Pigeon slippers, Nobel weirdos and cakes at dawn

24 things we learned in 2019

1. Slim people were born lucky

Ever wondered why your co-worker spends all day eating and never puts on weight while you only have to look at a biscuit to gain weight? It might be that you’ve just been dealt a bad hand, genetically speaking. A study of some 14,000 people found that thin people have fewer genetic variants that increase their chances of being overweight.

As lead researcher Professor Sadaf Farooqi put it, “Healthy thin people are generally thin because they have a lower burden of genes that increase a person’s chances of being overweight and not because they are morally superior, as some people like to suggest”.

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2. Picking salad leaves really is rocket science

Airachnid on some mixed-color lettuce (Image: Jacquelyn Orenza)

Airachnid on some mixed-color lettuce (Image: Jacquelyn Orenza)

Who’d have thought that picking up something as simple as lettuce was so difficult? Every lettuce is different, so how do you teach a robot not to crush the vegetable as it tries to harvest it? The answer: machine learning.

Researchers have developed the ‘Vegebot’, which has now been successfully tested in the field, though at this stage the robot is nowhere near as fast or efficient as a human worker.

As for others uses of robots in agriculture, we think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

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3. Blade Runner buildings could finally become a reality

He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard (Image: Solo)

He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard (Image: Solo)

2019 was the year in which the original Blade Runner was set, but very little of its futuristic cityscapes has actually come true… yet.

Now, scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory have created the smallest pixels to date by trapping particles of light under tiny rocks of gold. They say this technology, a million times smaller than the pixels in a smartphone, could be used for large-scale flexible displays, big enough to cover entire buildings.

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4. A 16th century doctor might offer you a dead man’s hand or some pigeon slippers

A painstaking project to study and digitise some 80,000 cases recorded by two famous astrological physicians has given us a unique insight into the worries and desires of people who lived 400 years ago. It reveals knowledge of how celestial movements influence our lives and how, for instance, a dose of the clap could be pinned on conjunctions of malevolent planets (a likely excuse).

Some of the cures they offered were questionable to say the least (pigeon slippers or the touch of a dead man's hand, anyone?).

This knowledge has fortunately been long forgotten.

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Image: Astrologaster, or, The figure-caster. John Melton, 1620. Credit: Wellcome Collection

5. Butterflies would probably swipe right if they saw their own profile

Male butterflies really are in love with themselves – they actually have genes that give them a sexual preference for a partner with a similar appearance to themselves.

Researchers took on the role of matchmakers, introducing male butterflies to female butterflies of two species and scoring them for their levels of sexual interest directed towards each. When a hybrid between the two species was introduced, the male tended to prefer a mate with similar markings to itself.

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6. Toy cars can teach us how to drive faster

Image: Wetmount

Image: Wetmount

An undergraduate student project has shown us that a future of driverless cars talking to each other could make travel move over a third faster. Even throwing in a less-than-cooperative human driver wasn’t enough to put the automated cars off their journeys.

Rather than relying on computer simulations, the students used scale models of commercially-available vehicles with realistic steering systems, adapted to include motion capture sensors and a Raspberry Pi, so the cars could communicate via wifi.

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7. If your mind goes blank when it comes to splitting the bill, you might suffer from maths anxiety

Image: ulleo

Image: ulleo

'Maths anxiety' is a very real thing. It's that feeling of stress and panic when faced with even a simple maths problem. Even people who score well at maths tests can suffer from the condition. Researchers have found that it can be infectious, too – parents and teachers might unwittingly pass on their anxieties to children.

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8. The earliest known example of fake news promised cakes at dawn

Bulldog with Dog Cakes (Image: Personal Creations)

Bulldog with Dog Cakes (Image: Personal Creations)

Everyone’s at it these days, but maybe we have the Babylonian gods to blames for fake news.

Cambridge archaeologist Martin Worthington thinks he may have spotted the earliest known example of fake news, in the 3000-year-old Babylonian story of Noah and the Ark (widely believed to have inspired the Biblical tale). In this story, the god Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news. He tells Uta–napishti (the Babylonian Noah) to promise his people ‘At dawn there will be kukku-cakes’. What he really means is ‘At dawn, he will rain down upon you darkness’.

The Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the right. (Image: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the right. (Image: The Trustees of the British Museum)

If only the Babylonians had had access to the Bad News ‘fake news vaccine’.

Now, fancy some covfefe with your kukku-cakes?

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9. We’re teaching robots to feel pain

Robot Repairman (Image: DocChewbacca)

Robot Repairman (Image: DocChewbacca)

“Cyborgs don’t feel pain,” said Kyle Reese in Terminator. But he could be wrong.

Researchers are using machine learning to teach robots to feel pain. This isn’t some cruel experiment or to prevent them taking over the world, but rather so that they can detect when they are damaged and heal themselves.

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10. Ely used to be a hotbed of crime – witchcraft, theft, highway robbery, not turning up for church

Two centuries of court records from the Isle of Ely have revealed a colourful and often brutal picture of the crimes and misdemeanours taking place in this Cambridgeshire city.

The courts, which tended to be overseen by professional judges rather than the local gentry, survived until 1972 when they were replaced by Crown Courts. Cases heard in Ely and Wisbech over the centuries often featured the gravest offences of the day including: murder, witchcraft, theft, highway robbery, rape, assault, coining, forgery, trespass, vagrancy, recusancy (failure to attend Anglican services) and infanticide.

These days, the most criminal thing about the city is its ever-increasing house prices.

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11. Plants can tell the time

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Despite not having a brain, it seems that plants are able to tell the time. Okay, so they might not be able to tell you it’s 5:10pm, but every cell in a plant has its own internal clock. They manage to coordinate these by talking to their neighbours, helping the plant ready itself for whatever the day has in store.

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12. Some restaurants serve food items with three days’ worth of calories in them...

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Restaurants that provide nutritional information on their menus tend to sell food that has less fat and salt in it. The researchers behind the study argue that if government policy made menu labelling mandatory, it could encourage restaurants to produce healthier options, leading to public health benefits.

But they also found huge differences in the number of calories in individual food items, including this monster with almost 6000kcal - that's about three days' worth of calories.

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13. ...But if you want to wean people off meat, just Offer an extra vegetarian option

Vegetarian (Image: Alexander Cahlenstein)

Vegetarian (Image: Alexander Cahlenstein)

We’re all being encouraged to eat less meat because of its impact on the climate. This year the University Catering Service announced that it had removed beef and lamb from the menu and slashed its carbon footprint as a result.

Canteens and restaurants that don’t want to take such drastic steps can still make a difference by increasing the number of vegetarian options. An experimental study showed that this could increase the proportion of vegetarian and vegan food sold by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales.

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14. A day’s work a week is enough to make you happy

High five! (Image: LoozrboyFollow)

High five! (Image: LoozrboyFollow)

Being unemployed is bad for your mental health. Aside from economic factors, paid employment brings other benefits – often psychological – such as self-esteem and social inclusion.

But it turns out that you only need one day a week of work to improve your mental health – any more makes little difference, but leaves a lot more time for Netflix.

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15. Don’t worry if people think you’re a weirdo – it could get you a Nobel Prize

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Professor Didier Queloz, as well as two others. It’s almost 25 years since he and co-laureate Michel Mayor, spotted the first planet outside our solar system, an exoplanet.

“Back then,” said Didier, “exoplanet research was a very small field. I think there were about fifty of us and we were seen as weirdos.”

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16. The Renaissance hipster was a dedicated follower of feathers

Recreation of Matthäus Schwarz's headdress. (Image: Graham CopeKoga)

Recreation of Matthäus Schwarz's headdress. (Image: Graham CopeKoga)

Take a look at this beauty, measuring over a metre in width and almost half a metre in height, resplendent with 32 red and white ostrich feathers and a bonnet of felt, satin and velvet.

It’s a recreation of a real hat as worn by Matthäus Schwarz, a 24-year-old German fashionista, on 10 May 1521. But Schwarz wasn’t alone in this fashion – feathers were quite the craze at the time.

