The Top 10 Questions of 2008


2008 sign

It may have started out innocently enough, but 2008 ended up packing a lot of good, bad and awe-inspiring history into just one year's time.

© Nekrasov

The Top 10 Questions of 2008

­Some years stand out in our minds, stamped into our memories by the dramatic events that unfolded during those 365 days. Maybe for you it's 1929, the year of the momentous stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression. Or 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. Or 1989, when the Berlin Wall finally came tumbling down.

The year 2008 may wind up burning just as brightly in our collective consciousness. We saw the United States elect Barack Obama, the country's first black president. We witnessed the complete unraveling of the global financial markets, and we watched food prices climb so high that eating three meals a day became a luxury that many of us couldn't afford. It was also the year in which words like "grassoline" seeped into the public lexicon and in which Google continued its bid for general world domination.

At HowStuffWorks, we're never content to watch history happen. We're bent on poking around for the reasons behind these big events. So stick with us as we answer the top 10 questions of 2008, and we'll satisfy our curiosity together.

First up, vaccines and autism.

little girl getting a shot

Does that shot have any thimerosal? Maybe not. Autism advocacy groups have lobbied­ to remove the preservative from many vaccines.

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

10: Do vaccines cause autism?

­As any new mom or dad can attest, parenthood is nerve-wracking. Before the baby is even born, the decisions start piling up, right next to that stack of unread paren­tal literature. Breast or bottle? Homecare or daycare? Vaccinate or not? With autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) on the rise, many parents are thinking long and hard about that last one. Why? Because some people believe that vaccines are causing ASDs, and they're vocal. Whether you heard Jenny McCarthy, Hannah Poling's family or public health officials weighing in on the issue, autism was big news in 2008.

The alleged culprit? Thimerosal, a mercury-containing vaccine preservative added to shots to prevent bacterial contamination. Pressured by the public, pharmaceutical companies have lowered or removed the preservative completely from many vaccines. In fact, you might have even gotten a flu shot free of thimerosal this year. But autism rates aren't dropping. And vaccine-preventable diseases like measles are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It looks like being a parent didn't get any easier in 2008. But you can read more about in Do vaccines cause autism? ­

heart transplant

Surgeons implant a donor heart in a patient. One day, that replacement heart could be made of your own cells.

Mark Harmel/Getty Images

9: Could we clone our organs to be used in a transplant?

­As of Nov. 28, 2008, 100,712 people idled on a list run by the Organ Procurement a­nd Tra­nsplantation Network. Set up at the behest of U.S. Congress, the federal network matches up organ donors with transplant recipients. Imagine you're No. 100,711 on that list and in desperate need of a heart. Even worse, what if your number finally came up, and your body rejected that replacement heart? In 2008, scientists started to change that dire scenario with the help of stem cells.

­Stems cells are the body's version of smart kids who've been told they can grow up to be whatever they want to be, except stem cells actually can. These bodily blank slates are enormously valuable and, until lately, enormously hard to get because they come armed with controversy. But researchers recently sidestepped the controversy by successfully retraining adult stem cells and skin cells to act like true stem cells, even growing heart muscle cells in one instance. The idea is that doctors eventually could extract these cells from a patient and grow them to form a full-blown, customized replacement organ. Somewhere, someone who's waiting for a heart is keeping his or her fingers crossed and maybe reading Could we clone our organs to be used in a transplant?.


gas pump in grassy field

Switchgrass, corn, soybeans and potatoes are just a few of the sources that we've explored during the search for viable alternative fuels.

Stephen Mallon/Getty Images

8: Grassoline: Can we fuel cars with grass?

­Don't start hording your grass clippings just yet. Switchgra­ss, a promising source for making cellulosic ethanol -- a type of fuel derived from plants -- probably isn't carpeting your backyard, although the perennial is found in the Americas and parts of Africa. The tall grass looks more at home billowing in the prairie, maybe alongside a field of corn, another source of ethanol for your car. Its stature isn't the only thing that sets switchgrass apart. Its energy ratio is what gets alternative fuel proponents really excited.

