The (Ultimate) Top Ten Science Stories of 2017
The year 2017 is almost behind us, and it blasted by. So it's only natural to look back at the twelve preceding months and wonder, "What the heck happened?" In case you need any help remembering, RealClearScience has you covered (as far as science goes that is). We've aggregated our definitive list of top stories from all of the other lists published at prominent outlets of science news.
Our methods are the same as always: We performed a Google search for "top science stories" lists, selecting only those from go-to RCS sources. 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 From Merging Neutron Stars (51.5 points).
Scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) topped last year's list with the very first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time. And now they've topped it again. This time, LIGO saw gravitational waves emanating from two colliding neutron stars. The never-before-seen cosmic event was also witnessed by light-based telescopes. The monumental discovery answered a boatload of questions. For example, it was confirmed that merging neutron stars send out gamma ray bursts, powerful jets of light blasted across the electromagnetic spectrum. We also now know that heavy elements like gold and platinum come from these mergers.
The fact that LIGO has produced two top discoveries in as many years showcases just how revolutionary gravitational wave astronomy truly is. We're seeing the universe in a whole new way!
2. CRISPR Used to Edit Viable Human Embryos (47.5 points).
CRISPR/Cas9, the much discussed gene-editing tool, has been translating science fiction into science fact faster that any other technology of late. This year, multiple groups of scientists utilized the "molecular scissors" to edit viable human embryos for the first time.
Chinese researchers led the way in March by correcting a mutation that can lead to a strange disorder called favism. Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University followed up the feat by correcting a mutation that can lead to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disorder that predisposes sufferers to sudden heart failure.
The advances signal that the era of "designer humans" is nearly upon us. The time to discuss the myriad ramifications is now.
3. The TRAPPIST-1 System Has Seven Earth-Size Planets (37.5 points).
The first exoplanet was discovered roughly 26 years ago. The two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12 almost certainly couldn't support life, but they represented a world of possibilities. Today, exoplanet discoveries occur with almost mundane regularity. Thousands have been spotted. Every so often, however, a new finding stands out.
Such was the case with TRAPPIST-1. Pinpointed by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the system hosts seven Earth-size planets, three of which orbit in the habitable zone. At just forty light-years distant, TRAPPIST-1 is sure to attract the attention of astronomers for years to come.
4. Modern Humans Emerged 100,000 Years Earlier Than Thought (31.5 points).
Within our genus Homo, humans are relative youngsters. Gathered evidence suggests that we sapiens emerged roughly 200,000 years ago in Africa. That pales in comparison to our sibling species erectus or habilis, who were present two million years ago and persisted much longer. But this past summer, fossils and tools dug out of the Jebel Irhoud archaeological cave site in Morocco revealed that humans may have been alive over 300,000 years ago. If joined by additional supporting evidence, this finding could rewrite our origin story.
5. A Giant Iceberg Breaks Away From Antarctica (27 points).
Iceberg A-68's unassuming name does not do the massive hunk of frozen water justice. The icy behemoth, which broke off from Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf in July, is larger than the state of Delaware and weighs more than one trillion metric tons. Its calving began as early as 2006. A-68 is presently meandering off Antarctica's coast and will slowly make its way out to the open sea.
6. Cassini Ends Its Incredible Mission by Diving Into Saturn (26.5 points).
In 2004, Saturn gained a diminutive and unlikely companion. The 4,740-pound Cassini spacecraft was a microscopic fly to the second largest planet in the solar system, yet over the ensuing 13 years and 76 days the probe would orbit the elegant ringed planet 294 times and send back to Earth thousands of awe-inspiring images and mountains of knowledge-giving data. On September 15th, Cassini ended its historic mission by diving into its host planet.
7. Astronomers See the First-Known Interstellar Visitor (21.5 points).
Oumuamua may not be an alien, but it is undoubtedly an interstellar oddity. The oblong object that bears a passing resemblance to the alien probe from Star Trek IV was discovered by astronomer Robert Weryk at Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii on October 19th, and may have originated somewhere in the vicinity of Vega, a star roughly 25 light-years from our solar system. Oumuamua's odd shape, unlike that of any asteroid ever observed, prompted some curious minds to wonder if the object was in fact alien in nature. While it unquestionably originates from far, far away, the object does not seem to be artificial or a source of extraterrestrial radio signals. Oumuamua will leave our solar system around 2023.
8. A Huge Void Was Found in the Great Pyramid of Giza (18 points).
When the Ancient Egyptians constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza 4,500 years ago for the pharaoh Khufu, they also built a seemingly inaccessible cavity that's roughly eight meters high, two meters wide, and thirty meters long. The existence of this "void" was revealed with the help of cosmic ray imaging, which operates very similar to x-ray imaging. What lies inside the void is now a matter for scientific debate and public imagination.
9. CAR T-Cell Therapy Takes Off (13.5 points).
A landmark cancer treatment in development since the 1990s has finally been approved for patient use. CAR T-cell therapy involves extracting immune T-cells from patients and genetically modifying them to target cancer cells. When reinserted into patients, the T-cells operate with remarkable efficiency. In one trial for child leukemia, 83 percent of patients were cancer-free after three months. In another for lymphoma, 42 percent of patients experienced complete remission.
However, CAR T can have some devastating side effects and costs as much as a half million dollars, which is why – for now – it will likely be used as a treatment of last resort.
10. The Great American Eclipse Dazzles Millions (13 points).
This summer, tens of millions of Americans gazed up at the sky to watch the moon completely cover the sun. The line of totality extended from Oregon to South Carolina, making the astronomical event accessible to hundreds of millions of people. Americans' next crack at a solar eclipse will come in 2024, when the line of totality will travel from Texas to Maine.