Science & Environment

The science news highlights of 2014

From landing on a comet to the discovery of the world's biggest dinosaur, it was an eventful year in science and environment news. Here's a selection of 2014's highlights - and you can see the year in pictures here.

Landing on a comet

Image copyright Esa
Image caption Rosetta caught up with its comet quarry and despatched little Philae to the surface

The comet landing was the iconic science story of 2014, capturing the imagination of a global audience. On 12 November, the little Philae probe detached from its mothership Rosetta, beginning a seven-hour descent to the surface of comet 67P.

There was elation as the probe touched down, then drama as it bounced a kilometre up, followed by dismay as Philae came to rest in a high-walled trap that prevented sunlight reaching its solar panels. But scientists made the most of their window of opportunity, gathering as much data as possible before the little probe's battery life ebbed away.

Results started to emerge quickly, with two instrument teams declaring their discovery of carbon-based (organic) compounds on the comet, and another concluding that objects like 67P were probably not the source of Earth's water.

On social media there were memes galore and controversy. The event even affected what people were listening to. Aerosmith's 1998 ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" - used in the film Armageddon, where Bruce Willis aims to destroy an Earth-bound space rock - showed a massive spike in digital listeners.

Going, going gone

Spare a thought for Angalifu, a northern white rhinoceros who died in December aged approximately 44 at the San Diego Zoo. The northern white rhino had already been declared extinct in the wild, but Angalifu's passing leaves just five of the rhinos left in the world.

The plight of the northern white rhino was symptomatic of the serious threat posed to species around the world by the trade in horns, ivory, skins and other animal products. Earlier in the year, experts from around the world signed a declaration in London, vowing to take action to stop animal poaching.

Illegal wildlife trade


a year earned from global illegal wildlife trade


of world's rhinos lost since 1970s

  • 40-60,000 pangolins (scaly anteaters) captured and killed in Vietnam in 2011

  • 22,000 African elephants killed by poachers for their ivory in 2012

  • 1,004 rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa alone in 2013

  • 3,200 tigers may be left in the world

But the meeting took place against a bleak backdrop. Tens of thousands of rhinos, elephants and tigers are killed each year, driving many further towards extinction. Organised crime networks have increasingly moved into a multi-billion-dollar illegal market that's seen as low risk, high profit.

While most poaching takes place in Africa, most of the demand comes from Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. During his visit to the US in December, the Duke of Cambridge used a speech at the World Bank to attack the "insidious" trade. But some experts fear any significant crackdown now may come too late for some species.

Hipsters and great escapes

Some other eye-catching stories of 2014:

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJames Morgan reports on the beginning of the end for the beard.
  • The ebb and flow of men's beard fashions may be guided by Darwinian selection, a study reported in April. The news for hipsters was that we may be reaching a threshold of "peak beard", in which the pendulum swings back towards lesser-bristled chins.
  • Three inmates who broke out of Alcatraz prison - and were never seen again - may have survived their bid to raft across San Francisco Bay, according to scientists. The audacious jailbreak was dramatised in the 1979 film Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.
  • Scientists unveiled their best strategy for winning at Rock, Paper, Scissors in May. Successful players tend to stick with their winning action, while losers tend to switch to the next action, they claimed after studying 300 rounds of the game.

Deal or no deal?

After publishing part one of its landmark assessment of global warming in 2013, the UN's climate panel rolled out parts two, three and four over this year. The fourth part, known as the synthesis, urged governments to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century, or risk "severe, pervasive and irreversible" damage to the planet.

The document was intended to inform an effort to deliver a new global climate treaty. The first step, December's UN meeting in Lima, Peru, resulted in an agreement of sorts. Environmental groups branded it ineffectual, but others believe it's a solid base for a greater agreement to be signed off in Paris next year.

Meanwhile, 2014 was in the running to be the hottest year globally and for the UK. In 2013, much talk about climate change was framed in terms of the "pause", or standstill, in global warming. But commenting on this year's temperature figures, World Meteorological Organization chief Michel Jarraud asserted that "there is no standstill".

Cull controversy

In February, Pallab Ghosh reported that an independent scientific assessment of 2013's pilot badger culls had shown they were not effective. In addition, up to 18% of culled badgers took longer than five minutes to die, failing the test for humaneness.

Later, a senior government adviser was to criticise ministers for "ignoring" the concerns of its own scientists over the issue. This year's culls continue to be a source of tension between campaigners and the government.

Redesigning life

This year saw stunning new developments in the emerging field of synthetic biology. In May, scientists in California explained how they had extended the "alphabet of life". All of the planet's lifeforms use four chemical units, or bases, arranged in pairs within DNA. But the US team modified a an E. coli bug to incorporate two additional chemicals not present in nature. The science could eventually be used to make a range of novel drugs and materials.

