Plucky underdogs,
sausages in space and
the winter that never ended

24 things we learned in 2018

1. The future of AI sounds like a Black Mirror episode…

Robot cleaner suicide bombers, crashing fleets of driverless vehicles, commercial drones turned into face-targeting missiles, fabricated video to support fake news…

This is the dystopian future painted in The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation. The report is intended as a clarion call for governments and corporations worldwide to address the 'clear and present danger' inherent in the myriad applications of AI.

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Image credit: Pascal

2. … But even if robots do wipe us out, they’ll struggle with the Tesco run

A welcome antidote to warnings about AI, at least we can be smug that even the simplest of tasks pose quite a challenge to our robot friends. Take the robots in Amazon’s warehouse, for example. A typical order could be anything from a pillow, to a book, to a hat, to a bicycle. How does a robot know how much force to use without crushing the object?

If you think you might have a robot helper to do your weekly shopping run sometime soon, then think again - unless you don't mind all your fruit and veg being squashed.

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Image credit: stevepb

3. On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... a partridge in a petri?

It might soon be possible to grow different types of meat using stem cells reprogrammed into tissue and fat. In fact, say the researchers, just a tiny vial of stem cells could be enough to feed the world - and no animals need even be harmed in the process.

The team hope to have the first product available in just a few years' time, but say it may be over ten years before supermarkets are stocking their shelves with lab-grown meat.

They will be starting with beef, but say the technique could potentially be used to grow any type of meat in the lab – pork, fish, turkey… maybe even a partridge in a petri.

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Image credit: PublicDomainPictures

4. Click HERE to find out if YOU could fall foul of SCAMMERS!!!

Our researchers have developed an online questionnaire that measures a range of personality traits to identify whether you are more likely to fall victim to internet scams and other forms of cybercrime.

It might be worth trying it out before you get back to that Nigerian prince.

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Image credit: TheDigitalArtist

5. It’s not your fault you can’t help overeating

Is dieting on your list of New Year resolutions? Well, good luck. Everything – your genes, the size of your dinner plate, your walk home, even what your mother ate while you were a mere baby in her womb – will conspire against you.

You might think your brain is the puppet master, controlling your behaviour in a cool, rational way, but really it’s just a slave to what else is going on in your body and all around you.

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Image credit: rawpixel

6. In 1708, you could be fined for wearing an ‘excessively large neckerchief’…

Credit: Hauptstaatsarchiv, Stuttgart

Credit: Hauptstaatsarchiv, Stuttgart

Handwritten inventories from southwest German villagers between 1600 and 1900 had lain largely untouched for centuries until they were studied by a Cambridge academic.

Written neatly inside were thousands of lists that might hold the key to an enduring puzzle in economics – does education fuel economic growth?

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Image credit: Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart. HStAS A573 Bü. 4923

7. … But in the 14th century, you might be beaten to death for littering with eel skins

If you were a Londoner in the 1300s, you probably would want to stay at home on a Sunday – or at least head to a brothel rather than go to church.

A new ‘murder map’ of medieval London showed that a third of all murders occurred on Sundays and there were fewer killings in brothels than religious buildings.

Some of the ways that you might be killed in those times include being stabbed by a lover with a fish-gutting knife, shot with an arrow during a student street brawl or knifed by a sore loser after late-night backgammon.

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8. The original Jurassic Park may have been near Hastings

Coastal erosion around Hastings, East Sussex, has revealed a massive treasure trove of dinosaur footprints.

More than 85 well-preserved dinosaur prints have been uncovered, some showing fine detail of skin, scales and claws.

The area around Hastings is one of the richest in the UK for dinosaur fossils, including the first known Iguanodon in 1825, and the first confirmed example of fossilised dinosaur brain tissue in 2016.

Scientists say that the footprints can help them learn more about the composition of dinosaur communities and where they used to hang out.

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Image credit: Neil Davies and Anthony Shillito

9. There’s no such thing as moderate drinking

You might want to think twice about pouring yourself another glass of wine or opening another bottle of beer this Christmas. Regularly drinking more than the recommended UK guidelines for alcohol could take years off your life, say researchers. Anything more than five drinks per week could shorten your life expectancy.

Dry January, anyone? And then maybe Dry February and Dry March and Dry April...

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Image credit: Alexas_Fotos

10. We’ve found the secret to invisibility!

Forget Harry Potter. Cuttlefish and octopuses are the masters of invisibility – and they don’t even need a cloak. All they need to do is think about their surroundings and their nerve circuitry kicks into action, changing the colour – and texture – of their skin.

And then they’re gone.

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Image credit: John Turnbull

11. Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards was too busy to meet Margaret Thatcher…

According to archive material released this year by the Churchill Archives Centre and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Mrs Thatcher’s infamous Bruges speech – which helped to coin the phrase ‘Euroscepticism’ – was never actually meant to be an anti-European diatribe.

The archives also revealed how her husband Denis was not particularly keen on national treasure David Attenborough attending a gala at Number Ten. Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards was invited but was “double booked”. We’ve all used that excuse.

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Image credit: Orville Barlow

12. …But Mrs Thatcher can now hang out with Mikhail Gorbachev and Alan Bennett

A Margaret Thatcher puppet and the unbroadcast script and video tape for the pilot episode of TV satire Spitting Image have taken their place alongside the works of Newton, Darwin and other treasures at Cambridge University Library – after series co-creator Roger Law deposited the programme archive at the Library.

They’ll soon be joined by puppets of her Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev and playwright Alan Bennett, who once allegedly referred to Mrs Thatcher as a “mirthless bully”.

