100 Things We Learned in 2019

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HAKINMHAN/iStock via Getty Images Plus

From findings about space and parasites to new discoveries in math and ancient civilizations, 2019 was a big year.

1. Women might perform better on tests in warmer rooms.

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A study published this year in the journal PLOS One found that female students performed better on simple math and verbal tests with each degree that room temperature rose. Female performance on math questions increased a whopping 27 percent at temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit versus their results in rooms under 70 degrees—but more research is needed.

2. We may have learned just how rare supercentenarians, or people over the age of 110, are in 2019.

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States in the U.S. began introducing birth certificates at different times in the last century, and according to research announced this July, the introduction of these standardized records coincided with a 69 to 82 percent drop in the rate of people living to the age of 110. In other words, a lot of our supercentenarians are probably not that old and just don’t have good records of when they were born.

3. The 10,000-hour rule was dealt a critical blow in 2019.

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For years, scholars have questioned the legitimacy of ascribing outsized importance to the role that 10,000 hours of practice plays in achieving mastery. The idea originally spawned from a study published in 1993, which showed the best violinists practiced the most, and was made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. But a replication of the study this year found that some violinists could practice as much as better players but still not reach their level. To be fair to Gladwell, he never said 10,000 hours of practice was a guarantee for mastery, but he did oversimplify the original 1993 study, according to one of its authors. The bottom line? It probably requires more than just practice to make perfect.

4. If you want to make improvements, try telling your goal to a mentor.

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Research from Ohio State University concluded that sharing your goals with someone who you consider “higher status” will make you more committed to those goals. They found this by having undergraduates set goals with a lab assistant who was either dressed up in a suit, proclaiming to be an expert Ph.D. student, or in casual clothes, pretending to be a local community college student.

5., 6., and 7. We got a few studies that could help you achieve professional success this year.

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For example, in a study of 183 employees, researchers found that those with hobbies after work, such as playing sports or volunteering, were more proactive during the workday.

And according to a study that sorted 260 undergrads into 78 teams, people tend to like leaders who are extroverted—unless those leaders also consider themselves assertive or very warm, in which case they’re liked less than the typical extroverted leader.

In a study of workplace ethics, researchers found that when participants believed that being honest will take more effort, they’re more likely to be dishonest.

8. In a study of 332 individuals, researchers found that people do tend to have a “type” when it comes to romantic partners.

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They dated people with similar traits on the Big Five Inventory: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people high in extraversion and openness to new experiences don’t stick to a type as often.

9. Now we know how much time you have to be outside to reap benefits.


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It probably won’t blow your mind if we tell you that if you spend time outside, you’ll be healthier and happier. But research released this year provided an actual amount of time you want to hit to get the benefits: 120 minutes per week outside. Do that 5000 times and you’ll hit 10,000 hours, which, as we now know (see #3), might not mean much ...

10. Until 700 million years ago, Venus may have had liquid water.

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That's according to a study presented at a conference in September 2019. NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission previously hinted that water may have been possible on the planet at one time, so researchers did five simulations based on the Pioneer Venus’s information and found that the planet may have been habitable for 2 to 3 billion years.

11. An elevator from a low-orbiting point above earth to the moon is possible.

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It would require a 200,000-mile-long cable and cost around $1 billion, based on the calculations of Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford. That estimate is based on a cable only around as wide as a pencil lead, and even so there are a number of challenges to overcome, from wildly varying cost estimates to the danger of orbiting space junk, but supporters of various models of a space elevator contend that these obstacles are surmountable.

12. We now know what the farthest object we've ever explored with a spacecraft looks like.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

MU69 is 4.1 billion miles from earth. Photos were taken of the Kuiper Belt object, now renamed Arrokoth, in 2014, but clearer ones taken this year show that it looks kind of like a snowman.

13. And we now know what black holes look like, too.

NASA

On April 10, we all learned what black holes look like when a photo was released of a black hole located roughly 54 million light years away. The scientists who made it happen received the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, which comes with a payout of $3 million.

