The Year In Science: Mysteries of Nature

Farai Chideya talks with NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday host Ira Flatow on this year's most mysterious scientific phenomena — from computer worms to honeybee depletion.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. This is DAY TO DAY.

2005 brought us the Zobot worm, the Deep Impact space collision and the deadly varroa mite. What do they all have in common? They were among the stories DAY TO DAY talked about with our regular Thursday contributor Ira Flatow. He's the host of NPR's "Science Friday," and he's here to update us on those stories.

Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Hi, how are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm great. So let's start with the Zobot worm. I love that name. It's a computer invader that attacked large corporate networks, including some in the news business. Many of our colleagues had to log off and return to typewriters. You and my colleague Alex Chadwick discussed that story back in August. What happened to the Zobot?

FLATOW: Yeah, I remember pulling out my trusty old Selectric just in case on that story. Well, a short time after we covered this story in August, a couple of young men, one an 18-year-old Moroccan whose screen name was Coder, and a 21-year-old who paid the younger man to program the worm were arrested in Turkey and Morocco, and with the cooperation of the FBI and Microsoft were able to follow the worm back to its source. And it turned out that the programmer was responsible not just for this worm but for at least a couple and perhaps even two dozen other worms and viruses in the past. So they wrapped that case up.

CHIDEYA: Well, there was that story about a mysterious plague killing honeybees. It wiped out countless thousands of hives around the country and made it harder for farmers to pollinate their crops.

FLATOW: This was a really interesting story because I don't think many people realized how many bees were being killed by something called the varroa mite, really a tiny vampire which literally sucks the life out of a bee colony. And the bees are dying in such large numbers that farmers have had to import bees, literally shipping the hives cross-country so that farmers can share them. It worked something like, `You take the bees now, pollinate your crops, and then you ship them back to me so I can pollinate mine.' And the deaths of these bees is staggering. The entire California almond crop, which depends heavily on bee pollination, is in jeopardy because half the bees in California have been wiped out.

CHIDEYA: Wow. Any progress towards a remedy?

FLATOW: Well, there is sort of a couple of remedies. One of them is sort of a folk remedy. Scientists have concocted a smelly mixture of thyme, cloves and cinnamon, and they have injected this potion into the hives hoping that the mites will not find the spicy cocktail very appetizing to nibble on. They hate the taste, the researchers say. And no one knows how well this will eventually work. They are also trying a more scientific method to poison the mites, but as one beekeeper said, it's going to be a tough, long fight.

CHIDEYA: Finally, in June, you reported about how NASA scientists had sent a space probe called Deep Impact on a collision course with a comet called Tempel 1. What happened with that?

FLATOW: That was really an interesting attempt by NASA to see what a comet was made of. On the Fourth of July, Deep Impact crashed into Tempel 1 in a really dramatic fashion, and the explosion was surprising in itself because instead of the expected textbook dirty snowball of ice and rock, scientists found the comet to be made up of a softer organic material, which might offer insight into how the Earth was formed.

And speaking of comets, an historic event is scheduled to occur very soon, the return of the Stardust space probe. It's speeding its way toward a soft landing on Earth on January 15th, carrying with it dust scooped up from the Wild 2 comet. And this is the first time material outside the moon has ever been returned to Earth, and scientists are hoping that cometary dust, which may be remnants of our solar system at its birth, may allow us to look back in time billions of years ago.

CHIDEYA: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday" and a regular Thursday contributor on DAY TO DAY.

Thanks, Ira, and happy new year.

FLATOW: Happy new year to you.

CHIDEYA: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Farai Chideya.

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