Answers for 15 of Your Biggest Questions of 2015


What better way to celebrate a continuing sprit of curiosity in the young year than by tackling an assortment of quirky questions? While some are specific to the year 2015, others are timeless questions great minds have pondered for decades. There’s bound to be one that’ll teach you something new.

1. How accurate is Punxsutawney Phil at predicting the weather?

Come February 2, folks frustrated with the cold will turn their attention to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where a groundhog named Phil will prognosticate on how much winter is left in the year. The practice of trusting a groundhog with the forecast dates back to 1887; that year, a shadow-sighting preceded six more weeks of winter. However, Phil hasn’t exactly perfected the art of weather prediction. In fact, he’s only right about 39 percent of the time.

2. Why is 2015 going to be one second longer than usual?

If you haven’t heard, 2015 is going to be one second longer than usual. On June 30, a single so-called “leap second” will be added to the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This is done to account for the fact that our modern clocks are actually too accurate compared to the rotation of the Earth, which varies ever so slightly because of tides and changes within its core.

3. Where are our flying cars?

The movies made it seem like by 2015 we’d be living in an anti-gravity world filled with flying cars. Now that we’re here, you may have noticed a continuing reliance on roads—but how close are we to zipping through the air in flying cars?

Well, to answer that you need to consider what sort of flying car we’re talking about. Semi-conventional cars that hover slightly above the road could potentially be accomplished with magnetic levitation, but that would require an entire infrastructure overhaul to create polarized roads. It also raises the question: What’s the point of flying cars if they don’t fly very high and can’t leave the street?

On the other hand, small personal planes that just look like cars create safety issues and would be prohibitively expensive for the average consumer. Don’t give up hope, though! With a prospect as tantalizing as being able to fly to work, brilliant minds are sure to keep looking for high-flying solutions—and if there’s one thing centuries of technological innovation have shown, it’s to never bet against science.

4. How close are we to finding life elsewhere in the universe?

A lot closer than ever before—but still really far away. In April of 2014, the Kepler spacecraft discovered, among 960 other planets, Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star. The rocky planet is 1.1 times the size of Earth and estimated to be 1.5 times the Earth’s mass. The planet's red dwarf star is only about half as big as the sun, making it cooler and dimmer, but Kepler-186f is also on a tighter orbit, keeping it at the "Goldilocks" distance from its star—not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface.

That said, there are a lot of other factors that determine whether life could exist on Kepler-186f, and at 493 light-years away, it’s hard to know anything for sure just yet.

5. Is it going to get even colder this year?

2015 is off to a very cold start. The past few weeks have seen temperatures dip into the single digits and sometimes even below zero all over the country. Does this mean that we’re in for an especially cold winter, or are we over the worst of it? Depending on where you live, there could be more frigid air in store. It’s impossible to know for sure, but a map of when the coldest day usually strikes different parts of the country shows that while it’s not unusual for parts of the West and Southwest to have experienced their coldest day by the end of December, much of the Upper Midwest and Northeast hit their lowest temperatures anywhere from late January to mid-February—meaning, in those areas, it is statistically likely to get even chillier before spring rolls around.

6. Why does my gadget say it's December 31, 1969, even though it’s 2015?

Back when a widely-used computer operating system was first developed in November 1971, the “epoch date,” or year 0, was set to the beginning of the decade: midnight on January 1, 1970. Sometimes, a glitch will cause your device to reset its clock and show what was essentially the beginning of time (as far as it’s concerned). But how did we end up a day earlier? The system’s internal clock was set to Greenwich Mean Time, so if you’re in the United States, midnight on January 1, 1970 GMT is still December 31 in your time zone.

7. When is the next binary palindrome year?

We’ve been working 11 binary digits to express the year ever since 1024 and this year, 2015 is represented by the beautifully symmetrical 11111011111. We won’t get another binary palindrome until 2047, which will be represented by the incredibly elegant 11111111111.