14. We revised the Hubble Constant this year.

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New calculations came out this year that suggested the Hubble Constant—essentially, the expansion rate of the universe—is around 82.4 kilometers per second per megaparsec, much higher than previous estimates. What does this mean? Well, for one it suggests the universe is just 11.4 billion years old, considerably younger than the previously believed 13.7 billion years. Like many of these newer pieces of research, though, the findings are still being debated.

15. We discovered that the moon is older than we thought.

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A new study reveals the moon formed about 4.51 billion years ago, 100 million years older than previously thought. (But we have to say, it doesn’t look a day over 4.4 billion!)

16. The moon is also shrinking.


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This year, scientists discovered that as the moon gets smaller, moonquakes occur, just like earthquakes.

17. We found a planet half the size of Jupiter.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

It's 31 light years away, and it's orbiting a star only 12 percent the size of our sun. It’s unique to find a planet this big, let alone one that orbits a dwarf star.

18. Space affects the gut microbiome.

Scott Kelly (right) and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko aboard the ISS in 2015.NASA via Getty Images

We already knew that space makes people different in many ways. But thanks to a study on astronaut Scott Kelly, we now know that space travel alters the ratios of bacteria in the gut’s microbiome—though its composition does normalize after some time back on Earth.

19. We found the earliest protocluster ever discovered.

NAOJ/Harikane et al.

A cluster of galaxies is a group of galaxies that are held together with gravity, and in September 2019, astronomers found a group of 12 galaxies in what’s known as a protocluster—basically, in the early stages of becoming a cluster. This was the earliest known protocluster ever discovered, which will hopefully shed light on how they form and evolve.

20. We know more about how the Milky Way formed.


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Basically, it slowly collided with another galaxy about 25 percent of its size and enveloped the entire thing, a discovery that was announced in 2018. In 2019, researchers at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands in Spain helped shed more light on this event. By studying our galaxy’s stars, especially extremely old stars found in a sort-of “halo” that was likely caused by that galactic collision, they were able to more precisely identify the timing of the collision, and hope to glean insights into “the formation of galaxies more generally.”

21. Office Space could have starred some different celebs.

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This year it became public that, back in the '90s, 20th Century Fox had hoped that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would star in Office Space.

22. Filming one scene from When Harry Met Sally... took a lot of takes.

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In other new news about old movies, Rob Reiner revealed to Entertainment Weekly this year that the scene in When Harry Met Sally... in which Harry, Sally, Jess, and Marie are all on the phone at the same time required a whopping 61 takes.

23. There could have been a sequel to a popular Julia Roberts movie.

Dermot Mulroney and Julia Roberts in 2013.Jason Merritt/Getty Images

EW also got the scoop that there was almost a sequel to My Best Friend’s Wedding. Julia Roberts’s other best friend in the film, George, would’ve been getting married in the second film.

24. The Doors' song "Touch Me" originally had different lyrics.

Jim Morrison (second from right) and the other members of The Doors.Central Press/Getty Images

In music news, this year we learned that The Doors' song “Touch Me,” written by Robby Krieger, was originally called “Hit Me,” but Jim Morrison said, “I’m not saying that. People might take me literally.”

25. The cover of Abbey Road was devised on a tight deadline.

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And the iconic cover photo of Abbey Road was an idea devised on a deadline of about two days.

26., 27., 28., 29., and 30. Some incredible lost works were discovered this year.

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Steven Hoelscher, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, announced the discovery of an essay by Langston Hughes while researching an investigative journalist. The essay, “Forward From Life,” was about an encounter with a chain gang escapee.

While cataloguing the archives of Anthony Burgess’s papers, the director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation found the lost, incomplete follow-up to A Clockwork Orange, titled The Clockwork Condition.

A lost J.R.R. Tolkien work that was found in an Oxford basement was published this year. Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer contains his commentary on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Jason Scott-Warren, a lecturer at Cambridge, was reading an article on a copy of Shakespeare’s plays held at the Free Library of Philadelphia when he realized that the notes in the margins might identify it as John Milton’s copy of the plays.

And a Samuel Clemens signature was discovered this year in a 3-mile-long cave in Missouri. People had been searching for the spot on the wall that a young Clemens signed for decades.

