Science

From Rapping Robots to Glowing Frogs: Our Favorite Fun Stories of 2020


To say it has been a tough year would be a gross understatement, and reading the news—even on a science-focused Web site—can be a little depressing.

But while Scientific American has been providing in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, devastating natural disasters and the presidential election’s implications for science, we have also shared stories that show how the fun side of science still thrives. Here, we’ve gathered some of our favorites from the year, from the truly amazing to the downright weird and quirky. We hope you enjoy them and come back for more coverage of cutting-edge science in 2021.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Acorn woodpeckers fiercely defend territories of granary trees stuffed with supplies, and when a vacancy opens up, rival teams swoop in to fight for it. Biologists enjoy watching such fierce spectacles, but they’re not the only ones—other acorn woodpeckers quickly learn of the fights, and they fly in from kilometers away to watch the action.

Robo-Curler Gets in South Korean Athletes’ Hair

AI is pretty good at chess and Go. It’s the real world, and the challenge of translating a simulation to reality, that throws a robot for a loop—until now. A robot named Curly won three of four games against leading human rivals from South Korean curling teams.

Amphibians Would Make Good Ravers

Some frogs and other amphibians sport bright colors and striking patterns, while others have a drabber appearance. But it turns out many of them are hiding a secret that was revealed when scientists turned on blue and ultraviolet lights: They glow. Technically speaking, they biofluoresce. We don’t know why, but one possibility is to attract mates (presumably without the EDM).

Voice of the Dead

Advanced imaging techniques help researchers examine ancient remains, such as the 3,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian scribe, without damaging them. But why just look when you can listen? Scientists used CT scans to image the mummy’s vocal tract, 3-D print a replica and run air through it, thus resurrecting the corpse’s voice.

Never Be Late to Meet a Bumblebee

Bumblebees need nectar and pollen to feed themselves, which means they need the plants they frequent to be in bloom. But plants aren’t always on the same schedule—and in that case, the bumblebees take matters into their own hands. They bite a plant’s leaves, which forces it to flower, on average, 30 days earlier than it would have otherwise.

Move Over Jay-Z, the Robot Rappers Have Arrived

Computers have been making music since the 1950s, yet it wasn’t until this year that they learned to rap in real time. Using deep learning and data sets of both words and units of pronunciation, a musical bot called Shimon can improvise responses to a human rapper.

The Duckbill Dino, the Michael Phelps of Its Day

Fossils of duckbill dinosaurs are so common in North America that paleontologists often just ignore them. But they were shocked to find the 66-million-year-old jawbone of a previously undocumented duckbill species in Africa, where no duckbills had been found before. Given that Cretaceous Africa was isolated by high seas, scientists deduce the dinos must have swam hundreds of miles from Europe.

A Snack-Bag’s-Eye View

If you capture video or photographs of a mirror, you can use the images that appear on the glass to figure out what the surrounding room looks like. Researchers developed a mathematical model that reconstructs the environment in a similar way but using footage of any reflective object—including a bag of potato chips.

I Think, Therefore I Am Part of a Simulation?

Is reality real? Or are we unwitting participants in a computer simulation, à la The Matrix? A study this year put the odds either way at 50–50. So have fun bending your brain around that one for a while.

Kentucky Fried Pheasant?

The 23 billion chickens alive today may not know it, but the world’s most numerous bird may not have been humanity’s first pick for domestication. New research suggests that early evidence of birds that lived alongside people year-round, thought to be the remains of chickens, were actually pheasants.

QED Bees

Molyneux’s problem, named after the philosopher William Molyneux, examines whether our minds are wired to recognize shapes so that a blind person, suddenly able to see, could instantly identify an object. But what about a bumblebee’s mind?

From Barbershop to Cargo Ship

Spinning smokestacklike columns, called Flettner rotors, could propel future sustainable cargo ships. The smooth, towering cylinders pull a ship forward by creating a pressure difference as they whirl.

Who Are You Calling Birdbrained?

Scientists have long known that ravens and other corvids are very smart, but new work this year really underscored that fact. Even birds as young as four months performed just as well as adult great apes on a range of social and physical tasks meant to test general intelligence.

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Sting as Much?

From the spines of a cactus to a narwhal’s long tusk, nature has got stingers and other pointy, ouch-inducing objects down. Despite the range of geometries such features could have, most have a particular narrow design. A new model suggests this happens because evolution pushes species to economize: a narrower design means using less material to make stingers and similar structures.

Blow Out the Candles, Hubble!

We’ll let the 30-year-old telescope take this one: “I have seen 160,000 sunrises and sunsets, more than anyone could hope for. Circling hundreds of miles above the surface of our big blue marble for 30 years, I’ve had a remarkable view of the universe. I haven’t always been comfortable up here, but thanks to many of you I have outgrown a host of problems and found a purpose far more expansive and satisfying than anything my creators envisioned.”

 

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