17 things you’ve already forgotten happened in 2020

By Jeva Lange

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At long, long, long last, this weird and horrible year is ending. But however much it might feel like it, a pandemic was not the only thing to happen in 2020.

Here are 17 of the biggest, bizarrest, space-aliens-exist-est moments of the year that you’ve already forgotten happened.

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Researchers reveal a much richer picture of the past with new DNA recovery technique

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A shot of the Klondike region in the Yukon, where the permafrost samples containing sediment DNA, were collected.

Researchers at McMaster University have developed a new technique to tease ancient DNA from soil, pulling the genomes of hundreds of animals and thousands of plants—many of them long extinct—from less than a gram of sediment.

The DNA extraction method, outlined in the journal Quarternary Research, allows scientists to reconstruct the most advanced picture ever of environments that existed thousands of years ago.

The researchers analyzed permafrost samples from four sites in the Yukon, each representing different points in the Pleistocene-Halocene transition, which occurred approximately 11,000 years ago.

This transition featured the extinction of a large number of animal species such as mammoths, mastodons and ground sloths, and the new process has yielded some surprising new information about the way events unfolded, say the researchers. They suggest, for example, that the woolly mammoth survived far longer than originally believed.

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Dozens of scientific journals have vanished from the internet, and no one preserved them

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Most open-access journals lack the technical means and plans to preserve their articles, despite a mandate from some funders that they do so.

Eighty-four online-only, open-access (OA) journals in the sciences, and nearly 100 more in the social sciences and humanities, have disappeared from the internet over the past 2 decades as publishers stopped maintaining them, potentially depriving scholars of useful research findings, a study has found.

An additional 900 journals published only online also may be at risk of vanishing because they are inactive, says a preprint posted on 3 September on the arXiv server. The number of OA journals tripled from 2009 to 2019, and on average the vanished titles operated for nearly 10 years before going dark, which “might imply that a large number … is yet to vanish,” the authors write.

The study didn’t identify examples of prominent journals or articles that were lost, nor collect data on the journals’ impact factors and citation rates to the articles. About half of the journals were published by research institutions or scholarly societies; none of the societies are large players in the natural sciences. None of the now-dark journals was produced by a large commercial publisher.

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How far back in time could a modern English speaker go and still communicate?

 

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The transition from Old English to Modern English was a process, not an event

Changes in language don’t occur overnight, though slang terms come in and out of use relatively quickly and new words are invented while others fall into disuse. The rules of grammar you learned in school are the same ones your parents were taught and what your own kids will (or do) use. A few new words are tossed in the mix every few years to keep things interesting (remember the uproar when “ain’t” was added to the dictionary?).

The transition from Old English to Middle English to Modern English was a process rather than an event — the rules didn’t all suddenly change on May 24, 1503. Before the Normans invaded England in 1066, the people living in Britain spoke Old English or Anglo-Saxon. Some of the words from that time are still with us — the ones of the vulgar four-letter variety. Old English was so unlike Modern English it’s fair to view it as a foreign language. For example, here are the opening lines of the poem Beowulf:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum

þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon

hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

I’m completely lost. Something about a garden, maybe?

Modern English translation as follows:

Listen! We — of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,

of those clan-kings — heard of their glory,

how those nobles performed courageous deeds.

Yeah, not even close.

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How Epidemics of the past changed the way Americans lived

 

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Past public health crises inspired innovations in infrastructure, education, fundraising and civic debate

At the end of the 19th century, one in seven people around the world had died of tuberculosis, and the disease ranked as the third leading cause of death in the United States. While physicians had begun to accept German physician Robert Koch’s scientific confirmation that TB was caused by bacteria, this understanding was slow to catch on among the general public, and most people gave little attention to the behaviors that contributed to disease transmission. They didn’t understand that things they did could make them sick. In his book, Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Its Modern Prophylaxis and the Treatment in Special Institutions and at Home, S. Adolphus Knopf, an early TB specialist who practiced medicine in New York, wrote that he had once observed several of his patients sipping from the same glass as other passengers on a train, even as “they coughed and expectorated a good deal.” It was common for family members, or even strangers, to share a drinking cup.

With Knopf’s guidance, in the 1890s the New York City Health Department launched a massive campaign to educate the public and reduce transmission. The “War on Tuberculosis” public health campaign discouraged cup-sharing and prompted states to ban spitting inside public buildings and transit and on sidewalks and other outdoor spaces—instead encouraging the use of special spittoons, to be carefully cleaned on a regular basis. Before long, spitting in public spaces came to be considered uncouth, and swigging from shared bottles was frowned upon as well. These changes in public behavior helped successfully reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis.

As we are seeing with the coronavirus today, disease can profoundly impact a community—upending routines and rattling nerves as it spreads from person to person. But the effects of epidemics extend beyond the moments in which they occur. Disease can permanently alter society, and often for the best by creating better practices and habits. Crisis sparks action and response. Many infrastructure improvements and healthy behaviors we consider normal today are the result of past health campaigns that responded to devastating outbreaks.

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The coronavirus isn’t alive. That’s why it’s so hard to kill.

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This novel coronavirus is a sneaky variety similar to those that have been responsible for the most destructive outbreaks of the last 100 years.

Viruses have spent billions of years perfecting the art of surviving without living – a frighteningly effective strategy that makes them a potent threat in today’s world.

