Cyberspace, the Final Frontier: Top Science Searches of 2008

The biggest phenomena in cyberspace this year? Well, space.

The Web continued to be a resource for teachers planning lessons and students doing homework, but much of the science searches this year involved interstellar and planetary phenomena this year. Earthly concerns, however, remain numero uno, with “global warming” topping the list.

As explained in the Flashback comparison of 2008 versus 2007 searches, interest in the environment reached notable levels last year. Tellingly, while “global warming” lookups actually declined in 2008, specific queries for “effects of global warming” climbed more than 17%. The online population seems to have moved on from questioning its feasibility to examining its consequences.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration generated a sustained frisson of cyberspace excitement when its Phoenix Mars Lander landed on Mars after a 422-million-mile journey. The craft sent back evidence of water ice as well as pretty travel photos before the lack of sunlight silenced its efforts. NASA, which commemorated its 50th anniversary in October, maintained its dignified No. 3 search spot by acing out online sightings for Unidentified Flying Objects.

UFOs got a boost on two fronts this year, with the release of a new “X-Files” movie and the British government’s release of its own previously classified files. In fact, the move has led the Extraterrestrial Phenomenon Political Action Committee to lobby President-elect Barack Obama to “end the six-decade truth embargo…” as if he doesn’t have enough on his to-do list.

Searchers also indulged in optical illusions, that murky activity that triples as scientific examination, cranial exercise and time-waster (as time spent on videos seems to indicate). Swedish neuroscientists employed such illusions to a new level in its “body swapping” experimentation. (The study is detailed here.)

Other stellar events included the total lunar eclipse back in February. Those that didn’t make the top 10 but nevertheless registered notable attention included “pollution,” “evolution” (but, interestingly, not creationism), “solar energy,” “space shuttle,” “endangered species,” “wind power” (and yes, T. Boone Pickens), “biotechnology,” “nanotechnology,” and “human genome project.”

Incidentally, while Mars was the hot new planet this year, Earth still remains number one among searchers, followed by Saturn (although some of this may be due to the auto), Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus. While Pluto got downgraded to a dwarf planet, it would’ve squeezed in before Uranus in Search popularity.

Top Science Searches of 2008