31. The 2019 book Letters from Hollywood published many newly uncovered letters.

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In one, Hattie McDaniel takes on the criticism she received for playing roles like Mammy in Gone with the Wind. She wrote, “Truly, a maid or butler in real life is making an honest dollar, just as we are on the screen.”

32. This year, geologists and researchers took another look at the area where the crater formed from the massive impact that killed the dinosaurs.

A topographical map showing the impact of the crater.NASA/Getty Images

They found that within minutes, that location was covered in over 100 feet of molten rock. An hour later ocean waters flooded back in, depositing another 300 feet of rock, and then, within a day, the area was hit by a tsunami.

33. A new genus of pterosaur was identified this year.

An illustration of a pterosaur.Warpaintcobra/iStock via Getty Images

Cryodrakon boreas was identified in Alberta, Canada this year. The reptile, which lived during the Cretaceous period, had a wingspan of at least 16 feet. Fun fact: Its name translates to ice dragon!

34. The Ambopteryx longibrachium was also announced.

SciNews, YouTube

This dinosaur, from 163 million years ago, was about 13 inches long and had wings like a bat.

35. We also got the Aquilarhinus palimentus dinosaur, which lived 80 million years ago.

ICRA Art

That mouthful of a name roughly translates to eagle-nose shovel-chin. So if you’re a linguistics-loving bully, have fun with that one.

36. We learned of a giant bird, a member of the Pachystruthio dmanisensis species, which lived 2 million years ago.

Andrey Atuchin

At around 1000 pounds, it weighed about the same as a modern polar bear. And at 11 feet tall, it will haunt our nightmares.

37. A study of mosasaurs this year found that the swimming reptiles didn’t just use their tails to get around.

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Mosasaurs probably had giant pectoral muscles, so they could swim quickly by engaging those pecs.

38. New research on old fossil footprints led to a discovery.

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There are 280-million-year-old fossil footprints in Grand Canyon National Park. New research was published this year on these prints, which were created before dinosaurs came around. Their likely owners were Ichniotherium which, before this research, we didn’t know could thrive in the desert.

39. There are large holes in T. rex skulls and this year a team of paleontologists hypothesized why that might be.

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In research published in The Anatomical Record, they laid out their evidence that the holes were once likely filled with tissue and blood vessels, which served to keep the large T. rex cool.

40. Two hundred and fifty-seven footprints from Neanderthals who lived 80,000 years ago were excavated in France.

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It was previously unclear how many Neanderthals grouped together, but these prints led scientists to believe that this group contained 10 to 13 members.

41. We now know what Denisovans might have looked like ...

Maayan Harel

Another of our ancient relatives are the Denisovans, who lived at the same time as Neanderthals. By using the DNA taken from the finger bone of a Denisovan, some scientists this year came up with a picture of what the ancient people may have looked like.

42. ... and sequenced the genome of a member of the ancient Harrapan civilization.

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We don’t have much information about the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley, which had its peak between around 2600 to 1900 BCE. But this year scientists sequenced the genome of a woman from the civilization, which revealed their ancestry as well as connections to people all over Eurasia.

43. We learned more about the Philistine civilization this year.

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The Philistine civilization, from between the 12th and 7th centuries BCE, is mentioned in the Bible. Like the Harappans, they’ve been pretty mysterious. But this year, DNA from 10 individuals was acquired and showed that the Philistines traced part of their origin to southern Europe.

44. The Edomites made a sudden technological leap in the 10th century.

Southern Israel, where Edom used to be located.RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images

Another group that pops up in the Bible is the Edomites. Thanks to archeological evidence, we know that this society was mining copper for tools and weapons in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. This year, it was discovered that the Edomites had a sudden technological leap in the 10th century that led to a more efficient, better-controlled smelting process. This “punctuated equilibrium model” for technological development suggests that, rather than the result of a long period of gradual improvement, the improvements in smelting may have been the result of a “punctuation event.” Research suggests that Ancient Egyptian influence may have been the cause.

45. Monte Alto artists were aware of magnetism—and used it in their art.

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The Monte Alto people lived in ancient Mesoamerica around 500 to 100 BCE, preceding the Maya classic period. In the Journal of Archaeological Science this year, a study was published indicating that Monte Alto artists not only were aware of magnetism but actually created sculptures that incorporated the raw materials’ magnetic properties.

