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The top 10 science and environment stories of 2018





A huge Mayan city with pyramids, a perfectly preserved horse from the last ice age and a microbe representing a whole new branch on the tree of life were some of the amazing scientific discoveries announced in 2018.

It was also a year when we saw growing concern about the environment, and when CBC News increased its own focus on environmental issues like recycling and climate change.

Here’s a look back at some of the science and environment stories that connected with readers this year.

Alcohol and the ‘Asian glow’

In January, just as many of us were coming off booze-infused New Year’s celebrations, scientists released a study on mice that appeared to show how alcohol causes cancer — by damaging DNA. The news was extra bad for mice that have the same gene that is responsible for making the faces of many humans flush red after a small amount of alcohol — a phenomenon sometimes known as the “Asian glow,” because more than a third of East Asians have the gene.

More than a third of East Asians have a gene that makes their faces flush red after they drink just a small amount of alcohol. Because of that, the phenomenon is known as the ‘Asian glow’ or ‘Asian flush.’ (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Doomsday moves closer

In February, atomic scientists issued a dire warning about how close they think we are to the collapse of civilization — represented symbolically by midnight on the “Doomsday Clock.” For the second time in history, the clock’s hands ticked forward to 11:58 p.m. The only other time that happened was during U.S. and Soviet Union nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s. This time, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists cited nuclear threats between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as well as climate change and technological threats from artificial intelligence and cyberattacks.

Robert Rosner, chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, right, and Lawrence Krauss, moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to 11:58 p.m. in January. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Huge Mayan city

It wasn’t all bad news, though. Later that month, archeologists announced they had found tens of thousands of Mayan houses and other buildings, including impressive pyramids, hidden under dense jungle. The discovery, made with a high-tech aerial mapping technique, suggests 10 million Mayans may once have lived in Guatemala’s Peten region.

Researchers announced in February that a high-tech aerial mapping technique helped them find tens of thousands of previously undetected Mayan houses, buildings, defense works and roads in the dense jungle of Guatemala’s Peten region. (Canuto & Auld-Thomas/PACUNAM via Associated Press)

Starman and Tesla blast off

One of the year’s big space technology milestones also took place early in the year. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launched for the first time, carrying CEO Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla roadster, with a mannequin named “Starman” at the wheel. While the launch was successful, it wasn’t without its glitches. For one thing, the plan was to put Starman in orbit between Earth and Mars, but it overshot, and is now headed to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Starman, the mannequin launched into space by SpaceX, has a front seat view of Earth. A plaque on the dashboard reads ‘Don’t panic!’ – an homage to Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (SpaceX)

When science is a ‘living hell’

In 2002, a paleontologist named Gerard Gierlinski went to a Greek island for vacation with his girlfriend and stumbled upon an extraordinary discovery — what he believes are the oldest human-like footprints in the world. That wasn’t well-received by many scientists who see Africa as the cradle of humankind. Trying to get the research published took many years and was “a living hell” in the words of one of Gierlinski’s collaborators. We shared an intimate, in-depth look at the fascinating story of the discovery this year and the struggle to make it public, providing a behind-the-scenes look at how science and peer review work, and what happens when conflicts erupt among scientists in response to new ideas.

During a holiday in Crete in 2002, Polish paleontologist Gerard Gierlinski found imprints on a beach that he believes are the oldest human-like footprints in the world. (Submitted by Gerard Gierlinski)

Rethinking recycling

In 2018, China, the biggest market in the world for recyclables, closed its doors to much of the paper and plastic we throw in our blue bins. CBC News decided to take a closer look at the way we recycle, through our series Reduce, Reuse, Rethink. We learned that your lifestyle is making recycling unsustainable. What’s more, many Canadians are recycling wrong, and it’s costing us millions.

This year, CBC News decided to take a closer look at the way we recycle through our series Reduce, Reuse, Rethink. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

We’re continuing the conversation into 2019, and you can still take part through our Reduce, Reuse, Rethink Facebook group. (For those who are interested, we also launched a newsletter in 2018 focused on environmental issues called What on Earth?)

Ice age horse

A two-month old foal that died 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, during the last ice age, was found perfectly preserved in permafrost in Siberia, scientists announced in August. Check out the amazing photos.

A foal that lived more than 30,000 years ago was found perfectly preserved in Siberian permafrost in Yakutia, Russia, scientists announced in August. (Associated Press)

Deadly Hurricane Florence

In September, Hurricane Florence hit the U.S. east coast, killing 53 people in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina. We took a look at some of the factors that make storms like Florence so damaging — including the fact that it slowed almost to a halt when it hit land.

In this NOAA satellite image from Sept. 11, Hurricane Florence is seen just northeast of the Turks and Caicos Islands. (NOAA/National Hurricane Center)

Evidence for Planet X?

The discovery of a distant dwarf planet nicknamed “The Goblin” was announced just before Halloween. But what made the discovery particularly exciting was its strange orbit, which supports the idea that there is a Super-Earth seven times the mass of our own planet waiting to be detected at the outer edge of our solar system.

An artist’s conception shows Planet X, a super-Earth that may be waiting to be discovered at the outer edge of our solar system. (Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science)

New branch on the tree of life

A graduate student out for a hike with some friends in Nova Scotia decided to scoop some soil from the side of the trail. When she examined the contents under a microscope a few weeks later, she spotted some very unusual microbes. A DNA analysis showed that these “hemimastigotes” belong to a completely new branch on the evolutionary tree of life, and are less closely related to any other know organisms than animals are to fungi.

This is an electron microscope image of Hemimastix kukwesjijk, named after Kukwes, a greedy, hairy ogre from Mi’kmaq mythology. (Submitted by Yana Eglit)

Keep reading for more extraordinary science in 2019!


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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal





A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist





Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’





Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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