More Heat, Fewer Planets: The Year in Science

2006 was a good year if you liked hot weather, as evidence of global warming continued to mount. As a hot summer became a mild winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it seemed that noticeable climate change had already begun.

It wasn't such a good year if you happened to be Pluto. The ninth planet of the solar system got knocked out of the park in August, as astronomers voted to send it to the farm-team category of "dwarf planets." Schoolchildren and their teachers gnashed their teeth, while textbook publishers ramped up their earnings forecasts.

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Here are the 10 or 13 — well, 11 really — top topics in science for the past year.


It was a great year for strange animals of all kinds. The most-viewed story of the year was about piranhas and other exotic fish that had invaded American waterways.

In August, a strange dog-like creature was hit and killed by a car in Maine; it turned out to be a wolf-dog hybrid. Deep-sea researchers reported an arthropod in March that looked basically like an albino, hairy lobster.

Giant hungry snails overran the Caribbean island of Barbados, annoying locals and scaring tourists. A grizzly-polar bear hybrid was shot in the Arctic. A sad one-eyed kitten that died soon after birth turned out to be real.

In November, Japanese fishermen caught a strange dolphin that had vestiges of hind legs; that was five fewer legs than had a strange deer hit and killed by a truck in Wisconsin in the same month.

And just in time for Christmas, Japanese researchers hooked a giant squid, the first live one to ever be captured by man. Sadly, it died soon after being hauled on board the research vessel.

We here at just want more information on the giant chimpanzees said to be roaming the deepest Congo.


Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who made a career out of wearing extremely short shorts and cavorting with extremely dangerous animals, was killed by a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef in early September. An Egyptian crocodile hunter who had killed thousands of the reptiles in his own time said it didn't seem right that Irwin had been killed by a fish.


Math nerds got a new hero in the form of Grigory Perelman, a reclusive Russian who proved the century-old Poincaré Conjecture, yet refused even to attend the ceremony awarding him the Field Prize, mathematics' highest honor. He declared that having proven the extremely complex theorem was honor enough, and continued to live with his mother in St. Petersburg.


Global warming continued to be a dominant issue, and continued to happen, according to most scientists. Projections estimated that Arctic summer sea ice might disappear entirely by 2040, and there were reports that polar bears were eating each other out of starvation, and that the mortality rate among cubs had skyrocketed.

Meteorologists reported a startling number of abnormally hot summer nights — which don't allow human bodies to cool down from hot days — in the continental United States. Meanwhile, a study found that the Earth was as hot as it had ever been since the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago, and a British government report concluded that the economic impact of climate change could rival that of a world war or the Great Depression.


An ancient manuscript, dubbed the "Gospel of Judas" was discovered that purported that Jesus had asked the apostle Judas to betray him. It merited a TV special, but most archaeologists countered that it was nothing new and possibly fake.


Three space-shuttle missions went off without a hitch. Mission STS-121 saw Discovery delivering much-needed parts to the international space station in July.

Two months later, Atlantis went up in mission STS-115 to add two solar arrays and batteries to the space station.

And STS-116 sent Discovery back up to the space station in December, where astronauts rewired the entire structure and fixed a stuck solar array. They had to endure a nasty solar storm while up there, but no harm was done.

And the first female space tourist, Texas tech entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, paid her estimated $20 million and went for a week's vacation on the space station in September.


We learned a lot about our extinct cousins the Neanderthals. Two separate teams worked to sequence the entire genome of a 38,000-year-old individual found in a Croatian cave; so far, neither had found any genetic evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals had interbred.

However, Neanderthals may have dined on each other, as analysis of bones found in Spain revealed butchery marks. Another study reasoned that modern humans are the oddities in the hominid family, and that Neanderthals were much closer in many ways to our mutual relatives.

Yet another found that humans are still rapidly evolving, with marked genetic differences among populations worldwide. And sadly for believers in hobbits, the extinct pygmy species researchers claimed to have found on the Indonesian island of Flores two years ago was contested as simply an early Homo sapiens individual with severe genetic defects.

In a related story, comparison of the human and chimpanzee genomes found that the ancestors of both species diverged about five million years ago — and then got back together, in a kissing-cousins kind of way, about a million and a half years later before splitting again for good. So raise a glass, Mr. Scientist — you're part chimp.


Americans won all three Nobel Prizes in science and medicine in 2006, with Andrew Z. Fire of M.I.T. and Craig C. Mello winning the physiology and medicine award for work on RNA interference in suppressing genes, NASA's John C. Mather and Lawrence Berkeley Lab's George F. Smoot getting the physics prize for linking cosmic background radiation to the Big Bang, and a solo win in the chemistry category for Stanford's Roger D. Kornberg for work in genetic transcription.

Kornberg's father, Arthur Kornberg, shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1959, making the pair the sixth father-son combo to win the prize.


Sex sex sex. Everyone likes it, no matter what the species. Scientists discovered, not surprisingly, that a woman smells best to men just before she ovulates. They also found that, contrary to popular notion, women's brains respond quickly to erotic images, just as men's do. And they discovered why men report drastically more sexual partners than do women — men overestimate, while women downplay the numbers.


Volcanoes are always big news. Java's Mount Merapi spewed a lot of ash and steam in the spring, causing villagers to flee, but no one died. The Mayon volcano kept Filipinos on their toes for most of the year. One researcher from New Zealand was killed by an eruption on otherwise uninhabited Raoul Island in the South Pacific. Alaska's Augustine volcano made for some dramatic images, but put no one in harm's way. And Mount St. Helens started acting up again at the end of the year, just in time for ski season.


And the top science story of the year: Astronomers, after much debate and confusion, voted to strip Pluto of its status as a planet after several similarly-sized objects were found at the edges of the solar system. Pluto and its cousins were relegated to a new category dubbed "dwarf planets," in a compromise that seemed to satisfy no one.

We here at were just sad to see Pluto's nearest rival in size, known astronomically as 2003 UB313, renamed from "Xena," after the ambiguously lesbian TV warrior princess, to the duller "Eris." Its moon, once fittingly called "Gabrielle" after the TV Xena's close companion, became "Dysnomia," which at least sounds intriguing.