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13. Maggots and rotting fruit & veg could be the food of the future

Don’t worry, this won’t be next year’s Christmas dinner (and no, it isn't a meal on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here).

This sustainable food source is meant for salmon and farmed fish. Researchers say they can optimise the feed to give fish a healthy, nutritious meal that can bolster their immune systems while at the same time reducing the amount of food waste that we dump.

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14. Our galaxy was shaped by a collision with a giant sausage

Astronomers say that around eight to 10 billion years ago, an unknown, sausage-shaped dwarf galaxy smashed into our own Milky Way. The dwarf galaxy didn’t survive the impact – it quickly fell apart, and the wreckage is now all around us.

We think they should call this The Big Banger Theory!

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Image credit: SnaXXy

15. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was a fan of the University’s magnificent erection

This year, we got to peek inside the University Library’s mysterious tower, which has inspired everyone from CS Lewis to Stephen Fry (and which Chamberlain once referred to as a “magnificent erection”).

Among the hundreds of thousands of books stored there are here were children’s books, Victorian cookery books, Penguin paperback novels, twentieth-century fiction…

And it seems there is a tiny smidgen of truth to the enduring myth of floors of Victorian pornography after all – the Library has a smattering of erotic literature and pornographic poetry, but these are hidden away in its vaults.

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16. Toothpaste can fight malaria

To prove that not all artificial intelligence is bad (or useless), we have a robot scientist who is looking for new drugs to fight our deadliest diseases.

Eve, as she is known, has found a surprising new weapon against the tropical disease malaria: toothpaste. The ingredient that might Eve found might even help us hit back at malaria parasites who have managed to outsmart our current drugs and become drug-resistant.

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Image credit: Pexels

17. A children’s playground ditty may have the answer to the origins of the 1918 Spanish Flu

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in flew Enza

Could these children really have suspected that the pandemic flu of 1918, which killed more people than the first world war, began life as a bird flu?

We asked our researchers about the Spanish Flu and what we can learn from it. We also asked how likely we were to see another pandemic on this scale: we wish we hadn’t.

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18. Japanese dads are cool!

Meet the ikumen, the Japanese men more interested in personal grooming, hip-hop, all-girl super-group AKB48 and generally being a good father than they are in maintaining the ‘salaryman’ stereotype.

Japan’s economic success in the post-war era was built on a clear gendered division of labour: the reproductive housewife and the hard-working man. Men aspired to become a‘salaryman’ – but the stereotype has a reputation of not knowing how to talk to women, poor communication skills, a lack of fashion sense and are renowned for smoking and drinking a lot and having an aged smell. But times are changing in Japan. Its government has promoted the notion of ikumen and that it’s ‘cool’ to have more fathers involved in childcare – and that someone who does that is a hunk and a handsome guy.

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Image credit: tokyoform

19. The big thing in medicine is tiny body parts

Mini-organs (or ‘organoids’) are huge at the moment – helping us to understand how our bodies develop and how disease occurs.

In Cambridge alone, we have researchers growing mini-livers, mini-brains, mini-oesophaguses, mini-bile ducts, mini-lungs, mini-intestines, mini-wombs, mini-pancreases…

But no, we can’t put these together to make mini-people.

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Image credit: David Turner

20. Help may be on its way for the beleaguered Tasmanian devil

For years now, the poor Tasmanian devil has been threatened by a contagious form of cancer that has been pushing it towards extinction. The cancer spreads when the animals fight or bite each other and causes grotesque and disfiguring facial tumours, which usually kill affected individuals.

But in a rare sign of hope for this iconic animal, researchers believe that a drug used to treat cancer in humans may be able to save the devils.

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Image credit: Mike Prince

21. The world loves a plucky underdog and even the occasional unforgivable blunder

Who will forget the year that Gareth Southgate’s England squad finally lifted the curse of the penalty shootout and gave us hope that maybe, just maybe, we might go all the way? (Spoiler: we didn’t.)

Cambridge University Press took a look at the words that we were using during that period, including the newly coined Neymaresque. And for once, ‘premature exit’ was being used to discuss other teams, not England.

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Image credit: The FA/Wonderhatch/Eddie Keogh

22. A drop of washing up liquid can stop the sound of a dripping tap

They’ve been keeping us awake for decades… Now scientists have solved the riddle behind one of the most recognisable, and annoying, household sounds: the dripping tap.

Using ultra-high-speed cameras and modern audio capture techniques, the researchers found that the ‘plink, plink’ sound produced by a water droplet hitting a liquid surface is caused not by the droplet itself, but by the oscillation of a small bubble of air trapped beneath the water’s surface.

A splash of washing up liquid is all you need to stop it.


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Image credit: vienhoang

23. If you think this year was bad, think yourself lucky you didn’t live in AD 536

Next time a Game of Thrones fan says “Winter is coming”, remind them of AD 536, the year that winter really did come.

In fact, it was called the year that winter never ended. It was a year of failed crops and of famine. A volcanic eruption had thrown a vast ash cloud into the stratosphere and according to accounts ‘the sun became dark’. But that was just the start…

A further two volcanic eruptions in 540 and 547 began an unprecedented cooling across much of the northern hemisphere. The thermal shock lasted until around AD 660. How do we know? It’s written in the trees.

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Image credit: David Hurley

24. We said farewell to the world’s most iconic scientist

Professor Stephen Hawking sadly passed away this year, aged 76. Arguably, there has never been a scientist as inspirational as Professor Hawking, whose brilliant mind overcame the hurdles presented by motor neurone disease.

In his own words, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

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Image credit: Cedric Bousquet