The (Ultimate) Top Ten Science Stories of 2016
Seeing as how politics dominated the discourse of 2016, you might be hard-pressed to remember all that went on in the world of science this year. But don't fret, we've got you covered with an ultimate list of top stories aggregated from reputable sources.
Our methods are the same as last year: "We scoured the Internet for "top science stories" lists, selecting only those from sources deemed reputable. Points were awarded to each story based on its ranking. For example, on a typical top ten list the #1 story earned ten points, #2 earned nine, #3 earned eight, and so on. Lists that had fewer than ten rankings were normalized to a 10-point scale. For the lists that did not rank the stories, each story earned 5.5 points, which is the average score if you add together all the digits from 1 to 10 and divide by ten."
1. LIGO Detects Gravitational Waves (68.5 points)
In February, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime predicted by Einstein more than a century ago. The cause? Two ginormous black holes roughly thirty times the mass of our sun colliding at approximately 60% the speed of light. Though the impact occurred more than a billion light years away, the resulting spacetime disturbance could be felt on Earth, albeit only barely. LIGO announced another such detection in June, heralding what astronomers hope is a new era of astronomy.
2. The Closest Star to Our Solar System Has an Earth-Like Exoplanet (44.5 points)
It was a discovery that set our imaginations alight. In August, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory announced that the closest star outside our Solar System, Proxima Centauri, has an Earth-size exoplanet orbiting within its habitable zone. While the world undoubtedly would be an exciting place to visit someday, it is unlikely to be friendly to life as we know it.
3. Artificial Intelligence Defeats Go World Champion (31.5 points)
This year we witnessed artificial intelligence master a new game: Go. Lee Sedol, the reigning world champion predicted victory at the outset, but by the end of the five-game series he had won only a single bout against Google's AlphaGo computer program. Google technicians trained AlphaGo using 30 million positions from 160,000 games of Go played by human experts. They later made the program play games against itself to grow in skill even further. Programs like AlphaGo with an enormous potential to learn could one day be harnessed to solve real-world problems.
4. First "Three-Parent" Baby Born in Mexico (31.5 points)
In April, a healthy baby boy was born in Mexico, but unlike other babies, he was conceived with the help of a technique known as spindle nuclear transfer, which combines genetic information from three people. The mother, who had previously miscarried four times due to a genetic defect in her mitochondrial DNA, had a nucleus from one of her eggs transplanted to a donor egg with normal mitochondria. The egg was subsequently fertilized with her husband's sperm. The resulting blastocyst was then transplanted to the mother's womb, where, over 37 weeks, it grew into a healthy baby. The "three-parent" technique could be used to help mothers unable to give birth due to genetic defects.
5. The Zika Virus Spreads Across the Americas (31 points)
This year, a somewhat obscure, mosquito-borne virus spread throughout the Americas, reaching epidemic status. Though Zika virus causes, at worst, a minor illness in those infected, its insidious nature became apparent when scientists confirmed its link to microcephaly, a debilitating birth defect in which a baby is born with an underdeveloped brain and a tiny head. In November, the World Health Organization declared the worst of the epidemic to be over, but insisted that Zika remains a public health threat. Researchers are working hard to create an effective vaccine.
6. CRISPR Tested in a Human for the First Time (22 points)
It was only a matter of time. CRISPR, the gene-editing technique that's taking science by storm, has finally been used on a human. In October, Chinese scientists delivered modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer. The hope is that these cells will attack and destroy the cancer cells. Results from the attempt have yet to be announced.
7. Our Solar System May Host a Gigantic Ninth Planet (21 points)
Before it was demoted in 2005, the diminutive dwarf planet Pluto was known as the ninth planet in our solar system. Now, a new planet could step in to take Pluto's place. In January, astronomers from Caltech revealed compelling evidence that a Neptune-sized planet dwells at the outskirts of the Solar System, orbiting the sun every 15,000 years. Supplemental research published in October the year supported the idea. All that's left to do is detect the planet directly.
8. Ancient Humans Got Around (17.5 points)
A number of studies published this year showed that humanity's migration out of Africa was a complex process, with diverse peoples leaving at various times and spreading to numerous locations. The findings are sure to hamper anthropologists' attempts to finally unravel our origins.
9. A Dinosaur Tail Was Found Encased in Amber (13 points)
Amber is truly remarkable. The fossilized resin from ancient trees is nature's camera, preserving deceased life from millions of years ago in nearly mint condition. This year, paleontologists made a find unlike any other, uncovering a feathered dinosaur tail encased in amber. It's an unprecedented glimpse at life from 99 million years ago!
10. Arctic Sea Ice Hits a New All-Time Low (11.5 points)
Global sea ice coverage has repeatedly dwindled to all-time lows over the past decades, but the new low set this year blows the other records out of the water. Crazy weather is absolutely to blame, but as Michael Le Page points out at NewScientist, "this kind of event can happen only because the planet is so much warmer than in pre-industrial times."