Issue 12

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Thank you to all of our subscribers, contributors, and friends for supporting Lab Leaks these past few months. To end the year, we wanted to do a Special Issue of our 10 favorite scientific stories of 2021. We'll be taking a breather for the holidays 😌, but watch out for our next issue on January 26, 2022! Happy Holidays!
~ Aarit & Diana

In this issue:


🌟 Our Top 10 Scientific Stories of 2021 ! 🌟


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1. Is this too wood to be true?

Here’s something out of a sci-fi novel: scientists have figured out a way to make wood transparent. You read that right — using chemical treatments followed by exposure to the sun, a group of researchers worked out a way to modify the proteins present in wood to turn it transparent. This see-through wood isn’t just for the ~aesthetic~. If production can be scaled up, transparent wood could also replace glass windows by offering improved sturdiness and temperature insulation.


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2. Star Trek, here we come.

Lots of new updates from your friendly neighborhood Red Planet this past year. NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars’ surface (completely autonomously, might we add), and has spent the past several months collecting rock samples searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Perseverance also brought a friend — a small helicopter named Ingenuity that just recently completed the first aerial flight ever carried out on another planet. Meanwhile we can’t even figure out how to wirelessly connect to our printer…


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3. Bugger off, Malaria.

Good news! The World Health Organization endorsed a malaria vaccine for the first time. A big deal, since nearly half of the world’s population was at risk for malaria in 2020. The recommendation comes after a two-year pilot program in which almost a million children received the vaccine through clinics in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya. The key takeaways — the vaccine is safe, effective, inexpensive, and easy to deliver. And this wasn’t the only vaccine news this year — for more updates, check out Issue 10.


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4. Who said size doesn't matter?

Have you seen those seeds with spinning wings that gently descend to the ground? Well a group of scientists figured “who needs seeds when you can have robots”. Inspired by nature, they invented flying microbots that can be dispersed through the air. These teeny bots pack some powerful sensors that can gather valuable environmental data (such as pollution levels) and help conservation efforts. Or maybe they’ll be used to build a dystopian surveillance state, could go either way tbh.


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5. You may have noticed political tensions running high lately…

But what predicts political identity? In a new study, researchers collected information like race and home address from the 1940 US census, along with voter records from the 21st century. By matching these up, they found that white Americans who grew up with black neighbors in 1940 were more likely to self-identify as liberal even 70 years later. This relationship existed regardless of factors like income, education, and geographic location. That’s one more vote for the positive effects of diversity (keep that in mind the next time you're window-shopping for dream homes on Zillow).


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6. This one's for the physics a-fusion-ados.

Scientists have long chased after the elusive nuclear fusion — a reaction that releases massive amounts of energy by combining two atoms into one. The requirements associated with nuclear fusion have made it nearly impossible to pull off in a lab (e.g. it requires a temperature of 100,000,000°C). But several advances (like insanely powerful magnets) and investments (aka billions of dollars) over the past year have brought us tantalizingly close to achieving this “holy grail” of clear, infinite energy. About time too, because, y’know, climate change.


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7. Speaking of which, the earth is kinda dying nbd.

Not a great year for climate change. Between heat waves, cold waves, floods, and fires, 2021 was like an apocalyptic movie brought to life. The IPCC released a summary of 14,000+ scientific studies and concluded that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” Air pollution is mostly to blame, contributing to tons of premature deaths worldwide. Guess we’d better start using the term “climate emergency” instead, considering how screwed we are…


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8. Still wanna try and save the planet?

Might be time to reconsider your meat eating habits. Production of animal-based foods creates twice as many greenhouse gases as their vegetarian counterparts. And that’s not all — according to a new study eating meat can increase the risk of some of 25 common health conditions. Perhaps that’s why plant-based meat substitutes have skyrocketed in popularity lately (and believe us, they are very convincing). Not to mention, scientists might also have figured out how to 3D print steak (no, that’s not a joke).


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9. Let there be light.

We don’t mean to sound biblical, but scientists did just partially restore the vision of a blind patient. The patient suffered from a condition that deteriorated his retina, leaving him unable to see. Using some high-tech goggles and a technique called optogenetics, the researchers were able to restore some function to his retina, allowing him to perceive objects placed in front of him. We’re still some ways from complete restoration of eyesight, but this marks a huge step towards more advanced visual prosthetics.


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10. Since we're talking prosthetics...

It’s been an extraordinary year for brain computer interfaces (BCIs). If you’re unfamiliar, BCIs translate neural signals recorded from the brain into commands for an external device (enabling, for instance, this monkey playing pong with his mind). This year, scientists partially restored speech to an individual with near-complete paralysis (check out Issue 2). They also managed to decode a patient’s mental handwriting and translated it into text on a computer screen. Other BCI feats of note include miniaturized sensors and wireless transmitters. Kinda Black Mirror-esque, but with happy endings. Our fave.


πŸ“’ We asked you to pick your favorite story, and the results are in! Who run the world? Condors.
✨ Thanks for voting! ✨


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