46. Babies in the Neolithic era drank ruminant milk out of bottles.

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Researchers found this year that as early as the Neolithic era, 7000 years ago, babies would drink ruminant milk out of “baby bottles.” (Ruminants are a type of mammal that include cattle and sheep.) Some of the unearthed bottles are even shaped like animals. Aww!

47. A virtual autopsy of a mummified crocodile revealed new information about the practice.

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Crocodiles were mummified in ancient Egypt. And a virtual autopsy of one such crocodile showed that the animals were likely hunted for the specific purpose of being mummified.

48. A found photo of Harriet Tubman went on display this year.

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A found photograph of Harriet Tubman in the 1860s went on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2019. It was in a photo album that had originally been owned by a Quaker schoolteacher and abolitionist.

49. The remains of the Clotilda were found.

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The last ever slave ship to the U.S., which arrived (illegally) around 1860, was confirmed to be in the Mobile River in Alabama. The Clotilda had taken 110 Africans from West Africa to Alabama before being burned by its captain.

50. There are 4.5 billion-year-old continents beneath the surface of the Earth.

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Eighteen hundred miles below the Earth’s surface, there are 4.5 billion-year-old continents. And this year we learned that they may be the result of an ocean of magma dating to the very beginning of the Earth’s formation.

51. Greater Adria was discovered.

Greater Adria would've been roughly between Africa and Eurasia.Tinkivinki/iStock via Getty Images

Greater Adria, an entire lost continent the size of Greenland, was discovered this year under Europe. One hundred million years ago tectonic shifts moved it underwater in the Mediterranean.

52., 53., and 54. A number of math discoveries were made this year.

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In math, cubing a number means multiplying it by itself two times. Up until this year, mathematicians were able to represent every number from 0 to 100 as three cubed integers added together, or—in the case of numbers like 4, 5, and 13— to prove that such a thing was impossible. The exception was the number 42, which mathematicians had failed to represent as the sum of three cubed integers, or to prove it impossible. In 2019, two mathematicians figured out how to represent 42 in this way, sparking many Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-related headlines.

Another math problem that went unsolved until this year was a theoretical question: In a lottery in which the winning number is infinite, as are the tickets, is there a ticket that always wins? The answer: nope.

We learned 9 trillion more digitals of pi this year thanks to Google employee Emma Haruka Iwao, who got us to 31.4 trillion digits total (calculations were done via computer ... not by hand, of course).

55., 56., 57., 58., and 59. A number of world records were set in 2019.

Cam Newton in 2010.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Speaking of things that go on for a long time: this year we learned that a man can do tai chi for a full 36 hours. That’s what Samuel Michaud did to break the world record for consecutive hours practicing tai chi.

We also now know that a person, specifically Lata Tondon, can cook for over 87 hours straight. She cooked up 1600 kilograms of grains and other dishes for around 20,000 people.

We also learned that Cam Newton—another record breaker this year—can catch 51 footballs one-handed in just 60 seconds.

And we learned that 978 students and teachers will show up and floss (the dance, that is) simultaneously if a world record is on the line.

Finally (in world record news at least) we learned not to count out the 90-94 age group of runners. In July, 91-year-old Diane Hoffman broke a world record for that group by running 400 meters in about 2 minutes and 44 seconds, a period of time accounting for roughly five ten-thousandths of a percent of her time on Earth to date. Even more amazing? She only started competitive running at the age of 90!

60. We learned more about the Crypt Keeper wasp this year.

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The “crypt keeper” wasp is creepy. Being a parasite who lives off of other wasps is already freaky enough, but it also travels through its host’s head. Yuck. And this year, researchers found that the crypt keeper wasp can live off of seven separate gall wasp species, an unusual ability for a parasite.

61. we found out about an ancestor of the Ophiocordyceps species.

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And speaking of parasites, we already knew about the Ophiocordyceps fungus, which uses ants as its host. Invading an ant’s body, then getting it to climb up on a leaf, allows it to produce many spores. But this year, research revealed that the various Ophiocordyceps species share an ancestor species which infected beetles rather than ants.

