Dodgy robots, fake news and smart sheep

24 things we learned in 2017

1. Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis almost broke the internet

Professor Stephen Hawking made his PhD thesis,  Properties of expanding universes, freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world. It proved so popular - over 750,000 downloads - that it broke our Open Access repository, Apollo.

Of course, we all understood its contents. Ahem.

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2. Sheep can recognise Barack Obaa-ma

Sheep can be trained to recognise human faces from photographic portraits.

Our researchers showed sheep pictures of four celebrities - former US President Barack Obama, movie stars Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhall, and BBC presenter Fiona Bruce. The sheep were able to identify pictures of them in a task, as well as recognising photos of their handlers.

Cue a barrage of terrible sheep-related puns. The BBC went as far as to credit Cambridge Ewe-niversity.

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Image credit: Dani Mettler

3. We found out who gave us herpes

Herpes, it seems, has been around for a very long time. In modern humans the virus manifests as cold sores (HSV1) and genital herpes (HSV2). While chimpanzee precursors carried both strains, when our ancient lineage split from them around 7 million years ago, we took only HSV1. Humanity had dodged the genital herpes bullet.


Unfortunately, somewhere between 3 and 1.4 million years ago, HSV2 jumped the species barrier from African apes back into human ancestors – probably through an intermediate hominin species unrelated to humans. We have now identified the culprit:  Paranthropus boisei.

It isn't every day that a press release from our University includes the line "While discussing genital herpes over dinner at King's College, Cambridge..."

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Image credit: Louise Walsh

4. Celebrities behave like bots on Twitter

‘Celebrity’ Twitter accounts – those with more than 10 million followers – display more bot-like behaviour than users with fewer followers.

Zafar Gilani, a PhD student at our Computer Laboratory, was quoted at the time as saying: “Many people tend to think that bots are nefarious or evil, but that’s not true.”

@realdonaldtrump, it should be noted, has over 43 million followers. Could he really be a bot?

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore

5. There’s a vaccine against ‘fake news’...

We're all familiar with the concept of being vaccinated to inoculate ourselves against disease, but we may be able to 'vaccinate' ourselves against 'fake news', too.

Social psychologists believe that a similar logic can be applied to help 'inoculate' the public against misinformation, including the damaging influence of ‘fake news’ websites propagating myths about climate change.

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Image credit: The Public Domain Review

6. ... But the MOON LANDINGS were definitely FAKE

Did the USA fake the moon landings? Did UFOs land in Rendlesham Forest? Were the 9/11 attacks a CIA plot? 

Our researchers think they know what drives people to believe conspiracy theories.

But then, they would say that, wouldn't they.

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Image credit: NASA

7. Astronomers found the ‘little star’ that twinkles

Astronomers have found the smallest star ever discovered. In fact, it's so tiny it's incredible they could even spot it. It's as minute as... Saturn.

The star is probably as small as stars can possibly become, as it has just enough mass to enable the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. If it were any smaller, the pressure at the centre of the star would no longer be sufficient to enable this process to take place. 

Could this star be the inspiration behind everyone's favourite nursery rhyme?

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Image: Amanda Smith, University of Cambridge

8. Forget Tom Cruise - the real Top Gun is the robber fly

A small fly the size of a grain of rice could be the Top Gun of the fly world. It has a remarkable ability to detect and intercept its prey mid-air, changing direction mid-flight if necessary before sweeping round for the kill.

The robber fly Holcocephala is just 6mm long but has the ability to spot and catch prey more than half a metre away in less than half a second —  this is the equivalent of you spotting your dinner at the other end of a football pitch. 

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Image credit: Zleng

9. Our female ancestors were totally ripped

Our women's rowing team is pretty incredible (they beat Oxford in this year's Boat Race - just saying) but they had nothing on prehistoric women.

Women from early agricultural eras had stronger arms than the rowers of our famously competitive boat club thanks to the gruelling manual labour that occupied their days.

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Image: Alastair Fyfe for the University of Cambridge

10. Honest people give a @#%*!

It’s long been associated with anger and coarseness, but swearing can have another, more positive connotation. People who frequently curse are apparently more honest, whereas people who rarely swear are more likely to be associated with lying and deception.

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Image credit: debaird

11. Robots will start out with a bit of petty crime…

Robots will soon be committing crime, says Christopher Markou from the Faculty of Law. Will it be fair to find them guilty in a robot court of law? And will we send them to a robot jail?

If only there were a robot capable to policing them...

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Image credit: Doug Waldron

12. …But before long, they’ll be our lords and masters

Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and a member of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, likes to keep us awake by telling us what's going to wipe us out.

The good news: aliens probably aren't going to invade us and turn us into their slaves/dinner.

The bad news: that's because the robots will have done the job for them by then.

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Image credit: Rog01

13. This is what the last lost Liszt sounds like

For almost 200 years, an Italian opera by Franz Liszt lay incomplete and largely forgotten in a German archive.

Known only to a handful of Liszt scholars, the manuscript – with much of its music written in shorthand and only one act completed – was assumed to be fragmentary, often illegible and consequently indecipherable...

...But not if you're a Cambridge don. Enter David Trippett from the Faculty of Music.

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Image credit: Wikicommons

14. Our earliest prehistoric ancestors had a mouth and anus in the same hole

This charming little sea creature was identified from fossils found in China and might be the earliest known step on an evolutionary path that eventually led to the emergence of humans.

