Modern life, climate change and technology: discover the biggest science stories of 2019

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten
In this blog post, you can find out more about the science stories that hit the headlines in 2019. In the accompanying podcast episode – the last episode of The Altmetric Podcast in 2019 – we zoom in on a couple of the year’s most popular studies.
a line drawing of the number 100 on a dark blue background

Did you catch much science news in 2019? Maybe you noticed Google claim quantum supremacy. Perhaps you discovered that our galaxy is warped and flared. You might have seen the growing body of evidence that climate change is getting more and more serious. And you probably heard about one of the many studies helping us live healthy lives in the risky modern world.

It’s been a big year for science news, and the Altmetric Top 100 shows us the 100 biggest science stories of the year – the articles that got the most attention online. Released every year, the Altmetric Top 100 highlights the research published during the year that has generated significant international online attention and discussion.

This year we’ve widened the net, and the research includes a whole range of published items – not just academic articles, but also patents, public policy documents and research published in the mainstream media, on blogs, Wikipedia and social media platforms.

The Altmetric Top 100 has been released every December for seven years, and this year has seen the most widely shared story to date: the most discussed academic paper of 2019 was about ‘deepfake’ AI from Samsung that brings the Mona Lisa to life – and can create a video of you from just one still photo.

Read the most discussed study of 2019: Few-Shot Adversarial Learning of Realistic Neural Talking Head Models

This study leads the list, which includes several other tech stories – including an AI image generator that can invent photos, Google claiming quantum supremacy and a device that can translate brain signals into speech.

Themes of 2019

Technology is just one of many themes running through the list, and some of them are familiar from previous years. Catherine Williams, COO of Altmetric, said: “It’s fascinating to see the trends that shape the Top 100 list each year. In 2019, it’s clear that our current climate emergency and political polarization are a matter of huge public concern and debate. This list demonstrates the critical role that research plays in those conversations.”

Understandably, climate change has dominated the science headlines. In the fourth most discussed publication, more than 11,000 scientists from around the world declared “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” At number nine came a potential solution: planting 1.6 billion hectares of trees could soak up more than 200 gigatons of carbon.

We have also been keen to understand more about politics and psychology, which is hardly surprising given some of the political events seen around the world in recent months and years. One study revealed the people most likely to believe the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the US, and another shed light on the proliferation of fake news during the 2016 US election. We also learned what Brexit might mean for healthcare in the UK.

Animals caught our attention too – including humans. The Top 100 includes research about insectsbirdspuppy dog eyeshow to reanimate a dead brain, a pregnancy with a transplanted wombcatszebra-painted cows and, controversially, the ‘gay gene’.

One overarching theme relates to our very survival: How do we mitigate the challenges associated with modern life and be healthy?

Surviving modern life

This theme shows up throughout the Top 100, and it’s been prominent every year. In this year’s list, there is research on the impact of junk food diets, on the effects of our distance from nature, the impact of us consuming sweet drinks, the implications of using e-cigarettes and the problem of air pollution cutting our lifespans short.

Soda popped up a few times in the Top 100 this year. Research covering ten European countries showed that people who drink soda have a higher risk of dying early. And choosing the diet option isn’t better, it’s just different – while consuming sugary soda is linked to death from digestive disease, artificially sweetened soft drinks were linked to death from circulatory disease.

In an interview for The Altmetric Podcast, the lead author of one study in this theme shared her story. Looking at data from 80,000 postmenopausal women, a team led by Dr. Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US found that consuming artificially sweetened drinks was linked to an increased risk of stroke, heart disease and early death.

Read the study: “Artificially Sweetened Beverages and Stroke, Coronary Heart Disease, and All-Cause Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative

Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani was running a randomized clinical trial to find out whether a healthy diet can reduce the risk of cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and she as interested in whether drinking artificially sweetened drinks had an effect on cognition. Data from the Women’s Health Initiative provided plenty of insights, and some associations between consuming diet drinks and higher risk of certain health problems.

Compared with women who consumed diet drinks less than once a week or not at all, women who had two or more servings a day were more at risk of stroke, heart attack and death: 23% were more likely to have both fatal and non-fatal stroke, 31% were more likely to have ischemic stroke and 29% were more likely to develop heart disease, both fatal and non-fatal.

