Science: Best long reads of 2014 (part two)


The second part of a festive collection of some of the best reads from the BBC Science and Environment team this year.

image copyrightNASA

Is our Sun falling silent? By Rebecca Morelle

In January, Rebecca Morelle examined what might be behind the current, baffling silence of the Sun. Our parent star is usually a churning cauldron, exploding with dazzling flares and spewing huge clouds of charged particles into space. But scientists have to go back about a century to find a period when the Sun was as inactive as it now is. Yet the Sun is currently at solar maximum, when activity should be at its peak. "I've been a solar physicist for 30 years, and I've never seen anything quite like this," solar physicist Richard Harrison told the BBC.

Oklahoma drought kindles Dust Bowl fears. By David Shukman

image copyrightLelayne Tapp

In the Oklahoma Panhandle, the most remote area of the state, recent rainfall has been so meagre that fears have been kindled of a return to the apocalyptic Dust Bowl scenes of the 1930s. In an echo of that devastating period, the panhandle has experienced fearsome dust storms that have wrecked crops and engulfed towns. BBC News science editor David Shukman travelled to the area to learn what the parched conditions mean for the economy and the rural communities hit by the worst drought in decades.

The confusion over fusion. By Matt McGrath

image copyrightLockheed Martin

The BBC's Matt McGrath reported on some of the new teams trying to crack the decades-old problem of nuclear fusion with different approaches. US defence giant Lockheed Martin is one of those backing a new effort to harness the process that powers the Sun for energy here on Earth. But what are their chances given the failures and disappointments of the last 50 years?

How do we really make decisions? By Toby Macdonald

With every decision we take, there is a battle in our minds between intuition and logic. The intuitive part of your mind is a lot more powerful than you may think. BBC Horizon director Toby Macdonald delved into the science of decision-making for this fascinating article about the hidden auto-pilot in our brains that is actually responsible for most of the things that we say, do, think and believe.

The book that helped save UK's forests. By Mark Kinver

John Evelyn is best known as the diarist who recorded some of the defining moments in English history, including the Civil War, the great plague and the fire of London. But it his book Sylva that is perhaps most influential. Some 350 years after its first publication, the survival of the nation's woodlands depend on management programmes that were inspired, influenced or even instructed by Evelyn's book.

A glimpse of computing's future? By Paul Rincon

image copyrightD-Wave

For the modest sum of $15m (£9m), a start-up near Vancouver will sell you a black box the size of a garden shed with its logo emblazoned on the side in white neon. Inside the box is - they claim - nothing less than a real quantum computer. Quantum computing exploits weird physics to solve difficult classes of problem faster than their conventional counterparts. However, not everyone is convinced by the company's claims.

Radars of the lost shark. By Roger Harrabin

The sea around Cocos Island, Costa Rica, are a globally important hotspot for sharks. They are also the setting for a game of cat-and-mouse between government patrols and illegal fishermen intent on luring sharks from the protected waters. Now, wealthy donors such as Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio have funded a powerful radar system that could help rangers keep track of unauthorised vessels. But will it be enough to stop this island paradise being stripped of its rich marine life?

Mapping the ballet of the skies. By Jonathan Webb

image copyrightPA

Each year in Britain, starlings swirl in their hundreds and thousands, in shapes that defy mathematical description. Even using computer models, physicists and mathematicians have struggled to explain the synchronised, rapidly fluctuating movements of starling flocks. So how on earth do they co-ordinate these aerobatic displays, and what purpose do they serve?

X-rays shed light on 'early bird'. By James Morgan

image copyrightScience Photo Library

James Morgan reported on how an old technique inspired by Leonardo da Vinci could help us understand how birds evolved. The extinct species known as Archaeopteryx is transitional between birds and dinosaurs. Now, the simple and ancient concept of the pinhole camera is being adapted for the 21st Century in a bid to capture the clearest images of fossil specimens and answer a 150-year-old riddle: could Archaeopteryx fly, or not?

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