Science highlights of 2018

2018 was an exciting year for research, with many new discoveries and events. But which were the most important? Hard to say! Here are our personal favorites.

Much research and development took place in 2018, so it's easy to lose track. That is why we, the authors of DW's science desk, have compiled our own personal highlights from the past year. Of course, we don't claim to have listed every important story here!

Alexander Freund

Alexander Freund: Search and you will find!

It was a coincidence that a 13-year-old discovered the almost 1000 year old silver treasure of King Bluetooth ("König Blauzahn") in a field on the island of Rügen on the German Baltic coast. Bluetooth was a religious reformer and a communication genius after whom today's "Bluetooth" technology is named.

External circumstances led to important archeological finds this year. In other examples, the summer heat wave in Europe suddenly disclosed spectacular artifacts in melting glaciers, low rivers or dried up regions.

But most of the time, it was professional archaeologists who brought fascinating things to light in 2018: Unknown Mayan sites in Guatemala, lost neolithic civilizations in England, Roman cemeteries on the Lower Rhine, a Viking ship from the Iron Age in southern Norway, a 2400-year-old Greek merchant ship in the Black Sea, and of course, numerous spectacular finds in Egypt: among them a priest's grave more than 4000 years old, magnificent necropolises, gilded mummy masks and precious inscriptions in limestone blocks. 

Now live
03:34 mins.
Shift | 10.07.2018

Decoding hieroglyphs with AI

Not every discovery is a sensation, but thanks to new technologies and insights we can hope for some more spectacular insights into the eventful history of mankind in 2019.

Anna Sacco

Anna Sacco: Women increasingly visible in research

This was great news: The Nobel Prize in Physics went to a female physicist — for the first time in 55 years. But Donna Strickland's groundbreaking work quickly faded into the background, as did her two fellow winners Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou.

The headline was not about the progress in laser physics, in which Strickland had been involved since her doctorate, but about her gender. Donna Strickland is the third woman ever to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics - in 2018! More than 100 years after the first Nobel Prize was awarded, only about 3 percent of all scientific Nobel Prizes go to women. A scandal? Or a reflection of the still existent imbalance of power in the scientific world?

The ongoing debate on gender justice makes at least one thing clear: a revolution in equality and diversity will not happen quickly, but progress is being made.

Hannah Fuchs

Hannah Fuchs: Astro Alex on the Horizon Mission

My scientific highlight of the year is the performance of German astronaut Alexander Gerst. This is not limited to 2018, but in view of the fact that Gerst spent almost the entire year in space and was the first German to take over the role of ISS commander, this was definitely a highlight. 

I don't admire Gerst so much for merely being an astronaut — all of his other colleagues have my envy for that too — but even more I admire his way of bringing research closer to home. 

In a nutshell, Gerst has a sympathetic, down-to-earth way of conveying his insights. He is charming, inspiring and aware of his privilege to see the earth from above and (of course) to investigate it. He tries to share it with us as much as possible. In English and German, with text, pictures and video.

Sometimes funny, sometimes critical, sometimes sad and eye opening. For everyone. Really for everyone. By the way, that became most clear to me at Christmas when my five-year-old nephew told me something about Astro Alex. Good job, Alexander, and please keep it up in 2019.

Fabian Schmidt

Fabian Schmidt: Drug development for humanity

My scientific highlight of the year is actually not just one, but the development of new drugs that will help us to better control dangerous diseases and the rapid rate at which this development continued.

For example, a drug to fight herpes viruses won the German Future Prize in 2018. The new medicine minimizes the risks for organ recipients during transplantation. Certain herpes viruses only become really dangerous for humans when the immune system is weakened. In transplants, however, the immune system is often specifically shut down in order to rule out rejection reactions against foreign organs. The new drug helps to keep the viruses in check during this dangerous and vital phase of the operation.

And another very important innovation in drug research took place, largely unnoticed: Artilysins — designer proteins that are designed to kill bacteria — could replace antibiotics in a few years' time. Antibiotics have been indispensable in medicine for 90 years, but are increasingly suffering from a fatal flaw: that pathogens develop resistance to them.

Sepsis, commonly known as "blood poisoning," is one of the most dangerous diseases of all. In industrialized countries it is the single most frequent avoidable cause of death. In Germany, more people die from sepsis — caused by bacteria — than from heart attacks, strokes or from lung, intestinal or breast cancer.

The new designer molecules could really help combat Sepsis. Artilysins are not yet on the market. But the technology is coming. Perhaps these products will soon be available for veterinary medicine.

