Whatever happened to...
News@nature.com recalls some favourite stories to see how they turned out.
Those missing plague mice?
A report that three mice infected with plague had gone missing from a New Jersey lab stirred public concerns in September, although scientists were not that fussed (see ' Lab loses trio of plague mice').
The missing mice came from three different cages, which made some suspect that they had been stolen. But David Perlin, director of the Public Health Research Institute where the mice lived, now says that he is "absolutely certain" that the mice did not escape.
In all likelihood the mice ate each other, something that distressed mice sometimes do, and a technician failed to record the incident properly, says Perlin. By the time the loss came to light, weeks later, it was too late to check for evidence. The institute has now stopped outsourcing technician jobs and employs in-house animal-care staff.
FBI investigators are still looking into it. If they never find the rodent bodies, says Perlin, they may not be able officially to close the case.
Betting on climate change?
In August, Nature reported that British climate modeller James Annan had persuaded two Russian solar physicists to bet US$10,000 against the scientific consensus that the world's climate is set to get warmer (see ' Climate sceptics place bets on world cooling down').
Legal documents have not yet appeared, but Annan says there is no sign that Galina Mashnich and Vladimir Bashkirtsev, both of the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics in Irkutsk, are getting cold feet.
"I've not got anything in writing, but I'm working on it," says Annan.
In recent months, Annan has had less success in getting people to bet against global warming. Piers Corbyn, a London-based meteorologist told Nature he was "happy to bet loads of money" on global cooling, but has yet to do so. In fact the only other bet that Annan knows of, which has been set up between two weather enthusiasts, is for a mere £500. Is Michael Crichton, who caused such a splash with his climate scepticism in State of Fear, failing to convince the masses?
Those exploding toads?
The veterinary community was intrigued back in April by the news that toads were blowing up in a pond in Germany. The myth seemed to have been well and truly, ahem, exploded when vets pointed out that the cause was most probably a combination of savage crow attacks and the hapless toads' natural 'puff-up' defence (see " Has bubble burst over exploding toad tale?").
It seems the only hope for a clear answer lies in persuading some vets to be on the scene in April 2006. Unlike the amateurs who reported the incidents in 2005, these experts should be able to confirm that any bloated carcasses are indeed victims of nature, red in tooth and claw et cetera. Any volunteers?
The advantage of wearing red for sport?
Teams wearing red are supposed to be more likely to win (see " Red is a recipe for sporting success").
So did red outfits prevail this year? Determined to find out, and with a little help from the web, firstname.lastname@example.org ploughed through the results of every fixture in the English soccer Premiership during 2005 in search of an answer.
Of 151 matches involving a team wearing red, 65 (or 43%) were won by the scarlet side. That's an impressive proportion, given that only 49 matches were won by the opposition, with 37 ending in a draw. Of course, with just 20 teams in the league, and traditionally successful clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal wearing red, this lacks a certain scientific rigour.
What's more, the mechanism by which red exerts its beneficial effect is not clear. Some have suggested that it signifies aggression, but a recent survey of the judo competition at the 2004 Olympics ( Rowe, C., Harris, J. M. & Roberts, S. C. Nature 437, doi:10.1038/nature04306; 2005) suggests that, when randomly assigned a blue or white outfit, those wearing blue also enjoyed a significant advantage.
So did blue teams habitually conquer white ones in the world of soccer this year? This, unfortunately, is where our data set really falls down: English football in 2005 was utterly dominated by blue-wearing Chelsea, which boasts an enviable array of spectacularly well-paid megastar players who might skew the results somewhat.
The Mars Exploration Rovers?
Two Earth years after their arrival, the little robotic vehicles Opportunity and Spirit are still exploring Mars.
Opportunity has spent the year trundling away from Endurance, the large crater that it spent several months investigating in 2004. On its travels it has found a metal meteorite , got stuck in a sand dune, and is now half way to reaching the enormous crater Victoria.
Spirit spent the year climbing the Columbia Hills, sampling rocks as it went and stopping to watch dust devils whirl across the plains below. When it reached the summit, it produced amazing panoramas of the terrain below.
Both rovers have now lasted for just over one martian year, proving that they can endure anything the changing seasons throw at them. Although both are showing signs of wear and tear (stiff joints on Opportunity, dicky wheel on Spirit) they may just keep on keeping on.
That mysterious pig-borne disease that struck China?
Almost six months after a strange disease struck herds of pigs in Sichuan province in China, affecting 215 people and killing 39 (see ' Mysterious disease spreads in China'), its extreme virulence remains a mystery.
Scientists are now sure that the outbreak was caused by the bacterium Streptococcus suis, and that those affected were farmers who had butchered diseased pigs. But the outbreak was strange, as S. suis had reportedly affected only 150 people before. And it typically causes flu-like symptoms, whereas the Chinese victims became comatose, had rashes and bruises on their skin, and died within 24 hours.
An answer may be forthcoming next year: the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to soon lauch a detailed international study that will include sequencing of the entire genome of the Sichuan strains and others from around the world.
In the meantime, a leading hypothesis is that the strain may have been a 'superantigen', which excessively stimulates the immune system causing rapid toxic shock and multiple organ failure. But Marcelo Gottschalk, a bacteriologist who heads a reference lab for S. suis at the University of Montreal in Quebec is still scratching his head: "It suddenly appeared and then disappeared; its epidemiology is inexplicable."
The Hubble Space Telescope?
Hubble started the year in bad shape. With two of its six stabilizing gyroscopes out of commission, and battery power expected to run out in 2008, an early draft of NASA's budget provided only enough money to decommission the orbiting telescope, not repair it (see ' White House to scrap Hubble?'). But hopes were rekindled by incoming NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, in April.
By August, engineers said they were shutting down one of Hubble's three remaining gyroscopes to save as a back-up, compensating for any jitters with computer software. This approach should extend the telescope's life a little, they hope.
The earliest chance of a shuttle rescue mission is now late 2007, but with the fleet still grounded, that looks increasingly unlikely. Still, Hubble soldiers on.
The fight against measles?
In 1999, a grand plan was developed to halve the number of deaths from measles by the end of 2005. In March we reported that deaths had dropped 40% by 2003, with the biggest drop (46%) in Africa (see Measles death toll plummets). Now, the continent can celebrate further success: data show deaths plummeted 60% in Africa from 1999 to 2004.
"This is a major public health achievement," says WHO director-general, Jong-Wook Lee. It will be at least a year before global results are tabulated for 2005.
The extra second in 2005?
When you count down to midnight this New Year's Eve, be sure to go, "3 - 2 - 1... 1 again... 0". That's because 2005 contains a leap second, tagged on to the last moment of the year to compensate for the fact that our planet doesn't quite rotate at the rate it used to (see ' Leap second to be added to 2005'). Astronomers and engineers are still arguing about whether the whole idea of leap seconds is really necessary, and one day they might be abolished. Until then, personal computers and radio-controlled clocks around the world should automatically adjust themselves. So do enjoy your extra second of life in any way you feel fit. And from all of us at email@example.com, Happy New Year!
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