Unlike corn-based ethanol or regular gas, for every one unit of energy put into cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, you create 10 times the energy output. Those numbers easily beat corn-based ethanol and gasoline, which takes more energy to produce than it yields.

­The thing is though, scientists haven't figured out how to easily and inexpensively extract cellulose from switchgrass, and that's a big part of the process. Until that happens, you won't be gassing up with grassoline, so if you're bent on biofuel, look for the 10-90 ethanol mix at your local gas station. And before you fill up, read the full article: Grassoline: Can we fuel cars with grass?

offshore drilling rig

Offshore rigs like this one are the source of many heated discussions.

David McNew/Getty Images

7: Why is offshore drilling so controversial?

Whether you cheered when Gov. ­Sarah Palin famously exclaimed, "Drill, baby, drill!" or slapped your palm to your forehead in horror, you heard a lot about offshore drilling in 2008. Even before the issues of oil and taxes dueled for time during the U.S. presidential election, drivers were emptying their wallets at the pump and wondering wh­en gas prices would stop climbing higher (and sighing with relief when the price of oil dropped precipitously). Along with developing alternative fuel sources, lifting the ban on offshore drilling was one often-proposed solution for cutting gas prices and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

­To be clear, offshore drilling, or drilling for oil underwater, is already happening on about 40 million acres of the U.S. outer continental shelf, or OCS. It's just that it's not enough, according to some. Drilling advocates are pressing to open much more of the country's protected coastline to oil exploration. Opponents are pushing back -- hard. And like any spirited argument, the two sides can't agree on anything. Not the amount of potential oil to be recovered. Not the environmental impact of offshore drilling. And not the effect it would have on prices at the pump. But make up your own mind and read Why is offshore drilling so controversial?

water-boarding techniques

Vietnam, 1968: A U.S. soldier questions an enemy suspect using a water-boarding technique.

Photo courtesy United Press International

6: What is water boarding?

Like the sensations of falling that haunt our nightmares, dreams of drowning snap us awake with a shudder. But for some prisoners, there's no waking up from that unimaginably terrifying feeling of the water pulling you under. That's because water boarding is a form of torture, one that the CIA has said that it used on more than one occasion.

If you can imagine lying on an inclined board with your hands and feet bound, your face covered and water being poured repeatedly over your face, then maybe you have the slightest understanding of what this brutal interrogation technique entails.

Water boarding was one of several torture-related issues that may have prompted President Bush to assert that the United States doesn't practice torture, but the world probably thought otherwise in 2008. Maybe that's why both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency pledged to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Ev­en if that happens, we probably haven't heard the last of water boarding. As our article What is water boarding?­ points out, the technique has been around for centuries and probably will linger like a bad dream for many more.

Model of the Large Hadron Collider

A model of the Large Hadron Collider in the CERN visitor's center in Geneva

Johannes Simon/­Getty Images

5: What does CERN mean for the future of the universe?

­The name CERN, shorthand for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, might not ring any bells, but the name of its biggest pet project -- the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC -- probably does. Like all of us, CERN wants to know how the universe works -- how it began, what it's made of, all that good stuff. Only instead of, say, reading books, CERN scientists study the tiniest particles in the universe. And they built the most powerful particle accelerator, the LHC, to do it.

­Once the LHC starts smashing particles, potentially in 2009, scientists might uncover the hypothetical Higgs boson particle, which would explain why we have mass, or they might find evidence of strangelets, another hypothetical substance that disassembles any matter it encounters and repackages it into strange matter. That latter discovery probably isn't something most of us would celebrate. Nor would we celebrate if the LHC created a giant black hole that sucked in the Earth, but CERN scientists don't think that's likely. If that happened, maybe we'd go out with a big bang. Or, rather, a big crunch. Still curious about CERN? Read What does CERN mean for the future of the universe?

Nuclear missile

Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing during July 2007.

Ten Eng Koon/AFP/­Getty Images

4: How easy is it to steal a nuclear bomb?

­Although popular television shows such as "24" might make it look like a cakewalk, stealing an entire nuclear bomb isn't easy, even for practiced terrorists. But obtaining the parts of a nuke is a different story, and unsavory characters certainly have tried both routes. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which tracks such incidents, reported 1,340 instances involving illicit trafficking and similarly unauthorized activities occurring between 1993 and 2007. That's pretty scary.

