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International Affairs Editor

2011: How did I miss that story?

Le 28-12-2011

It’s apocryphal whether Confucius ever uttered the eternal curse attributed to him: “May you live in interesting times.”

But I imagine that even the ancient Chinese sage would have found his interest-tolerance limits stretched by the year that (almost) was - 2011.

From Arab Springs to Biblical floods, the past 12 months have been so relentlessly “interesting” (in good, bad and in-between ways) that you could literally pick any one of its 365 days at random (or close to random) and never come up with a dull moment - or headline.

I did just that, clicking across the Guardian’s interactive year-in-review timeline. The only iron-clad rule I set myself was to steer clear of the year’s mega-headlines (Gaddafi killed…Mubarak resigns…Japanese earthquake/tsunami, etc).

Here’s my shortlist of eye-catching headlines that fell below the radar in a frenetic news year.

6. Aliens could destroy humanity!

Yes, a genuine warning from genuine, esteemed scientists. The cosmic heads-up was issued on August 18th, just as Libyan rebels were bearing down on Tripoli, poised for the final assault. With the world’s attention riveted on the desert sands, a joint team of star-gazing scientists from NASA’s Planetary Science Division and Pennsylvania State University sounded the alarm: aliens shocked by Earthlings’ failure to curtail greenhouse gas emissions could make an extra-terrestrial executive decision to obliterate all homo sapiens - in order to save our habitat. As the Guardian put it: “‘Green’ aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet.”

5. The Amazon has no more trees

Yeah right, you’re thinking: next he’ll be telling me there’s no water left in the Atlantic Ocean. Surely, you would have had an inkling of an ecological Armageddon in Brazil’s backyard - the “lungs” of half the planet? And normally, you’d be right. Except that we’re talking 2011. This story broke just two days after a million Egyptians had rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand Hosni Mubarak’s departure. Minds were focused more on felling tyrants, than on felled trees. Yet it’s true: billions (yes, billions) of trees had been wiped out due to a drought in the Amazon’s vast verdant expanses. This could thwart the ability of the world’s largest tropical rainforest to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. And that, in turn, might piss off the aliens even more (see above).

4. Beetles copulate with discarded beer bottles

Certain Australian beetles, that is. And only brown beer bottles with those bubbly bumps at the bottom, apparently. This keen observation clinched an Ig Nobel Prize on September 30 for two entomologists, Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz. Meanwhile, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize - not to be confused with its illustrious counterpart awarded in Norway this year to three female human rights activists - went to the Mayor of Vilnius, Arturas Zuokas. He found a novel solution to dealing with illegally parked vehicles: crushing them with an armoured tank. Another Ig Nobel Prize went to a researcher who found that decision-making ability is greatly enhanced when you have an urge to pee.

3. Not so fast, neutrinos

You may recall that in early September, a bunch of Italian physicists were stunned by some early arrivals in their laboratory south of Rome. A group of “neutrino” particles beamed to them from a research centre in Switzerland got to their lab 60 nanoseconds before light could have. The implication was that Einstein had got it wrong in his theory of relativity - and that there was something out there even speedier than light. What you may not recall is that two months later, on November 20th (a day after Gaddafi’s fugitive son, Saif, was captured in Libya), another team of Italian scientists rejected their colleagues’ findings. The second group had conducted their own tests, and found that light beat neutrinos to the finish line, hands down. Einstein was, seemingly, vindicated. And the world’s geekiest “knock-knock” joke went quietly into the night: “Neutrino. Who’s there? Knock-knock.”

2. Marmite: Start spreading the news

For British expats in Denmark, it was the yeast welcome culinary news of the year. On May 24th, news agencies across the world reported that Denmark had banned the sticky brown starch extract. The reports cited a Danish law that restricts food products fortified with added vitamins. Within days however, Denmark issued a ringing denial that it had ever banned Marmite. While the gist of the report was true - namely, that “fortified foods with added vitamins, minerals or other substances cannot be marketed in Denmark unless approved by Danish food authorities” - Denmark noted that it had not received any formal application to market Marmite in the kingdom. There’s no word yet on whether that reassured Lyndsay Jensen. The Yorkshire-born graphic designer working in Copenhagen told expat website “They don’t like it (Marmite) because it’s foreign. But if they want to take my Marmite off me they’ll have to wrench it from my cold dead hands!”

1. Agatha Christie: Have surfboard, will stand

Britain’s pioneering sleuth author made waves well beyond the literary realm. On July 29th, the Guardian revealed research by Pete Robinson, the founder of the Devon-based Museum of British Surfing, that suggested the creator of Hercule Poirot and her husband, Archie, were among the first Britons to surf standing up. “At a time when many of her contemporaries were chugging cocktails in Blighty,” the newspaper writes, “Agatha Christie was paddling out from beaches in Cape Town and Honolulu to earn her surfing stripes.” We’re never told whether The Surfboard Crack’d.