Its most striking feature was its rather primitive means of eating food and then dispensing with the resulting waste. Saccorhytus (as the little fella is named) had a large mouth, relative to the rest of its body, and probably ate by engulfing food particles, or even other creatures.

Any waste material probably came out of the same orifice, too.

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Image credit: Jian Han

15. We do like a glass of wine. And a very big one at that.

If you're reading this over a glass of wine, the chances are that it's a fair bit bigger than one the Victorians would have sipped from.

In the past 300 years, wine glasses have grown massively - from an average of around 66ml in the 1700s to a whopping 417ml today. This is partly due to changes in how we manufacture glass, but also in response to legislation and consumer demand.

But remember... Just because you have a big wine glass, it doesn't mean you need to fill it to the brim. Please drink responsibly.

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Image credit: David

16. Elephants are not so dumbo after all

We all know elephants are smart, but where is the evidence? A new test by our researchers showed that yes, they really are clever. Asian elephants are able to recognise their bodies as obstacles to success in problem-solving - and then get out of the way to complete their task.

Even small children get this task wrong. Who's the Dumbo now?

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Image credit: Tontan Travel

17. Caterpillars love their plastic bags…

Caterpillars could soon be munching their way through your carrier bags.

Galleria mellonella - most commonly seen as fishing bait - has the ability to biodegrade polyethylene: one of the toughest and most common plastics, often used for plastic shopping bags.

But don't worry, this doesn't mean your groceries are going to spill out all over the floor. Our scientists are interested in the enzyme that the critters use to degrade the plastic and how this could help break down some of the waste frequently found clogging up landfill sites.

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Image: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

18. … And Vikings loved their cod

Using ancient DNA extracted from the remnants of Viking-age fish suppers, scientists found cod bones dating back to the 9th century - around 400 years earlier than the previous oldest sample. This suggests that fish trading in Europe dates back over 1,000 years.

Whether the Anglo Saxons had chips with theirs is still up for debate.

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Image: Frank Meffert

19. You and your baby are literally on the same wavelength

When you're singing nursery rhymes to your baby, don't forget to make eye contact - it helps your brainwaves get in sync with each other's. This will certainly helps your baby learn and communicate better.

While they don't know yet how the adult and infant's brains synchronise, our researchers have made it clear they haven't discovered telepathy. Yet.

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Image: University of Cambridge

20. Margaret Thatcher was for turning. And reversing

"You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." So said then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference in October 1980.

Papers released by the Churchill Archive this year showed that this was not technically true. Alongside larger worries about national and international affairs, the papers for 1986 record concerns over plans for the PM to test drive the new Rover 800 in Downing Street – all in the name of lending a hand to the ailing car manufacturer British Leyland.

A quiet rehearsal was arranged at Chequers, with the car towed secretively under cover. In the end, buoyed by her experience at Chequers, Mrs Thatcher not only drove the car along Downing Street, but also reversed it, pulling off the manoeuvre flawlessly in front of the assembled press.

No information was available about whether she managed to park it afterwards.

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Image credit: Margaret Thatcher Foundation

21. Ey up. Is that t'Rex?

The Victorians got it all wrong, it seems. Dinosaurs are northerners, not southerners.

Dinosaurs were first recognised as a unique group of fossil reptiles in 1842 as a result of the work of the anatomist, Professor Richard Owen. Over subsequent decades, various species were named as more and more fossils were found and identified. During the latter half of the 19th century attempts were made to classify them into groups that shared particular features.

And this is where it all went wrong.

Our researchers, working with the Natural History Museum in London, have overturned more than a century of theory about the evolutionary history of dinosaurs. Their work suggests that the family groupings need to be rearranged, re-defined and re-named.

But more importantly, we now think dinosaurs may have originated in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern.

It's time to rewrite the textbooks.

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Image credit: Ørjan Hoyd Vøllestad

22. This is what a 700-year old Cambridge man looks like

Context 958 (not his real name) was buried in a medieval hospital graveyard discovered underneath St John's College, Cambridge, and dating back to the 13th century.

He was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople – some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn't live alone.

Using facial reconstruction, our researchers, together with a team at the University of Dundee, now know what he looked like and have pieced together the rudiments of his life story by analysing his bones and teeth.

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Image credit: Chris Rynn, University of Dundee

23. We love climate change now — it means we can grow black truffles in the UK

We may be doomed thanks to climate change, but at least we'll go out in culinary style: we can now grow the Mediterranean black truffle, one of the world’s most expensive ingredients, in the UK.

The Périgord truffle is worth as much as £1,700 per kilogram and has been successfully cultivated in Monmouthshire, South Wales: the farthest north that the species has ever been found.

The first harvested truffle, which weighed 16 grams, has been preserved for posterity, but in future, the truffles will be distributed to restaurants in the UK.

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24. If your New Year resolution is to lose weight, it might be more difficult than you think

If you're struggling to lose weight when you're dieting, we think we might know why...

Diets are often inefficient because the body works like a thermostat and couples the amount of calories we burn to the amount of calories we eat. When we eat less, our body compensates and burns fewer calories, which makes losing weight harder.

We've now identified a mechanism through which the body adapts to low caloric intake and limits weight loss (in mice, at least).

Maybe that second mince pie doesn't sound like such a good idea after all.

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Image credit: Jay Walt

And finally...

If you've enjoyed this round-up, don't forget that you can keep in touch with the latest research stories from the University of Cambridge on our website or by signing up to our weekly Research Bulletin.

Image credit: Sir Cam