That’s especially true of the deadly new coronavirus that has brought global society to a screeching halt. It’s little more than a packet of genetic material surrounded by a spiky protein shell one-thousandth the width of an eyelash, and leads such a zombie-like existence, it’s barely considered a living organism.

But as soon as it gets into a human airway, the virus hijacks our cells to create millions more versions of itself.

There is a certain evil genius to how this coronavirus pathogen works: It finds easy purchase in humans without them knowing. Before its first host even develops symptoms, it is already spreading its replicas everywhere, moving onto its next victim. It is powerfully deadly in some, but mild enough in others to escape containment. And, for now, we have no way of stopping it.

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The year women became eligible to vote in each country

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SUFFRAGE HAPPENED in 1920 in the United States, three years behind Russia and Canada but 91 years ahead of Saudi Arabia, as noted by this map depicting the year women became eligible to vote in each country. Countries began joining the fray en masse by the mid-twentieth century, but the leader of the pack comes from far down under — women in New Zealand obtained voting rights in 1893. This map was uploaded to Reddit and shows the year women became eligible to vote in each country.

A quick glance at the map tells only part of the story, however. Pay close attention to the asterisks, as the year noted for some countries signifies only limited suffrage, often only for white women or in conjunction with specific requirements such as homeownership or marriage. Belgium’s 1919 suffrage granted widows and the mothers of servicemen killed in World War I, or widows and mothers of servicemen “shot and killed by the enemy” the vote but didn’t extend the same rights to all women until 1948. Australia granted women excluding Aboriginals the right to vote in 1902. For a more complete list of exclusions, view the notes at the far bottom of the infographic.

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50 years ago today, the internet was born in Room 3420

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50 years ago today, the internet was born in Room 3420

 Here’s the story of the creation of ARPANET, the groundbreaking precursor to the internet—as told by the people who were there.

When I visited UCLA’s Boelter Hall last Wednesday, I took the stairs to the third floor, looking for Room 3420. And then I walked right by it. From the hallway, it’s a pretty unassuming place.

But something monumental happened there 50 years ago today. A graduate student named Charley Kline sat at an ITT Teletype terminal and sent the first digital data transmission to Bill Duvall, a scientist who was sitting at another computer at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International) on the other side of California. It was the beginning of ARPANET, the small network of academic computers that was the precursor to the internet.

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Why the Fourth Industrial Revolution could spell more jobs – not fewer

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Automated packaging at an Italian factory.

If automation drives down prices, the result could be a net increase in jobs.

Ever since Homo erectus carved a piece of stone into a tool, the welfare of humanity has been on the increase. This technological breakthrough led first to the hand axe, and eventually to the iPhone. We have found it convenient to organize the most dramatic period of change between these two inventions – beginning roughly in the year 1760 – into four industrial revolutions.

As each revolution unfolded, dire predictions of massive job losses ensued, increasing each time. The first three are over, and these concerns were clearly misplaced. The number of jobs increased each time, as did living standards and every other social indicator.

McKinsey predicts that 800 million workers could be displaced in 42 countries, or a third of the workforce, because of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). When reminded of the experience with the previous revolutions, the comeback is often that this one is different. Although this has been said at the onset of each revolution, could there be something more to it this time?

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A fire lookout on what’s lost in a transition to technology

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A single tree burns in southwest New Mexico after a lightning strike. For more than 100 years, the U.S. Forest Service has been posting men and women atop mountains and trees, and in other hard-to-reach places, to wait and watch for smoke.

Can you see it? The fire in the photo above?

A single tree burning doesn’t put up much smoke.

There’s a flash of lightning, sizzling across the sky. Then a pause as bark smolders and flames creep, building heat until poof: a signal in the sky.

Philip Connors, gazing outward from a tower, sees it as a new dent on the crest of a distant ridge. He’s spent thousands of hours contemplating the contours of southwest New Mexico. The fuzzy smudge is out of place.

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What makes Silicon Valley different?

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The home in Menlo Park, California, where Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998. Paul Sakuma/AP

Like Detroit with automobiles or Pittsburgh with steel, Silicon Valley is synonymous with technology. In her new book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, Margaret O’Mara casts a historian’s eye on the contradictions of this pivotal place in modern American history.

Although it is known as a hotbed of entrepreneurship, O’Mara shows the important role played in Silicon Valley by government spending, funneled through research universities such as Stanford or dispensed as federal contracts to tech firms. She charts how the Valley continually remakes itself, creating cutting-edge industry after industry—from semiconductor chips and personal computers to biotech, mobile devices, the Internet, and social media. She traces it from its birth in the military buildup of the 1940s and the Cold War, to the rise of entrepreneurs steeped in the Bay Area counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, to now, and the backlash against tech.

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The new servant class

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“Wealth work” is one of America’s fastest-growing industries. That’s not entirely a good thing.

In an age of persistently high inequality, work in high-cost metros catering to the whims of the wealthy—grooming them, stretching them, feeding them, driving them—has become one of the fastest-growing industries.

The MIT economist David Autor calls it “wealth work.”

Low-skill, low-pay, and disproportionately done by women, these jobs congregate near dense urban labor markets, multiplying in neighborhoods with soaring disposable income. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of manicurists and pedicurists doubled, while the number of fitness trainers and skincare specialists grew at least twice as fast as the overall labor force.

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