What’s more, 16% were more likely to die from any cause. “It also seemed to have some association with how long you live,” said Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani. “That kind of intrigued us, so we decided to delve deeper into the data, and we looked at women without any previous heart disease or diabetes. Again, we saw that they were 2.44 times more likely to have ischemic stroke.”

The associations were numerous and clear: higher consumption of diet drinks is associated with higher risk of stroke and heart disease. But as clear as the association is, it’s not causation.

“I want to emphasize even though we see these associations, it doesn’t imply causation – it doesn’t mean that diet drinks necessarily increase the risk with small artery occlusion which is associated with cognitive decline,” said Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani. “And while the risk of stroke is higher, the actual absolute risk is small: the incidence rate is like getting two strokes per thousand people per year. The question is, where does that leave us? And so what we think is we just need more research.”

Small steps to healthy living

This can be seen throughout the theme. There are indications that we might be healthier if we stop eating junk food, eat whole grains, go vegetarian, walk more, exercise, eat fewer eggs and drink our tea a bit cooler. But very few studies provide clear, conclusive guidelines for what we should eat and how we should behave in order to thrive in the world today.

That in itself is a great reflection of science: each study should be taken in the context of the body of research it sits on, rather than being held up on its own. That’s the strength of empiricism: evidence is built over time, becoming stronger the more we know.

However they’re presented, studies like this that seemed to have an important message for our health hit the headlines. According to Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani, it was the fact that so many of us consume diet drinks that made her story compelling. “It’s something that everybody’s having these days, and it touches everyone’s life. I just didn’t realize there would be so much interest, I was so amazed… it was a really incredible exposure for someone who’s frankly publicity shy.”

One team that might not want to revisit their study a second time was a group of doctors and healthcare professionals who each swallowed a Lego head… to save us from the dirty job of searching through kids’ poop.

“We all work in hospitals and know that it’s a really common problem that children come in having swallowed stuff,” explained author Dr. Tessa Davis from the Royal London Hospital in the UK. “We thought we’d use the opportunity to do a bit of education, and also inject a bit of humor into the world.”

Read the study: “Everything is awesome: Don’t forget the Lego

Six people each swallowed a Lego head and tracked their progression. The average time it took to pass through (measured using the Found And Retrieved Time, or FART score… cue giggles) was 1.71 days, except for one participant, who is apparently still hosting the head somewhere.

But there’s a serious message in there too. While most things will pass through kids’ systems harmlessly, some objects are dangerous, particularly button batteries. “That’s something that needs to be removed quickly and that you definitely need to go to hospital for, so it gave us the opportunity to put some education out there as well,” said Dr. Davis.

It worked: the paper went viral, landing the research on prime time TV, courtesy of James Corden and Jimmy Fallon. “It was absolutely incredible. It really will be a career highlight; ironically, I suspect this may be the thing that we’ll be remembered for.”

A year of top tips for promoting research

Every month, we’ve asked the authors we have interviewed for their top tips for promoting research. Here they are, in a nutshell:

  • Mossavar-Rahmani: Submit your manuscript to an organization that has the ability to publicize your research.
  • de la Iglesia: Combine a clear message with data that supports that message.
  • Manson: Think about which audience you’re trying to reach; having a very responsible press release is helpful to increase the likelihood that the story will be covered in a balanced way.
  • Brent Loken: To make a global impact, work on your communications, whether it’s interview skills, media skills or writing press releases.
  • Hviid: Publish in the big journals, and do something to not be forgotten immediately after you publish.
  • Prof McShane: Focus on looking for the truth and publishing replicable findings… searching around for hot topics or to make a splash may actually be antithetical to the idea of finding the truth.
  • Kaminski: Be open to really engage, but do the things that you’re comfortable with.
  • Bastin: Use the little bit of energy you still have after submitting a paper into trying to write a nice summary and to reach the media.
  • Skowron: Have a good press release package, with nice materials that reporters can use to write an article.
  • Phaedra Cress: If you’re not on social media, jump in.
  • Protzko: Take advantage of public relations offices that are available at your university, and be clear about the message.

Until next year, happy reading!

Register here to receive the latest news and updates from Altmetric