62. Certain dyeing poison frogs are targeted more by birds.

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There are dyeing poison frogs with white stripes and ones with yellow stripes. By placing frog models in French Guiana, scientists this year learned that white-striped frogs were bothered more by bird predators.

63. This year we learned that there are actually three species of electric eel.


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One of them, the Electrophorus voltai, can create an 860 volt shock, the highest ever recorded from an animal.

64. Yellow-legged gull embryos are listening to their parents.

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Birds have different noises for different situations, and we now know that while yellow-legged gull parents are communicating about danger, their embryos are paying attention and become restless within their eggs.

65. Squirrels eavesdrop on birds.

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When birds are making noise that indicate their surroundings are safe and calm, the squirrels become relaxed as well.

66. We learned this year that the typically-monogamous convict cichlid fish will mourn a breakup.

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Female cichlids were given the opportunity to choose a male partner. Some females were then separated from those partners. The separated females were less likely to open a mysterious box that may or may not contain food, which researchers took as evidence of a more pessimistic post-"breakup" worldview.

67. Mice fidget when they're focusing.


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In another lab experiment, neuroscientists discovered that while mice are working on a task, like licking an item when prompted, they fidget more as they focus.

68. Scientists revived cellular functions in a dead pig's brain.

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Researchers in 2019 revealed that they managed to restore some cellular functions in a pig’s brain hours after the animal died.

69. We learned this year that Venus flytraps are super sensitive.


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We’ve known for a while that Venus flytraps have hairs that allow them to sense when an insect is nearby. But research from this year showed that they can sense items that weigh less than a single sesame seed.

70. The idea that there was only one species of Chinese giant salamander was debunked this year.

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There are actually three species. This means that the Andrias sligoi, or South China giant salamander, is the largest amphibian in the world.

71. AI can now distinguish the faces of chimpanzees.

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Conservationists hope this might help stop illegal chimpanzee trading.

72. This year we progressed in the search for the Loch Ness monster ... kind of.

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A team took 250 water samples and discovered a large amount of eel DNA in Loch Ness, which could point to a large eel being the source of the rumors.

73. According to a study involving MRIs of dogs, when people started breeding the animals, they changed dog brains.


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“Brain anatomy varies across dog breeds and it appears that at least some of this variation is due to selective breeding for particular behaviors like hunting, herding and guarding,” neuroscientist and lead author of the study Erin Hecht told The Washington Post.

74. New species of nematode were found in California's Mono Lake.

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Mono Lake in the Sierra Mountains only contained two species of animal, as far as scientists knew, up until this year when they found eight nematode species in the lake, one of which has three sexes: male, female, and hermaphrodite.

75. We learned this year that loons don’t mind parenting a duckling.

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In northern Wisconsin, a pair of loons was observed looking out for an orphaned duck.

76. The Hebetica sylviae bug was discovered in 2019.

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The name sylviae came from its unexpected discoverer: two-year-old Sylvie Beckers, who’d overwatered her mom’s flowers. Sylvie's mom was a biology professor, so she was the perfect person to observe the little bugs floating up as a result of the overwatering.

77., 78., 79., 80., and 81. Some important medical discoveries were made this year.


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In the world of medicine, a particular molecular defect that’s exclusive to patients with Parkinson’s disease was discovered this year, which may help with early detection of the disease.

Speaking of disease detection, AI is getting very good at it. A scientific review published in The Lancet Digital Health journal reported that algorithms could correctly diagnose diseases 87 percent of the time versus healthcare professionals who were at 86 percent. These results were valid only in the specific circumstances tested, though, and the methodologies employed may have tilted the results; we’re probably quite a ways off from AI doctors.

An entirely new autoimmune disease was discovered this year in a 9-year-old patient. It was a mutation in their genes involving a lack of P I 3 K Gamma. Pinpointing diseases in such a specific way helps personalize treatment.

In research this year, AI was used to examine the cardiac MRIs of 17,000 people. It determined that genes were responsible for 22 to 39 percent of the variation in the left ventricle’s size and function, which is significant. When that ventricle is unable to pump blood, the result is heart failure.

