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Ten of the Most Interesting Science Stories of 2022
Posted December 28, 2022
An illustration of the DART spacecraft. Credits: NASA/John Hopkins APL
By Grant Olsen
As 2022 comes to a close, let’s take a look at ten of the year’s most interesting science stories. From mysterious ice volcanoes to the speed of sound on Mars to a “charismatic” treehopper named after NHMU Executive Director Jason Cryan, these stories highlight the relentless curiosity and constant discoveries that makes this such a fascinating time to be alive.
NASA Changed an Asteroid’s Orbit
Is there a way for humans to prevent a killer asteroid from striking earth? In the 1998 film Armageddon, NASA sent a group of oil drillers to space so that they could destroy it with a nuclear bomb. While that scenario is Hollywood fiction at its finest, real NASA experts successfully used a spacecraft this year to alter an asteroid’s orbit. Known as Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the vending machine-sized craft collided with the asteroid at about 14,000 miles per hour. No word yet on whether or not the DART was piloted by Bruce Willis.
Ancient People in Utah Used Tobacco
Four tobacco seeds were discovered at an ancient campsite along what is referred to as the Old River Bed in Utah’s West Desert. While the words “river” and “desert” don’t often go together, this river flowed through the area between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago, when the terrain was much different. The Indigenous people who camped along the river apparently smoked or chewed the tobacco, as the seeds were burnt and there were no tobacco leaves present at the site. If the tobacco seeds are indeed from the same time period as the nearby plant material (dated to 12,300 years ago), they could be the oldest evidence of tobacco use that has ever been uncovered.
Baby Woolly Mammoth Found After 30,000 Years
Gold miners in Canada uncovered an unexpected treasure in the permafrost this past summer. While digging into a wall of frozen dirt, they inadvertently dislodged the remains of a baby woolly mammoth. Realizing the significance of the find, the crew ceased work and called government authorities. Once recovered, the mammoth has been studied intently. Thought to have been one month old at the time of her death, the remarkably preserved mammoth still has skin, fur, and toenails. She has even been blessed and named by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders, the Yukon First Nation that calls the Yukon home. The name they chose for her was “Nun cho ga,” meaning “big baby animal.”
More El Niño Means More Trouble for Marine Ecosystems
You’ve likely heard of the El Niño phase of the global climate phenomenon known as El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It’s so famous that it even cameoed on Saturday Night Live back in the ‘90s. But El Niño isn’t all fun and games. Known for bringing warmer surface temperatures to the eastern Pacific, El Niño is linked to droughts, floods, and overall disruption to marine ecosystems. To get a broader understanding of how our world could be impacted by an increasingly El Niño-dominated world, a team of researchers led by the University of Utah analyzed the climate phenomenon’s impact on animal communities over the past 12,000 years. The bottom line: when five or more El Niño events occur within a century, marine species struggle mightily while land-based species are more productive.
There are Two Different Speeds of Sound on Mars
The Perseverance rover is uncovering all kinds of fascinating things during its mission to Mars. Earlier this year, scientists used the rover’s onboard microphones to measure the speed of sound on the Red Planet. It turns out that sounds moves at one of two speeds (both more sluggish than the speed of sound here on earth) depending on the pitch. At 240 hertz and above, sound travels at 250 meters per second. Drop below 240 hertz, and the speed slows to 240 meters per second.
Brain Cells Play Pong
Researchers in Australia have grown roughly 800,000 brain cells in a lab and linked them to a computer loaded with the vintage game Pong. Amazingly, these “mini-brains” have begun to sense the movement of the ball and can now control the paddle to guide the ball. In a local twist, Pong was developed back in the 1970s by Utah native Nolan Bushnell.
Pluto has Ice Volcanoes
Scientists have identified some amazing features as they analyze the images of Pluto captured by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. For example, they recently noticed some unique volcanoes. Rather than spewing magma, these fascinating formations likely produce an oozy mixture of substances such as water, ice, ammonia, or methane. It’s easier to imagine the presence of ice volcanoes when you remember that the average temperature on Pluto’s surface is minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit.
88 Ancient Footprints Found
For only the second time in our nation’s history, human tracks from the Ice Age have been discovered by researchers. Dated back about 12,000 years, the footprints were created by both adults and children, giving us a better understanding of when these individuals came to North America. So where were the footprints found? Right here in our state, on the US Air Force Utah Test and Training Range in the West Desert.
“Covert Consciousness” Exists During a Coma
Research recently published in Scientific American revealed that up to 20% of patients who appear comatose are actually in a state of “covert consciousness.” While their bodies won’t respond to the outside world, their brains exhibit signs of awareness. This discovery has many implications, including the fact that some seemingly unconscious patients in an I.C.U. might be able to hear what doctors are saying about them.
A New Treehopper with a Local Connection
Last but not least, let’s talk about treehoppers. These fascinating insects are found on every continent but Antarctica, but a newly discovered species has a special connection to Utah. Cladonota cryani, which makes its home in Bolivia, is named for NHMU Executive Director Jason Cryan. Distinguished by an appendage that looks like a broken twig, Cladonota cryani is a unique insect named for a true legend in the field.
Category: Natural History