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17. Bamboo grows a metre a day

Image: StockSnap

Image: StockSnap

Bamboo is an incredible material - and very fast growing. It’s just one of the natural materials that might replace concrete in the future.

Renewable, plant-based materials such as bamboo have huge potential for sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. Their use would dramatically reduce emissions compared to traditional materials, helping to mitigate the human impact on climate change. This approach would also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere by diverting timber away from being burnt as fuel.

Researchers already say that we could soon be living in wooden skyscrapers within the next decade.

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18. Margaret Thatcher had a very famous ‘we’ in 1989

Margaret Thatcher meets George Bush in 1989 (Image: White House)

Margaret Thatcher meets George Bush in 1989 (Image: White House)

“We have become a grandmother,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1989 upon the birth of her first grandchild, Mark Thatcher's son Michael - the first time she used this expression. The term had previously been restricted to royal use. As Queen Victoria would no doubt have said, “We are not amused”.

Thatcher's apparent conceit led to her being described as “a legend in her own imagination”.

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19. Women at Cambridge were encouraged to behave badly in the Eighties

Jane Tillier, the first woman Lay Chaplain at Jesus College in 1984, was given a badge by renowned historian Lisa Jardine encouraging her to behave badly. Jardine handed the badges out to her female friends, encouraging them to wear them. One of these badges is now on display in The Rising Tide exhibition at the University Library.

Men – particularly those trying to stop women being admitted to the University in the late 19th century – didn’t need much encouragement.

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20. 2019 was the year of upcycling

Image: vorsprung

Image: vorsprung

Cambridge Dictionary named ‘upcycling’ – the activity of making new items out of old or used things (just like this article, really) – as its Word of the Year. It reflects the momentum around individual actions to combat climate change — from going vegan to taking your own cup to Starbucks.

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21. Forget the floss – it’s time for the quantum dance

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Cambridge researchers have found a way to get the atomic nuclei in semiconductor quantum dots (crystals made up of thousands of atoms) to dance in unison, in a quickstep towards quantum computing. Lasers cool the nuclei to less than 1 milliKelvin, or a thousandth of a degree above the absolute zero temperature - it’s certainly no disco inferno in there.

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22. Your PlayStation could hold the key to better brain health

Hellbalde (Image: Ninja Theory)

Hellbalde (Image: Ninja Theory)

Not only has gaming technology been used to accurately portray mental health disorders, such as in Hellblade, the story of a Celtic warrior guided by the voices in her head, but researchers are now looking at how it might help people improve their mental health in future.

In fact, gaming technology is opening up mental and cognitive health research. Cambridge researchers say virtual reality could one day help us spot the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, as problems with navigation are one of the first clues that something is going wrong.

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23. If your cearc fhrancach brachaid this Christmas, don't eat it

Christmas 2012 (Image: Mike Fleming)

Christmas 2012 (Image: Mike Fleming)

Researchers in Cambridge and Belfast have identified and defined 500 Irish words, many of which had been lost, and published them in a free online dictionary of Medieval Irish.

Among the 500 words rediscovered and translated by researchers in Cambridge and Belfast are the festive ‘cearc fhrancach’ (turkey hen) and the less Christmassy ‘brachaid’ (oozes pus).

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24. Beer before wine, wine before beer – it doesn’t matter, you’ll still feel ill

Image: Couleur

Image: Couleur

Ignore the age-old sayings about “Beer before wine, you’ll be fine”. Researchers got a group of 90 (very willing) medical students drunk on different combinations of beer and wine and measured their hangovers the next day. Their conclusion: no matter how you mix your drinks (or even if you stick to the same drink), if you drink too much, you’re still going to get a hangover.

So this festive period, enjoy your Christmas and New Year - and always drink responsibly.

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Banner image: Artist's impression of the exoplanet BD+14 4599 b. View from the surface of its hypothetical moon. (Image: M. Mizera / PTA / IAU100)


From previous years...

2017: Dodgy robots, fake news and smart sheep

2018: Plucky underdogs, sausages in space and the winter that never ended