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The best science stories of 2015

Science killed it in 2015.

We found water on Mars, and got an intimate views of Pluto’s mountains and some spooky bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres.

Bacon got deadly.

And we learned that even Einstein’s genius had limits and Volkswagen was less than honest all this time.

So it’s time to look back on it all. The Australian Science Media Centre are the gurus when it comes to making sense of it all for the rest of us, and they’ve hand-picked their top 10 of 2015.

It goes a little something like this:

NASA found salt water on the red planet

This was really just confirmation of speculation from 2011 that “finger-like” features which had materialised over time may possibly be water flows during warmer months. Turns out the GIFs don’t lie:

MarsNASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

But after confirmation comes more speculation, because where there’s water, there’s almost always life. Time to kick Curiosity into a U-turn and check this out.

Scientists genetically modified a human

Humans for the first time modified the genome of human embryos. That sounds a bit … unwise. But it’s being called the biggest biotech discovery of the century, because we can change our DNA before we’re born, take out the bad stuff, and the bad stuff won’t be passed on again – ever. Yes, holding the keys to evolution in our hands is frightening, but in a heart-warming twist, the technology was used to when Layla Richards, a British bub with leukaemia, was cured using the techniques after all other treatment options had failed.

Then the Chinese team went and used CRISPR to build super muscly beagles, so there was also that…

Crispr dogsLiangxue LaiHercules (left) and Tiangou (right), who are now 15 months old.

Things got a bit out of ham-d

The best science story of the year. The outrage. The fall-out. The scrambling by media and researchers to just. Get. It. Right. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) came to the conclusion that processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages, and corned beef, are carcinogenic, with just small amounts dramatically increasing the risk of bowel cancer. And yes, bacon was put onto the same list of potentially carcinogenic products like cigarettes, and polonium. Everyone’s still arguing, except for this oldest person in the world, who can’t get enough processed meat from that some magical animal.

Picture: Fox

We made a ‘major leap for mankind’ at COP 21 in Paris

COP came around again and this time, all the countries agreed on an even more ambitious target to fight climate change. We’re aiming to limit temperature rises to 1.5C, be a carbon neutral planet by 2100, and help the poor countries pay for it. Not surprisingly, it was all met with sthe usual mix of cheers and scepticism, but Katy Perry suddenly dropped in and cleared it all up once and for all.

A new species of extinct human was discovered, probably

We found a new us. And they were so hard to get to, scientists had to put a call out to social media to find a team of “underground astronauts” that had the brains and, just as importantly, the build to get into a chamber 18 metres underground in South Africa. “Build” as in “skinny” – the gaps closed to 25cm, then 18cm to a large chamber filled with fossils belonging to Homo nadeli.

The cave homo nalediJason Treat, National Geographic, Source: Lee Berger, WitsA cross-section showing the Dinaledi chamber within the Rising Star cave. This image is from the October issue of National Geographic magazine.

Then things really got crazy.

Pluto, the dwarf planet with a big heart, was finally ready for its close-up

Hello, Pluto! We waited nine years to say that, as NASA’s $700m spacecraft finally completed its 5 billion kilometre trek to our most controversial planet. The pics and the videos were extraordinary – it has a heart, for starters:

Pluto hi resolution nasa new horizons false colourNASA/JHUAPL/SWRIA false-colour image of Pluto, as seen by NASA’s New Horizons mission in July 2015.

There’s more here and here and here.
Best – NASA says it’s found “something big” hiding behind Pluto, and the Nibiru believers went into meltdown.

The Aussie High Court ruled that genes can’t be patented

Queensland grandmother Yvonne D’Arcy, 69, a breast cancer survivor, challenged biotech company Myriad Genetic’s right to patent BRCA-1 which has been linked to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. (That’s the gene which led to Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy.) D’Arcy took on the giant, and won, on the basis that no one should be able to patent a naturally occurring gene. Onya Yvonne.

VW cheated diesel emissions tests

Burnt out Volkswagens near the site of the massive blast in Tianjin, China. Picture Getty Images

Oh, VW. The scale of the German juggernaut’s deception was simply breathtaking. After touting it’s “green” engines for years, VW was caught by a clean-air advocacy group, called the International Council on Clean Transportation. Hilariously, they chose to test VWs because they thought they were such a great example of how diesel can be a clean fuel. They found a bit of software which knew when the vehicle was being tested, and cut emissions for that time only. Credit Suisse projected a loss in sales, repairs, returns and plunging share price somewhere north of $100 billion.

Spooky! We learned that even Einstein’s genius had its limits

Was Einstein actually an idiot? No. But he got at least one thing wrong – his so-called impossible “spooky action at a distance” is actually possible. Something about quantum entanglement, somthing about the speed of light. Most importantly, while everyone wrote about the Dutch team which cracked it in October, it was an Australian team in March which showed he could be proven wrong.

A Russian billionaire blew $135m looking for little green men

Yuri Milner is so convinced there is life out there, he chucked $135 million at the Breakthrough Initiatives project. The money goes toward staff and hiring two of the world’s most powerful telescopes on 1,000,000 stars and 100 galaxies to listen for signs of life. One of the telescopes is our own at Parkes.

Parkes Radio TelescopeIan Waldie/Getty Images

In May, scientists at Parkes solved a 17-year mystery of where some strange “space sounds were coming from”. Turned out to be someone who kept leaving the microwave door open in the kitchen.

Just sayin’, Yuri.

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