December 22, 2012

Making a list, checking it less than twice

It’s the season for lists from the year in review.  Buzzfeed has one entitled “27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012”. Some of these are real, but some became science facts quite a while ago, others are still in the future, and some appear to be completely bogus.


  • a quadriplegic has a robot arm controlled directly by her brain.
  • Voyager I leaves the solar system

Badly headlined

  • DNA photographed for the first time. No, DNA is easy to extract and has been photographed many times. Individual chromosomes under a microscope were photographed years ago, and Crick and Watson used X-ray photographs to work out the structure.  What’s new is an electron microscope photograph of DNA where you can actually see the helix.
  • Genetically Modified Silk Is Stronger Than Steel. This is about genetically modified silkworms that produce something closer to spider silk. Spider silk is the strongest natural fibre, and has higher tensile strength than steel, weight for weight, but actually so does ordinary silkworm silk.

Still Science Fiction

  • Stem Cells Could Extend Human Life by Over 100 Years. This is actually a story about stem cells extending the life of mutant rapidly-aging mice by 50 days.  Not quite the same thing.  Stem cells extending human life is definitely still science fiction.

Probably bogus

  • Invisibility Cloak Technology Took a Huge Leap Forward. You have all seen the ‘invisibility cloak’ stories that turn out to be about bending microwaves around a small toy.  This one is different. It has a perfect camouflage cloak that even knows which things behind it you want to hide, and which ones you want to reveal. It’s almost as good as Photoshop. Um. yes. Never mind.

That still leaves 21 for you to check if you get bored over the holidays


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »