular and needed upgrades of its own leading to speculation that Windows 9 would soon be roiled out soon … or even bypassed in favour of Windows 10 in 2015.

Rival Apple, long claimed to be resistant to virus attack, found itself caught up in the Bash bug. But this was nothing compared to the problems the Heartbleed bug caused, potentially exposing the personal and financial data of millions of people stored online.

Security online too was an issue with eBay and others the victim of hack attacks and iCloud passwords compromised. If you still think your password is safe then you need some advice.

The federal government did reveal its plans for the retention of metadata and they were not as strong as first feared, though the latest attempt to clamp down on copyright breaches and illegal downloads has put pressure on Internet Service Providers – while calling on content providers to be more realistic on their prices.

Facebook played with our emotions among other things though little to be concerned over its Messenger app. Your personal webcam – now that’s another privacy issue.

Advances in technology

There was further talk on wearable tech such as Google glass, Fitbit and Apple Watch.

CSIRO researcher Dr Anand Bhatt models a shirt with a pocket incorporating the CSIRO flexible battery, which can be used to power small consumer electronic devices. CSIRO, Author provided

But concerns over who has access to the data, the use of such data in courts and misguided claims that these will spark a health and fitness revolution have dominated the discourse about these fancy new gadgets.

Predictions that wearable technology will tend towards clothing in the future, as opposed to accessories, will be aided by the flexible batteries developed by CSIRO.

Congratulations to Sam Berkovic and Ingrid Scheffer who took out the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for their work on epilepsy, and to the other PM’s prize winners.

The Nobel Prize for Physics rewarded work on blue LED lights while the Nobel Prize for Chemistry focused on work on new super microscopes.

And on a lighter note there was advice on how to turn your inkjet printer into a chemistry lab, what makes the perfect coffee and finding the value increase (or not) of Domino’s square pizza.

We also learned that saying thank you really does make a difference.

Top ten Science + Technology stories by readership in 2014:

  1. Born this way? An evolutionary view of ‘gay genes’ by Jenny Graves
  2. There’s no such thing as reptiles any more – and here’s why by Dustin Welbourne
  3. Why so many domesticated mammals have floppy ears by Jeff Craig and Don Newgreen
  4. Twelve ways to deal with a climate change denier – the BBQ guide by Rod Lamberts and Will Grant
  5. Do we really only use 10% of our brain? by Amy Reichelt
  6. How to teach all students to think critically by Peter Ellerton
  7. Is Stephen Hawking right? Could AI lead to the end of humankind? by David Dowe
  8. The journey to the other side of absolute zero by Tapio Simula
  9. When parallel worlds collide … quantum mechanics is born by Howard Wiseman
  10. The 10 stuff-ups we all make when interpreting research by Rod Lamberts and Will Grant