The 12 most important moments in science in 2014


1 The West Antarctic ice sheet enters irreversible decline
13 January

In January and May we heard news of the “irreversible decline” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Stark headlines reported three studies of huge glaciers flowing into the Amundsen Sea that, if right, could mean a considerable sea-level rise over the next few hundred years. Interestingly, it isn’t a simple story of “humans cause global warming, ice melts”. While that’s true in some parts of Antarctica and Greenland, changes in the Amundsen Sea were triggered by water that’s already warm circulating under the ice. The jury’s still out as to whether human activities influenced this circulation in the past. But there’s reason to think we might make this and other triggers more likely in future. The big questions are: how long will this decline continue, how fast will it happen, and could it begin in other parts of Antarctica? I’m researching this fascinating story right now, so watch this space…
Dr Tamsin Edwards, environmental scientist, the Open University

2 Science discovers that dogs recognise their master’s voice
21 February

Functional imaging techniques such as fMRI allowed us to ask many questions about the functions of healthy human brains. A study this year really raised the bar by looking at brain function in humans and in domestic dogs. Both species showed activity in the superior temporal sulcus when they listened to emotional sounds (from both humans and dogs), though both showed a greater brain response to their own species. Dogs are highly social, and humans have been argued to have selected for particularly relevant cognitive skills in our co-evolution with dogs – dogs are capable of learning to understand many spoken words and are one of the few animals to understand what pointing means. This, the first inter-species fMRI study, opens up a way of looking at these shared skills from a brain perspective. And it was made possible by training the dogs to lie still in the scanner, a necessity which may make the first human-cat study some way off.
Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience, UCL

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