Microbiologists discovered a protein that’s integral to the spread of the common cold in bodies. It’s known as SETD3 and identifying it might be the first step in a cure for the cold.

82. Before this year, it was believed that hurricanes can only form in wet environments.

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But new information about atmospheric science has revealed that hurricanes can form in dry, cold places. They wouldn’t do that on Earth today, but other planets might experience dry hurricanes.

83. A study on mouse sleep may shed light on human sleep.

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In a study on mouse sleep, neuroscientists look at melanin-concentrating hormone-producing neurons, which they now think might be a cause of the brain forgetting information. The neurons fire most during REM sleep. That may be why we forget most of our dreams.

84. Three of the four Bear Brook murder victims were identified this year.

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The victims of the Bear Brook murders in New Hampshire had been unknown since 1985, but in 2019 three out of four of them were identified by name. This was partially thanks to paleogeneticist Ed Green, who can recover DNA from hair without a root—a previously impossible task.

85. Another cold case was helped along in 2019, this one dating back to 1997.

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But it wouldn’t have been solved at all without the help of Google Earth. A man was using it to check out his former house in Florida when he spotted a car submerged in a nearby pond. Sure enough, a deceased man inside had been reported missing more than two decades earlier.

86. A visit was made to the TItanic in 2019.

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In 2019, human beings visited the Titanic for the first time in 14 years. Based on the footage a deep-sea explorer team took, some experts now believe it will disintegrate within 30 years.

87. The HMS Terror got a visit for the first time in 2019.

Parks Canada, YouTube

Speaking of shipwrecks, the HMS Terror, which sunk in northern Canada during the 1840s, got its first-ever visit this year. Marine archaeologists took a look at the damage, which included bottles, plates, guns, and chamber pots.

88., 89., and 90. There were some lab-grown breakthroughs this year.

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Scientists created a gel that can regrow tooth enamel, which was previously impossible.

Another amazing lab-grown gel might stop forest fires from spreading. Putting the gel, invented at Stanford, on vegetation will keep it flame-retardant for the entirety of wildfire season.

For a third lab-grown breakthrough we have yeast-produced CBD and THC, which could hopefully be used for medicinal purposes.

91. Very old wooden bowls with traces of cannabis were discovered this year.

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On that note, thanks to the discovery of wooden bowls containing traces of cannabis this year in China, we learned that people have been using it as a drug since at least around 2500 years ago.

92. We learned that robots can do gymnastics.

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Robotics company Boston Dynamics posted a video of their robot Atlas doing tricks like somersaults, leaps, and handstands like a metallic Simone Biles.

93. Early research suggests that plastic tea bags release a ton of microplastic into tea.

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A research team discovered that a plastic tea bag releases billions of microplastic particles—100 nanometers to 5 millimeters big—into a cup of tea. More research is needed on this one, though.

94. There was a breakthrough discovery in hair growth.

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Meanwhile, a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that electric stimulation in lab rodents can increase hair growth, which led to their invention: a baseball cap that does the same thing to humans, which they are going to test on balding men.

95. A whiskey tongue exists.

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All sorts of problems are being solved this year! Like when a team in Scotland revealed they’d created an artificial tongue, which can taste and identify types of whiskey.

96. and 97. There were plenty of words added to the dictionary this year.

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Thanks to Merriam-Webster, we learned that stan is a word in 2019. They added the word to the dictionary with the meaning “an extremely or excessively enthusiastic and devoted fan.” The first known use was in the 2000 Eminem song “Stan.”

This year also gave us a few abbreviations that officially count as words: vacay, sesh, and inspo.

98. Scientists estimated the size of the proton this year after a 2010 study cast doubt on the previously-accepted measurement.

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Protons have a radius of about 0.833 femtometers. For the record, a femtometer is one quadrillionth of a meter.

99. We learned that there are self-driving mail trucks.

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In May, the U.S. Postal Service tested the trucks and their ability to cart mail from Phoenix to Dallas during a two-week project.

100. drones can be responsible for insulin delivery.

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More specifically, a drone containing diabetes medicine was flown 11 miles over water from Galway to the Aran Islands in Ireland.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

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Dash/Amazon

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Home office Essentials

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

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Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

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In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

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Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.