Review of 2002

As in previous years, the landmark developments in 2002 chosen by editorial staff of major journals sideline the Earth sciences.  Both Nature and Science consider the discovery of Sahelanthropus tchadensis the only geoscientific advance worthy of a headline (See Bonanza time for Bonzo in Earth Pages News of August 2002).  Scientific misconduct tops Nature’s list, the exposure of monumental fudging by physicists Jan Hendrick Schön and Victor Ninov being something which should concern every scientist.  Molecular biology was, unsurprisingly, the front runner for both august periodicals, with issues related to terrorism, climate change and the soon-forgotten World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg appearing in both.  Jo’burg received typically trenchant comment from water specialist Fred Pearce in New Scientist, particularly about the weasel phrase “sustainable development” – read “make money”, according to Pearce.  New Scientist’s main look forward to 2003 is Oliver Morton’s perspective on ESA’s Mars Express, which carries the British Beagle 2 miniature life-sniffing lab, and the two NASA Mars rovers scheduled for launch this year.  This is big-budget science, yet carries big risks, judging from the frequency with which giga-dollar missions ended up in flames or the sea recently.  Morton pours scorn on the hype that Mars missions will solve “great mysteries” on which their funding depends – and that of the agencies who launch them.

Anyone who has the brass neck to comment month by month on geoscientific news cannot resist picking developments that most marked the year, so here is my own personal choice.

The most exciting advances were in palaeoanthropology: March (Taking stock of hominid evolution), April (Homo erectus unification?), April (Phyllogeography and “Out of Africa”), August (Bonanza time for Bonzo), November (A considered view) , December (Central Asian Y chromosomes and the source of migrating humans)

Most hammered hypothesis: “Snowball Earth” came in for some stick in February (Meltdown for Snowball Earth?) and December (Snowball Earth hypothesis challenged, again).  Running that a close second was the BLAG hypothesis that subduction metamorphism is a source for CO2 recycling: December (Deep carbon cycling, and gold mineralization)

Biggest technological advances: April (Satellite-based gravitational surveys), October (Microgravity and diamonds); August (Tungsten and Archaean heavy bombardment), September (Very early differentiation of planetary bodies).  The most important technical consolidation was in seismic tomography: May (Mantle motions from seismic tomography), August (Seismic tomography and the African superplume), this issue (Beowulf and mapping the mantle)

Most connective research: November (The lost world of the Galápagos hotspot track), linking plume activity, Pacific and Caribbean tectonics, closure of the Central American climatic “door”, and intercontinental migration of flora and fauna.

The biggest slanging match: April (Doubt cast on earliest bacterial fossils).

The greatest scandal emerged in autumn 2002: October (British Geological Survey sued over arsenic), December (More confusion over Bangladesh arsenic crisis)

March saw hopefully the last word on the influence of extraterrestrial impact on the K-T mass extinction (Extinctions by impacts: smoking artillery) when the fullerenes in the K-T boundary layer were matched with those in carbonaceous chondrites.

Lesser categories: Biggest scam: August (Exploration licence lepton by physicists).  Most amusing discovery: November (Dinosaurs did urinate). Latest frightener: May (Magnetic reversal on the way?)  Most promising palaeontological theory: September (The Malnourished Earth hypothesis – evolutionary stasis in the mid-Proterozoic)

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