Since a terrorist can't exactly tuck a nuclear warhead under his or her arm and hightail it for the fence, obtaining highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium would be the next best thing. Such transactions happen. In 2006, authorities in Tbilisi, Georgia, arrested a group of people trying to illegally sell HEU. The obvious key to preventing these situations is securing nukes and nuclear power plants.

­As more people wean themselves off fossil fuels and more nuclear power plants come online, the issue grows more urgent. You just may want to brush up on your nuclear knowledge by reading How easy is it to steal a nuclear bomb?

Google algorithm

The Google algorithm uses a patented process to produce the most relevant results from your search term.

HowStuffWorks 2008

3: Why is the Google algorithm so important?

Whether you're trawling the Internet for information about the new World of Warcraft release or for homemade remedies for halitosis, you probably punch your query into Google's waiting hands. When the search engine returns your desired results lickety-split, you might scan the first two or three pages, check out a few sites and, satisfied, call it a day. You probably don't dwell on how or why Google returned those results to you, but anyone with a Web site does.

Appearing on the very first page of Google's search-engine results page is the Holy Grail for businesses and individuals interested in boosting their site traffic and online visibility. If you're running the Center for Breath Treatment -- an actual organization! -- you're psyched to have your site turn up on that first page when people search under "halitosis." That's why many people have spent many hours trying to decode Google's algorithm. Aside from some tips on strategically placing keywords, linking to other Web pages and providing high-quality content, having your site appear on page one Google after users type in a related query is still partly luck for most of us.

­­To learn m­ore about the algorithm that may be more closely guarded than the Colonel's secret recipe, read Why is the Google algorithm so important?

rising cost of food

Can you afford those oranges? Steep food prices are causing many shoppers to re-evaluate their grocery lists.

George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

2: Why is the cost of food rising so rapidly?

­How many calories did you eat today? If you overindulged and packed in a few hundred extra calories, you may be one reason behind the prohibitively high price of food in 2008. Food prices have jumped more tha­n 80 percent in three years, according to the World Bank, and their meteoric rise doesn't show signs of stopping, not least because of people eating excess calories.

Don't feel too bad though. The biofuel market played a role, too. When the agricultural industry has recently faced the decision of filling up bellies or gas tanks, gas tanks have often won out. That's ratcheted up the demand and, consequently, the price for corn and other crops such as soybeans and potatoes that can serve as both food (either for us or for live­stock) and fuel. Add in a few ill-timed floods, droughts and other acts of weather vengeance, and you're looking at a multifaceted explanation to the huge and growing problem of how to feed 6.7 billion hungry mouths.

­To learn what governments, global organizations and people like you and me are doing to try to solve the problem, read Why is the cost of food rising so rapidly?


What's the $700 billion bailout going to buy?

The economic crisis has everyone, not just the traders, worried.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

1: How will the U.S. government spend the $700 billion bailout funds?

­Of a­ll the questions that have been on people's minds this year, particul­arly in the United States and particularly as the most financially tumultuous year in decades ends, perhaps no question was as pressing as this one -- how would the U.S. government spend the gargantuan bailout it announced in September 2008. Certainly, anxious homeowners biding their time against foreclosure wanted to know. Baby boomers sitting on depleted retirement savings wanted to know. Banks definitely, desperately wanted to know.

­So far, it's good news for the banks during the first round of the two-phase plan to dole out the funds, much to consumers' chagrin. As of the time we wrote this, about $159 billion had been awarded to a veritable who's who list of troubled banks and insurers, such as AIG, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. Overall, the United States may spend trillions to fend off an already deepening recession. It may be too little, too late. Many worry that the bailout has set an alarming trend of looking to the government for handouts. Read more about the scary economic history that's unfolding before our eyes in How will the U.S. government spend the $700 billion bailout funds?

­That's it. We covered autism, algorithms and much, much more during our survey of the top 10 questions of 2008. We have many more stories for you on the next page if your curiosity isn't easily satisfied.