Space probed

December 29, 1995

SCIENCE. Charles Darwin's face gazed out of a lot of newsprint in The THES this year as sociobiologists went public over their controversial work, which they now regard as firmly based in science. Evolutionary medicine emerged, with its theory that many symptoms of disease have evolved and confer some sort of advantage. Others claimed to have found evolutionary explanations of gender differences, love, facial expressions, and even music and an appreciation of art.

Studying human activity from a bit further away was the European Remote Sensing satellite, ERS-2, launched in April and designed to turn its many kinds of eye back on earth and tell us about sea temperature changes, ozone distribution, and alterations in forest and desert size.

In fact, 1995 was a great year for space missions. Also shot into space were the Infrared Space Observatory, which is examining the cold parts of the universe, and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (Soho), which will watch the sun. Plus there was a flow of spectacular imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope. Perhaps the most memorable was its picture of the birth of a star.

The awareness of things flying around in space, and in particular of last year's crash of a comet into the planet Jupiter, raised worries about the effect of a meteor crash back on earth.

An astronomer published a book examining the historical evidence for devastating crashes on earth and called for a world network of telescopes to scan the skies for such unwelcome visitors. Perhaps surprisingly, he was not ridiculed by other astronomers.

Geneticists found a cascade of genes this year: the gene for 8 per cent of breast cancers; the gene for red hair; a gene that causes aggression in mice; and, controversially, further evidence of a gene for homosexuality. Meanwhile, plant geneticists disclosed more productive rice that could help solve the world's food problem; peas that contain plastic; and tomatoes containing extra helpings of antioxidants.

As an older technology, X-ray production, celebrated its centenary this year, radiologists said that the latest scanning technology is leaving surgeons without a job.

One radiologist described how he performed brain surgery by sending cameras and operating tools up through a little slit in the top of the thigh.

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