The gifts science gave us in 2013

BY Rebecca Jacobson  December 25, 2013 at 10:20 AM EST

It’s a season for giving, and so today we reflect on the gifts that science gave us this year. From a rock ‘n’ roll astronaut to a tweeting robot, and a furry new mammal to a Martian discovery, we didn’t lack for stories to share in 2013. So let’s look back on the year, and remember some of the best science stories the PBS NewsHour aired throughout the year.

A meth-cooking science teacher to fall in love with

Chemistry gave television audiences a real boon with the AMC series “Breaking Bad.” As the juggernaut story of a chemistry teacher-gone-meth-cook came to a close this year, Miles O’Brien found out that there was real science behind the plot lines of “Breaking Bad” — even if some of it was a little exaggerated.

The sound of interstellar space

Voyager 1 made a milestone in history this year, becoming the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. (That accomplishment alone took some long-term planning we can all learn from.) As it crossed the threshold, it sent back the sound of interstellar space, which NASA explains in the video above. It was music to scientists’ ears.

“We’re well beyond the planets, but not all the comets,” said Ed Stone, the chief scientist on the Voyager Mission. “We’re outside the boundary of the sun. Not only is this an important goal in science, we are exploring where no one has gone before.” Justice for Guatemala

In the 1980s, Guatemalans lived in fear as native Ixil Mayans were raped and murdered. Under the regime of Efrain Rios Montt, 15 massacres targeting Ixil Mayans left over 1,700 dead, and displaced 29,000. As a member of congressional office, Rios Montt was given immunity from charges and evaded trial for years.

This year, forensic science proved that thousands of innocent Ixil Mayans were murdered. Initially, the evidence brought a guilty verdict for Rios Montt on May 14, convicting him of genocide. But the courts overturned the verdict days later, throwing the case into turmoil.

Hope for silence

Over the course of their lives, 50 million Americans will suffer from tinnitus, a phantom ringing in the ears. For some, the sounds fade in and out, but for 12 million of those suffers, the buzzing, hissing, high pitched tones are constant. And it can be debilitating, leading tinnitus sufferers to consider suicide.

Tinnitus may start in the ears, but it resides in the brain. PBS NewsHour reported this year on neuroscience research that found how the brain creates tinnitus sounds and controls their volume. And a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience showed promising advances to cure tinnitus altogether.

The discovery that we’re all just “mongrels”

2013 revealed new information about our human ancestry. Anthropologists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzeig, Germany extracted the oldest human DNA from Neanderthal-like skeleton found in the “pit of bones” in northern Spain. The 400,000 year-old DNA surprised archeologists. Instead of showing Neanderthal DNA, the fossil was a relative of another human species only found thousands of years and miles from the site. The find raised a lot of questions, but anthropologists determined that ancient human species crossed paths and mated, making us all “complete mongrels,” according to ancient DNA specialist Alan Cooper.

A new member for the racoon family

The racoon family got a new member this year. The olinguito was found and identified in the cloud forests of Ecuador. Zoologist Kristofer Helgen spent the last decade tracking these furry critters, which had been misidentified by museums, making them “hidden in plain sight.”

New portraits of Saturn and Earth NASA

On July 19, thousands of people waved at the Cassini spacecraft as Earth photobombed its picture of Saturn. Our planet was a small speck in Cassini’s photo, but the 10-year-old mission has sent back astounding images of Saturn this year. But the snapshots may be the last. Budget cuts threaten the future of Cassini’s exploration. Carolyn Porco, the director of the Cassini mission, has written this year about that Saturn portrait, and pleads for the mission to continue:

This is an image without peer, an image that can make one weep with joy, love, concern, an abiding sense of fellowship, and unspeakable awe. As I have contemplated the inevitable and approaching end of our history-making travels through the Saturn system, I have longed to repeat that remarkable image, make it even better, and turn it into something special. I imagined making it an opportunity for all of us to appreciate how far we have come in the exploration of our cosmic neighborhood and to celebrate the uniqueness of our lush, life-sustaining world and the preciousness of the life on it.

New fabrics that might save us from a chemical attack

Click on the image to see the full version. Graphic by Jeff Durham/Bay Area News Group.

Sarin, the chemical reportedly used in a poison gas attack killed more than 1,400 people in Syria in August, is a highly toxic chemical; a drop the size of a pea is deadly. The attack shocked the global community and raised questions about how to protect the public from sarin gas. Scientists have antidotes, but they must be applied in minutes. Now, researchers Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are developing fabrics that are breathable, but protect against gas in case of an attack.

Out-of-this-world music from Chris Hadfield and the ISS

Chris Hadfield’s enigmatic videos from aboard the International Space Station showed us how to sleep, eat and wring out a wet towel in orbit over the Earth. His cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was a viral hit on YouTube. He answered burning questions like “what does space smell like?”

But that was the astronaut’s the last trip to space. Hadfield retired this year. He shared his experiences on board “an unbeatable point of inspiration” in a one-on-one interview with Miles O’Brien.

Curiosity Rover’s watery discoveries and a Twitter account

The Mars rover celebrated its first birthdaythis year. It found evidence of fresh water in Mars’ past and dug into the surface of the planet to analyze the soil. And the rover’s Twitter feed gave the robot a personality, and added a snarky voice to its discoveries:

And its opinions on pop stars:

Good hackers

Hackers made notorious headlines this year, from stealing social security numbers from the State of South Carolina to breaching Target’s card readers and compromising 40 million credit and debit cards.

So businesses have started recruiting “good-guy hackers” from pools of talented college students to match the cybervillains at every turn.

And … drumroll … cicadas

It was the entomologists’ “Superbowl” when Brood II cicadas loudly emerged early this summer after 17 years underground in the Eastern United States. For entomologists, the rare appearance of the bugs is a rare opportunity to study the insects as they “sing, fly, mate, die” for a few weeks.

Others, like musician David Rothenburg, took the opportunity to have a jam session with the bugs.

Editor’s note: Don’t forget the hellbender salamander, also known as the “snot otter.”

What were your favorite science moments of 2013? Tell us in the comments below.