5 Science Stats About How the World Flipped in Your Lifetime

The biggest show from 10 years ago no longer makes sense now, because of science
5 Science Stats About How the World Flipped in Your Lifetime

Time flashes by, and we don’t even realize it. Then one day, you hear a musical artist described as having “hits in four consecutive decades,” and it’s Justin Timberlake, and you think, “Wait, what?”

And as time passes, the world changes. Seemingly 90 percent of these changes can be summed up by “screens, and stuff viewed on screens,” but other stuff evolves as well. For example...

Meth Is Much More Pure Now

In 2008, there premiered a show called Breaking Bad, about a teacher who cooks meth for fun and profit. He’s hardly the only person in Albuquerque making methamphetamine, but his meth is the best in town and in fact is also the best in the world. That’s because he’s a brilliant chemist and has a process that can make meth that’s especially pure. Other meth is perhaps 75 percent pure, but Walter White’s registers as more than 95 percent pure when you analyze it.

Breaking Bad chromatograph


The only other person with such skill is Jesse, a gifted scholar.

That made sense in 2008. Today, however, meth everywhere is that pure, rendering White’s miracle product wholly unremarkable. 

We got this change thanks not to gradual improvements but because people switched from one meth production process (one “method”) to another. Before, people made meth from pseudoephedrine, a drug used in cold medicine. Then countries started regulating pseudoephedrine harder, thanks entirely to all those drug cooks using the stuff to make meth. Cooks shifted to using a chemical called phenylacetone, or P2P (if you watch Breaking Bad, you see the characters shift from one to the other over the course of the series).

Making the stuff from a nice big jug of starter chemical leaves less room for impurities to slip in than if you’re distilling your chemical from a bunch of little bottles flavored like cherries. That’s great news for drug aficionados looking for a more potent product. But there’s a tragic side to this as well, as it’s nothing but bad news for talented scientists in the meth business trying to stand out. 

Cats Live Twice As Long

In 1998, veterinary scientists were reporting a sudden jump in the lifespans of cats. In the 1980s, it was considered normal for a cat to die at seven years. By the 1990s, the average life expectancy of cats had risen to just shy of 10 years. That’s a significant increase — though, of course, it would be irresponsible to extrapolate that into the future and say cats would live longer still in the next few decades.

But then, cat life expectancy really did keep rising. Today, it’s perfectly common for cats to live 15 years, while plenty of cats even live till age 20


Harry Cunningham

Probably time to stop buying cats, as they’re going to outlive you.

One big reason is nutrition. Those cans of fancy tuna we feed our cats really are better for them than a diet of mangy mice. Another reason is the trend of neutering cats, which increases their life expectancy by reducing their chances of contracting several degenerative illnesses.

That last effect raises the question if humans, too, can live longer by getting neutered. The answer is yes — according to a study of eunuchs who lived centuries ago, which we’re going to go ahead and dismiss until someone comes up with more convincing evidence. 

IVF Used to Be a Crapshoot

While we’re on the topic of the reproductive system, let’s talk about in-vitro fertilization. It’s a common procedure nowadays, responsible for more than 2 percent of all births in America. If you’re under 35 and undergo IVF, it has a 55 percent chance of succeeding. That’s actually a fair bit less than many couples think, so doctors have to counsel them that the process is “only” 55 percent effective, and you have to take the chance of failure into consideration before you agree to this gamble.

The idea that 55 percent is below expectations would come as a big surprise to someone from the 1990s. Back then, IVF offered just a 25 percent chance of success.



Only 90s kids remember this.

That 1-in-4 chance, meanwhile, was a huge jump from how it was just a few years earlier. In the latter half of the 1980s, your chances were 15 percent

Also, a decade or two ago, it was common to chuck in a bunch of embryos at the same time, in the hopes that one would take. But once IVF became more effective, patients so frequently found themselves with double- or triple-pregnancies that doctors started pulling back on that throttle. Even if you’re willing to spend $20,000 to get pregnant, that doesn’t mean you want octuplets. 

Monarch Butterflies Vanished

Monarch butterflies used to be so common that it was the one type of butterfly that a child was expected to identify on sight. They were so common that elementary school teachers used the movement of monarch butterflies to teach the broad concept of migration. They were so common that if you tried raising a flock of them from caterpillars in class, and that failed because the food was rotten and smelled weirdly of peanut butter, that was okay, as you could just go get some more. 

monarch butterflies

Alex Guillaume

Plus, you learned an important lesson about death. 

But between the 1980s and today, their population dropped by 95 percent. The big factor responsible here was habitat destruction — farmers plowed through a whole lot of monarch territory in Mexico so they could grow more avocados. 

We’d like to take a stand to defend the monarch butterfly. Except, the people who take that stand keep getting murdered by the avocado cartel, so maybe we’ll sit this one out. After all, just because we lose one species doesn’t mean nature itself is hurting. Maybe the butterflies will be replaced by an even better insect. Like...

The Rise of Bedbugs

If we look at the entirety of modern history, bedbugs haven’t risen up at all. They used to be much more common than they are now. In the middle of the 20th century, a third of all homes in the U.S. were infested with the little demons. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite” was an actual nightly wish that most people could relate to at some point in their life. 



They can’t bite you if you don’t let them. It’s against the law. 

But then we invented some decent insecticides, and we pretty much wiped bedbugs out. By the mid-1990s, bedbug infestations had gone from something extremely common to something you might have as a nightmare situation at some sketchy hotel but more likely would never experience at all. 

Then they came back. They became more common in the first decade of the 21st century, and in the decade after that, they became really common. Within five years, cases in New York City multiplied twentyfold. One reason may be that we banned the most effective of those pesticides, DDT. The other issue is that the bugs became resistant to all our insecticides, DDT included. 

There’s also a third reason, which is somewhat less depressing. They spread so widely in recent years because we travel so much. They spread mostly through hotels, and more people patronize hotels now than ever. Travel is truly a way of breaking down barriers. Sometimes, that barrier is skin, and it’s broken down by sharp insect mouthparts.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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