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24 things we learned last year





You and your baby are literally on the same wavelength . Picture: Csm University
You and your baby are literally on the same wavelength . Picture: Csm University

2017: None the wiser? Here's what the University of Cambridge taught the world

This is what a 700-year old Cambridge man looks like, reconstructed from remains under St Johns College. Picture: Csm University
This is what a 700-year old Cambridge man looks like, reconstructed from remains under St Johns College. Picture: Csm University

Love it or loathe it, 2017 was quite a year and we learned an awful lot in those 12 months - including these nuggets from the University of Cambridge...

1. Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous scientist, uploaded his original PhD thesis, ‘Properties of expanding universes’, to the internet – and it was promptly downloaded 750,000 times, breaking the University’s Open Access repository, Apollo. Whoever knew there was such hunger for learning on that scale!

2. Ewe know-all: Research at the ewe-niversity showed that sheep were able to identify photos of former US President Barack Obaaa-ma, movie stars Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhall, plus BBC presenter Fiona Bruce in an experiment that takes some bleating.

Stephen Hawking's thesis was published online in 2017 and the 750,000 downloads crashed the University's system. Picture: Csm University
Stephen Hawking's thesis was published online in 2017 and the 750,000 downloads crashed the University's system. Picture: Csm University

3. Herpes blame-game: the denouement. Who was it? Chimps got both cold-sores (HSV1) and genital herpes (HSV2), but humans only got HSV1 – until HSV2 jumped the species barrier around two million years ago via “an intermediate hominin species unrelated to humans” called Paranthropus boisei. The original dirty stopover, then.

4. Celebrities on Twitter behave like bots: Computer Laboratory PhD student Zafar Gilani found that Twitter accounts with more than 10 million followers “display more bot-like behaviour than those with fewer followers”. So just who is @realdonaldtrump?

Forget Tom Cruise - the real Top Gun is the robber fly . Picture: Csm University
Forget Tom Cruise - the real Top Gun is the robber fly . Picture: Csm University

5. Fake news vaccine: The Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab found that if an article about, say, whether the earth is flat, includes a warning that “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”, the reader is more likely to spot the fabrication.

6. Conspiracy theories nailed: When incredible things happen, things that we can’t fully understand, like the moon landings or 9/11, our brains take short-cuts, found university researcher Victoria James. Conspiracy theories are “sanctioned forms of belief... our attempts to craft an explanation of the world around us”.

Astronomers found a 'little star' that twinkles 600 light years away - and the whole star system is smaller than the planet Saturn. Picture: Csm University
Astronomers found a 'little star' that twinkles 600 light years away - and the whole star system is smaller than the planet Saturn. Picture: Csm University

7. Twinkle twinkle little star: University astronomers have found EBLM J0555-57Ab, a newly-measured star 600 light years away which is not much larger than Saturn.

8. Air ace: Nature’s top gun is the robber fly Holcocephala: the size of a grain of rice, it can detect and intercept its prey mid-air, and change direction mid-flight.

Mediterranean black truffle, one of the world's most expensive ingredients, in the UK. Warning: it'll cost you the earth! Picture: Csm University
Mediterranean black truffle, one of the world's most expensive ingredients, in the UK. Warning: it'll cost you the earth! Picture: Csm University

9. Back in the day (early agricultural eras) women had stronger arms than today’s male rowing team.

10. People who swear frequently are more honest. They’re not filtering language so they’re not filtering their views. If you don’t believe me you can just [that’s enough on this – Ed].

11. Robots will soon commit crimes, says Christoper Markou from the Faculty of Law. So what should be their punishment? No WD-40 for a month?

12. Arise, Sir Robot: Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, says we don’t need to worry about an alien invasion – we’re building our own demise at the robot factory.

13. Lost Liszt: David Tripett from the Faculty of Music concluded a fragmented opera of Franz Liszt’s by “reconstructing the artistic process” laid out in the 111 surviving pages of mansuscript.

14. Apparently our earliest ancestor, a primitive sea creature, ate using the same orifice which produced waste, thereby explaining the phrase “he’s talking total ****”.

15. Wine glasses are getting bigger – holding 66ml in 1700s and 417ml today. Just a question of time before the wine bottle is the stem to a huge wine glass!

16. Mirror, mirror: “Elephants are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror,” said visiting researcher Dr Josh Plotnik. Dumbo not!

17. Caterpillars can biodegrade plastic: “The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut,” said Paolo Bombelli from the Department of Biochemistry.

18. Viking-age fish suppers from the 9th century showed traces of cod, suggesting fish trading in Europe goes back more than 1,000 years, according to Dr James Barrett, of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

19. Making eye contact with your baby will boost communication and learning. Not a dating tip necessarily, this one is all about how an infant’s brain works better if synchronised with a parent.

20. Thatcher’s turn: Papers released by the Churchill Archives Centre from 1986 show that then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had a test drive of the new Rover 800 in 1986 – and managed a flawless reversing procedure.

21. Northern lights: University scientists in conjunction with the Natural History Museum found that the system for classifying dinosaurs is wrong: there are three distinct lineages – Ornithischia, Sauropodomorpha and Theropoda – not two. And some dinosaurs originated in the northern hemisphere.

22. Facial reconstruction at the university revealed the face of a 700-year-old Cambridge man who was buried under St John’s College. Seems he often didn’t get enough to eat. Wonder what they’ll say about Cambridge’s homeless in 700 years time....

23. Climate change is a disaster for the planet, but there’s at least one benefit: “we can now grow the the Mediterranean black truffle, one of the world’s most expensive ingredients, in the UK”, say researchers. It’ll cost you the earth, mind.

24. Dieting is difficult: Everyone knows that after the festive splurge, but now we know the reason: Dr Clement Blouet from the Metabolic Research Laboratories at the University of Cambridge says the brain steps in when we diet and stops us from burning calories. The intervention probably started as a coping mechanism for famine, so park yourself up on a sofa and think about that for a moment - and pass the biscuits.



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