Cosmin Cabulea: Blood Moon and lunar eclipse with Mars

The longest lunar eclipse of the century in 2018 was one of my highlights of the year. The natural spectacle in the night sky could be observed for almost two hours.

Not for 105 years will there be a longer total eclipse.

Only one bright spot on the sky stole the show from the blood moon - Mars. 

Now live
01:22 mins.
Science | 26.07.2018

The longest lunar eclipse of the century

For the first time in 15 years, the Red Planet passed Earth so close that it could be observed with the naked eye. It's hard to believe that one day people will fly there — isn't it?

Sam Baker

Sam Baker: Living in the Future

From self-driving cars to artificial intelligence, it sometimes feels like we're living in a reality dreamt up by science fiction authors.

Two big stories that caught my attention this year were Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket being launched into space with a cherry-red Tesla Roadster inside (set to a soundtrack of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," of course) and a Chinese company's plan to light up the sky with a fake moon. I'm not sure what I found more amusing: the ridiculousness of these stories or the internet's reactions to them.

Both stories seem to epitomize not only our ability to come up with imaginative (and ego-driven) ideas, but also our propensity for self-reflection and self-deprecation as a species. The latter gives me hope as we continue to pursue the former.

Research that makes you think and laugh

An ignoble prize for real research

The Ig-Nobel-Prize is a pun on the word ignoble. In the past, entries tackled questions such as: When bitten by insects - where on the human body are the bites most painful? Or: Is it really possible that Sultan Mulai Ismail fathered 888 children between 1697 and 1727? One Australian scientist was even awarded the prize for "unboiling" an egg.

Research that makes you think and laugh

21-second potty break

One essential question for humankind and our four-legged friends: How long does it take to urinate? A team led by U.S. researcher Patricia Yang found the answer: 21 seconds plus or minus 13 seconds. In previous years the prize was awarded to related research…

Research that makes you think and laugh

Earth's magnetic field shows the way

Dogs align themselves with the earth's magnetic field when doing number twos. Czech researchers observed 70 canines from 37 breeds. The answer: The preferred direction is along the north-south axis. That got them the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2014.

Research that makes you think and laugh

Is yawning among red-footed tortoises contagious?

In 2011, the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology went to researchers of cognitive biology from Vienna University. They wanted to find out if yawning is contagious among red-legged tortoises. While humans often find yawning to be contagious, the research group found that that's not the case among tortoises. The study was published in "Current Zoology."

Research that makes you think and laugh

Slipping on banana peel

The winners of the Physics award in 2014 came from the Kitasato University in Japan. They looked into the friction-coefficient of banana peel on linoleum floor. The result: polysaccharide follicular gel in the banana peel does indeed perform a lubricating function. In regular English, that banana peels are really slippery - ouch!

Research that makes you think and laugh

Depressing cat bites

In 2014, the prize in the Public Health category went to researchers looking into the correlation between cat bites and depression. The scientists had analyzed patient data and concluded that among women who had been treated for cat bites, there was a significant increase in cases of depression. The recommendation: next time your cat bites you, better see a shrink!

Research that makes you think and laugh

Solutions against hijackers

The 2013 prize for Security Engineering went to the inventor of a fully automated hijacker disposal device. The culprit falls into a trap, gets bundled up as a handy package by a wrapping machine and then dropped out of the plane on a parachute. This would save the police SWAT-team a lot of work in cases like the hijacking of the German plane "Landshut" in Mogadishu in 1977.

Research that makes you think and laugh

Seeing Jesus in toast

People who believe they've seen Jesus on a slice of bread or on a tortilla - such news hit the media time and again. Neurologists from China and Canada found out what happens inside the brain when we are recognizing faces in places where there usually are none. What they found was a whole network of brain-sections responsible for face-recognition. This got them the 2014 prize for Neurology.

Research that makes you think and laugh

Dung beetles look to the stars

In 2013 there was a joint prize for biology and astronomy: An international team found out that dung beetles looked to the shining light of the Milky Way for orientation when the moon was absent. When the sky was clear, the beetles were able to walk a straight line. As soon as the sky was overcast they lost all sense of direction.

Research that makes you think and laugh

Hunting whale-breath with drones

The 2010 Engineering award went to the American inventors of a special drone for whale-watching. But the drone that was used to fly closely over the whales' heads also had another task: whale smelling. The breath coming out of the animals' nostrils includes bacteria, the amount of which marine biologists are measuring. Beautiful pictures like this one were a by-product of the research.