The year's top 10 science and tech stories.
The year's top 10 science and tech stories.
Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 28 2007 7:33 AM

The Best "Human Nature" Stories of 2007

The year's top 10 science and tech stories.

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6. Vegetative consciousness. Last year, scans found near-normal brain activity in a woman who had been diagnosed as vegetative because she didn't respond visibly to stimuli. The active core of her brain had lost its connections to her body. This year, after trying similar scans on 10 other patients, scientists said one showed "exactly the same responses." In a third case, electrode stimulation restored consciousness to a seemingly incurable brain-damage victim.In a fourth case, a man regained consciousness after 19 years in an apparent coma. A traumatic accident had caused a brain tumor that made him unable to speak or move his limbs. He now says he was conscious the whole time but was unable to speak. The happy implication is that some people we thought were finished may be salvageable. The horrifying corollary is that until we find these people, they're buried alive in their skulls. Questions: How many others are locked inside? What are our obligations to find and free them? Have we already terminated some of them? (Related: Buried alive in your own skull; interpreting the Schiavo videos.)

7. Parthenogenesis. That stuff you were told about birds and bees? Sorry. The truth is that males aren't necessary. In May, scientists verified a "virgin birth" in sharks. This phenomenon had previously been found in some amphibians, birds, and reptiles, but a new genetic analysis confirmed it in a hammerhead shark. A month later, another shark fetus developed in a tank with no apparent father. No male of the shark's species was in the tank. The fetus was found because its mother died; otherwise, it would have been eaten and never discovered. It seems that births to sharks with no apparent fathers may happen more often than we realized, because when there's no male around, we don't look for offspring. (Related: The myth of the birds and the bees.)


8. Physical hyperlinks. Cell phones and bar codes are beginning to turn the offline world into an Internet. First you put a high-density bar code on any object to encode information about it, including audio or video. Then you put software in a cell phone so it can scan bar codes and get the information. This is happening in Asia, and just beginning in the United States. You can point your phone at a food item and get nutritional information. You can point it at a billboard to download a movie trailer. You can scan a printed newspaper article and watch a bar-code-linked video on your phone, or point your phone at a house for-sale sign and get the real-estate agent's details. On the upside, this means the speed and convenience of cyberspace will soon pervade the physical world. On the downside, the invasiveness and din of cyberspace will come with them. (Related: Physical sex vs. cybersex.)

9. Nonlethal beam weapons. In January, the U.S. military demonstrated a heat ray that inflicts disabling pain from one-third of a mile away. It consists of electromagnetic millimeter waves, which can penetrate skin enough to cause pain but not damage. One firsthand account said the sensation was "like a blast from a very hot oven, too painful to bear without scrambling for cover." Another said it wasn't painful, but was "intense enough to make the participants think their clothes were about to ignite." The military boasted that the ray had been tested on 10,000 volunteers, with "no injuries requiring medical attention." The weapon's selling point is that it can disperse crowds, stop checkpoint runners, and disarm enemy fighters without having to shoot people. But perhaps for the same reason, we'll find it easier to inflict pain. (Related: The future of heat-beaming weapons; the temptation of remote-controlled killing.)

10. Embryo manufacture. A fertility entrepreneur has launched a new industry: making and selling human embryos from handpicked donors. Clients were invited to select embryos based on the egg and sperm donors' race, education, and looks, including childhood photos. The company advertised that all egg donors had some college education and that all sperm donors had graduate or professional degrees. Critics called it baby-selling and eugenics. But the businesswoman behind the venture argued that buying her products was cheaper and faster than IVF or adoption, and was morally no worse than the current practice of selecting eggs and sperm for purchase. And of course, "We're just trying to help people have babies." (Related: The rise of embryo eugenics; Costco, Burger King, and human flesh.)