Top 10 stories of 2010

Take a look back at some of the most read and most talked about stories of the year.

Surfer’s ‘everything theory’ wipes out

EMORY (US)—A rock climber takes a surfer to task for the “theory of everything.” Mathematician Skip Garibaldi of Emory University published a paper refuting the 2007 theory proposed by surfer and physicist Garrett Lisi, who suggested that E8 is the unifying force for all the forces of the universe.

First identified in 1887, E8 has 248 dimensions and cannot be seen, or even drawn, in its complete form. The enigmatic E8 is the largest and most complicated of the five exceptional Lie groups, and contains four subgroups that are related to the four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force, the strong force (which binds quarks), the weak force (which controls radioactive decay), and the gravitational force.

Garibaldi says Lisi’s theory “would be great if it were true, because I love E8. . . . But the problem is, it doesn’t work as he described it in his paper.” (Full story…)

Chocolate Bar

I’m so fantastic (if I ignore my frontal lobes)

U. TEXAS-AUSTIN—The less you use your brain’s frontal lobes, the more likely you’ll think you’re the cat’s meow. Call it the rose-colored glasses syndrome.

Researchers found that subjects who had accurate views of themselves showed four times more frontal lobe activation than the most narcissistic subjects in the study.

“In healthy people, the more you activate a portion of your frontal lobes, the more accurate your view of yourself is,” says Jennifer Beer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “And the more you view yourself as desirable or better than your peers, the less you use those lobes.” (Full story…)

Is being American unhealthy for Mexicans?
RICE / DUKE (US) — Perhaps coming to America should come with a health warning. A study shows that Mexican-Americans who have assimilated into the U.S. culture are less healthy than those who have recently migrated from Mexico.

The effect is more pronounced for men, who tend to start out healthier than women when they first arrive, but whose health declines at a faster pace.

“The implications of our findings run counter to the popular belief that recent immigrant arrivals are taxing the U.S. health care system,” says study coauthor Jen’nan Read, a sociologist at Duke University. (Full story…)

Prehistoric glitch sparked evolution
U. LEEDS (UK) — A genetic mutation that happened more than 100 million years ago turned out to be a rather beautiful blunder, allowing flowers to make male and female parts in different ways.

This snapshot of evolution in progress uncovered by researchers at the University of Leeds is the perfect example of how such genetic “mishaps” fuel biodiversity.

The work also opens the door to further investigation into how plants make flowers—the origins of the seeds and fruits that we eat. (Full story…)

Ancient beer brewed to include antibiotic
EMORY (US) — Ancient Nubians knew how to make the medicine go down: Bottoms up. Chemical analysis of bones shows that they were regularly consuming the antibiotic tetracycline, most likely in their beer.

The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” says Emory University anthropologist George Armelagos. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.” (Full story…)

Reference letters cost women jobs?
RICE (US) — Those glowing letters of recommendation female job applicants provide to potential employers may actually be hurting their chances of getting hired.

When researchers reviewed more than 600 letters for almost 200 applicants who were applying for junior faculty positions at a U.S. university, they found that letters described candidates in terms of traditional gender schemas. Female candidates were described in more communal (social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms.

“This research not only has important implications for women in academia but also for women in management and leadership roles,” says study co-author Michelle Hebl, professor of psychology and management at Rice University. “A large body of research suggests that communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and managerial jobs.” (Full story…)

Enzyme puts kibosh on chronic pain
UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — A newly identified enzyme appears to block chronic pain by robbing a major pain pathway of a key molecule.

Its name is prostatic acid phosphatase, or PAP. According to researchers, the enzyme blocks pain in animal models by siphoning off a molecule called PIP2—a critical component of the chemical cascade behind chronic pain. What’s more, PAP appears to continue blocking pain symptoms long after it is injected.

“It has the potential to block or dramatically reduce pain, possibly in surgical settings,” says lead researcher Mark Zylka, an assistant professor of physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Full story…)

Why gratitude isn’t for wimps
UC DAVIS (US) — Scientists studying the positive effects of daily gratitude say it can change people’s lives—but it takes mental toughness and discipline. The payoff, however, can be significant.

Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, says his 10 strategies can help anyone cultivate a more grateful approach to life. But he warns that the exercises are not for the “intellectually lethargic.” And he stresses that gratitude is incompatible with feelings of victimhood or entitlement, or with the inability to recognize one’s shortcomings or to admit one is not self-sufficient.

“Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding,” he says. “It requires contemplation, reflection and discipline. It can be hard and painful work.” (Full story…)

How rare is your fingerprint?
U. BUFFALO (US) Crime scene forensic analysis has long functioned on the premise that a person’s unique identity is hidden in the tiny loops and swirls of their fingerprints, but teasing that information out of the incomplete prints left at crime scenes is still an inexact science, at best.

A computer scientist has figured out a way to determine how rare a fingerprint is—and how likely it is to belong to a particular crime suspect.

“When we look at DNA, we can say that the likelihood that another person might have the same DNA pattern as that found at a crime scene is one in 24 million,” says Sargur Srihari, a professor at the University at Buffalo. (Full story…)

How dark chocolate protects the brain
JOHNS HOPKINS (US) — It’s not the distinctive chocolate aroma or the luscious bittersweet taste. Researchers say it’s a compound in dark chocolate that appears to limit stroke damage by amplifying brain signals that protect nerve cells.

Ninety minutes after feeding mice a single modest dose of the compound epicatechin, found naturally in dark chocolate, the scientists induced ischemic stroke by essentially cutting off blood supply to the animals’ brains.

They found that the animals that had preventively ingested the epicatechin suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound. (Full story…)