The work followed hot on the heels of the announcement that scientists had created the first synthetic chromosome for yeast. The genes in the original chromosome were replaced with synthetic versions. It's hoped the work will enable a range of applications from the manufacture of vaccines to more sustainable forms of biofuel.

The year in awards

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Prof Maryam Mirzakhani was given the Fields Medal for her work on complex geometry
  • This year saw the most prestigious award in mathematics go to a woman for the first time. Iranian professor Maryam Mirzakhani was recognised for her work on complex geometry.
  • This year's Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a trio of scientists for the invention of blue light emitting diodes (LEDs), while the chemistry prize went to researchers who had used fluorescence to improve the resolution of optical microscopes.
  • The Ig Nobel prizes are spoof science awards that are almost as popular as their more sober counterparts, the Nobels. This year's event served up a study of why bananas are slippery and the revelation that people who stay up late are more psychopathic than early risers.
  • In November, top scientists were awarded huge cash prizes at a ceremony in California attended by celebrities and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The Breakthrough Prize hands out $36m (£23m) - more than any other for science.

Tragedy and triumph in space

Image copyright AP
Image caption The mid-air break-up of Virgin Galactic's craft was captured in this series of images

This year was a crucial one in spaceflight, particularly those blazing a trail for the private sector. But it wasn't all good news. In November, Virgin Galactic's spaceship broke apart over the Mojave desert during a test flight, killing one of the pilots and injuring another. Cockpit video revealed a system designed to slow the craft during its descent was activated early - a recipe for disaster on a vehicle moving faster than the speed of sound.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk's company SpaceX launched three cargo resupply missions to the space station, including one carrying a consignment of live mice. Orbital, the other firm with a resupply contract has carried out three successful flights to the orbiting outpost. But on 28 October, its fourth launch went awry when the rocket exploded in a spectacular fireball.

Image copyright NASA
Image caption Orion was retrieved by US Navy ships after splashing down in the ocean

But the old guard, namely Nasa, was able to celebrate a textbook test launch of its Orion capsule, under development for a decade. The spacecraft is intended to carry astronauts on missions to explore the Moon, asteroids and, one day, Mars.

Of bones and genomes

Image copyright Other
Image caption This leg fossil may belong to the biggest dinosaur known to science

The year was notable for the discovery of two giant sauropod dinosaurs. One, a new species of titanosaur from Argentina which was announced in May, could be the biggest dinosaur known to science, according to its discoverers.

Even if not the biggest, Dreadnoughtus would have given the aforementioned sauropod a run for its money. Scientists have 70% of the key bones needed to fully describe the creature, making it the most complete skeleton of its kind.

You can't get DNA from a dinosaur bone, but some of our ancient human relatives are yielding genetic information. In 2014, scientists sequenced the genome of a 45,000-year-old man, using just a thigh bone discovered near a river in Siberia. Advances in technology are driving a revolution in DNA analysis: It emerged this year that the cost of sequencing a human genome had dropped below a symbolic mark of $1,000.

More traditional ways of studying our ancestors revealed stunning evidence of early art by modern humans at a cave in Indonesia. But we may have underestimated the artistic capabilities of other human species. In September, scientists reported what may be an engraving made by Neanderthals and in December, a group said it had found even older marks made on shells.

Torn bicep

Image copyright NSF
Image caption The measurements were taken using the BICEP2 instrument at the South Pole telescope facility

In March, scientists organised a news conference to trumpet "spectacular" evidence to support the Big Bang theory for the origin of the Universe. The American team working on the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole claimed to have discovered the signal left in the sky by the rapid expansion of space trillionths of a second after the cosmos came into being.

This exponential growth spurt, known as cosmic inflation, left its signature as a distinctive twist in the oldest light detectable with telescopes, according to the team. But it wasn't long before the cracks started to appear, re-igniting the debate about science-by-press release.

Other groups countered that the team had underestimated the confounding effects of dust in our galaxy, and by June the US scientists who made the claim revealed that they were less confident of their result.

Tractor beams and cosmic webs

Image copyright AP
Image caption Tractor beams have traditionally been the preserve of sci-fi films - such as Star Wars

While the jury remains out on BICEP2, the year produced plenty of other physics and astronomy discoveries to marvel at. In January, astronomers outlined how they had used a natural "cosmic flashlight" to trace out the hidden tendrils of dark matter that underlie the visible Universe.

And one of the staples of science fiction - the tractor beam - came into its own this year. Scientists have been saying for several years that the devices, which can trap and manipulate objects and are featured in the Star Wars films, were theoretically possible.

Several lab-based versions appeared in 2014, with teams coming up with different ways of moving objects around, including the use of specific wave patterns in water, ultrasound, and a doughnut-shaped laser.

Follow Paul on Twitter.