8. I love palindromes and can’t wait that long for another one. What else can the 2015 calendar offer me?

Every day in the third week of May, the date will be a palindrome: 5/11/15, 5/12/15, 5/13/15…

9. How do you stick to a New Year’s resolution?

We’re 15 days into 2015—how’s your resolution holding up? If you’re already starting to waver, you’re not alone. Studies show that less than half of resolution-makers are able to stick with the plan for longer than six months. Experts agree that in order to stay strong it’s best to change only one behavior at a time, so focus on your gym routine or your diet, not both—at least while you get going. If you need an extra boost, ask for support from friends, loved ones, or professionals and drink plenty of orange juice. That last one’s not a joke: Self-restraint is known to lower your blood glucose levels, so a dose of natural fruit juice will give you the pick-me-up needed to replenish your self-control.

10. What's the best reason to go outside tonight?

The year may be off to a chilly start, but if you're a fan of comets, it's worth putting on your coat and trekking out for a look at the heavens tonight. The stunning green Comet Lovejoy will be visible for a few more nights, so grab your binoculars and look to the right of Orion for a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical treat. Just how rare is this opportunity? Comet Lovejoy won't be back in our neck of the woods for around 8,000 years, so anyone who misses it on this pass will have to wait a long time for their next shot at spotting the comet.

11. Are there any big anniversaries this year?

You bet! April 9, 2015, will mark 150 years since General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, thus signaling the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Then, in June, we can ring in the 150th birthday of poet William Butler Yeats, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and the 800th anniversary of the signing of the first Magna Carta.

12. Speaking of the Magna Carta, do any of its laws still apply today?

Yes! But only three. First drafted and signed in 1215, a lot of the laws put forth by the Magna Carta have long been rendered obsolete. In fact, in the 19th century, British parliamentarians set about pruning defunct laws from the many-layered British legal code. By now, only three of the original clauses remain on the books: laws that grant freedom to the Church of England, those that guarantee the customs and liberties of the city of London, and laws that forbid arbitrary arrest and the sale of justice.

13. Where can I find the world's best soil?

Everyone's minds will be a little dirtier than normal this year, as 2015 is the International Year of Soils, a global observance aimed at raising awareness of the key role soil plays in civilization and promoting sustainable soil management. What soil is most worthy of an international spotlight? While Alabama's Bama soil has its fans, Easter Island has the world's most incredible soil. In addition to being great at supporting giant stone heads, Easter Island's soil contains a bacterial byproduct called rapamycin that's used as a wonder drug to cure all manner of ailments. Doctors rely on the immunosuppressant to keep transplant patients from rejecting new organs, and the compound has been shown to extend the life spans of animals. Researchers are investigating rapamycin's potential to cure or treat conditions like Alzheimer's and autism. Who knew soil could be so incredible?

14. Where should I celebrate the International Year of Light?

The other big worldwide observance of 2015 is the International Year of Light, a celebration of the science of lights. If you want to pay your respects to a true titan of the field, head to Livermore, California, for an audience with its Centennial Bulb. The hand-blown, carbon-filament bulb has been providing illumination for firefighters since 1901 and has rarely been turned off.

Surprisingly, not being turned off for over a century may have been the secret to the bulb's longevity since being turned off and on is a major source of wear on bulbs. Like most centenarians, the Centennial Bulb has slowed down a bit in its old age—although it was originally a 30-watt bulb, today its illumination is closer to what you’d see from a four-watt nightlight—but it's still glowing along. At some point in 2015 it will cross the one-million-hour mark for being illuminated, making it the ideal honoree for the International Year of Light.

15. When is the Chinese New Year—and why isn’t it January 1?

In 2015, Chinese New Year falls on February 19. Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) varies from year to year because it’s tied to the Chinese lunar year rather than the Western-style Gregorian calendar. While the West rang in 2015 this January, China is poised to celebrate the lunar year 2129. According to the Chinese zodiac, February 19 will also usher in the year of the Goat. For those born in previous years of the Goat (1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003), this is believed to be a lucky year. Even if you’re not getting a boost to your luck, you’ve got a little more than a month to get ready for your next big New Year’s celebration!