The (Ultimate) Top Ten Science Stories of 2018

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Like a rocket soaring through the atmosphere, 2018 blasted by. If you need some help remembering exactly what happened, RCS has you covered with our annual aggregation of top science story lists.

Methods:

Our methods remain the same: 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.

The List:

1. Climate Change Warnings Grow Increasingly Dire (31.5 points)

This year, the United States government's Fourth National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report on keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius read almost like doomsday proclamations. The takeaway: if the world's leaders don't unite to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change now, life on Earth will be severely disrupted this century. Damaging effects from climate change are no longer in the realm of prediction, they are here today and are almost certain to grow worse.

2. A Gene Editing Shocker (26.5 points)

In this photo, scientist He Jiankui speaks during an interview in Shenzhen in southern China's Guandong province.

In November, gene editing leapt out of the laboratory in a big way. Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had created the first gene-edited human babies. The claimed subjects are twin girls whose CCR5 genes were disabled with CRISPR/Cas9, an alteration that will theoretically help protect against HIV infection. He's work was met with widespread criticism in the gene-editing community, which slammed the procedure as slapdash and ethically dubious. His peers also fretted about the potential ramifications. In a bizarre twist to this momentous story, He is now apparently missing, and is likely in the custody of the Chinese government.

3. High-Energy Neutrino Traced to Blazar (24.5 points)

Neutrinos are near-massless subatomic particles, so abundant yet minuscule that millions pass through you unnoticed every day. While they seem to be everywhere, their source has always been up for debate, but this year, scientists working with the IceCube neutrino observatory at the South Pole traced the arrival of a single neutrino on Earth to the blazar TXS 0506+056, a galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its center roughly 5.7 billion light years from Earth. The result lends evidence to the idea that energetic black holes are bathing the universe in neutrinos.

4. Fossil of 50,000-Year-Old Human Hybrid Discovered (17.5 points)

We Homo sapiens like to sleep around, so it's a safe bet that our ancestors did as well. 2018 brought us direct evidence of this in the form of a bone fragment that originated from a 50,000-year-old woman. DNA extracted from the fossil revealed that the individual's mother was a Neanderthal and her father was a Denisovan, two different species of ancient human.

5. Huge Impact Crater Found in Greenland (16 points)


Sometime between 11,700 and 1.9 million years before present time, a large object with an estimated diameter of 1.5 kilometers slammed into what is now Greenland. The resulting crater, one of the 25 largest on the planet, was recently discovered under a mountain of ice. The catastrophic event that formed it likely would have affected Earth's climate globally.

 

6. Forensic Genealogy Solves Cold Cases (14.5 points)

Thanks to consumer genetic testing DNA samples exist for millions of people, forming gigantic databases of genetic information. These databases are so far-reaching they can now be used to identify criminal suspects via their relatives' DNA. Essentially, if a suspect leaves their DNA at a crime scene, it can be compared to publicly available DNA data from their distant relatives, which can in turn lead police to the suspect via a family tree. Dozens of cold cases have been solved this year with the technique, and many more successes are sure to come.

7. Lake of Liquid Water Spotted Beneath Martian Surface (14 points)

Every year the list of reasons for humans to visit Mars grows longer, and 2018 was no different. Scientists using the Mars Express orbiter found strong evidence that a lake of salty liquid water twelve miles across and at least a meter deep sits just beneath the Red Planet's south polar ice cap. The lake's conditions may be too hostile for life as we know it, but the body of water is well worth a visit.

8. The Kilogram Is Redefined (11.5 points)

For many decades, the kilogram has been defined by a platinum-alloy cylinder kept in a vault outside Paris, a seemingly odd standard for such a ubiquitous and important unit of measurement. No longer. While the kilogram's mass remains the same, it is now rooted in the fundamental Planck constant of quantum physics.

9. The Parker Solar Probe Sets Records in Mission to "Touch" the Sun (11 points)

This illustration shows the Parker Solar Probe  approaching the sun.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched this summer for its mission to study the Sun in closer detail than ever before, and by October it had already broken two spacefaring records, becoming the closest human-built object to the Sun (42.7 million kilometers) and the fastest human-built object ever made (246,960 kilometers per hour). But the probe is just heating up. By 2024, it is expected to approach as close as 6.16 million kilometers to the Sun and reach speeds of 692,000 kilometers per hour, accomplishments that will stand as testaments to human ingenuity.

10. Ebola Vaccine Tested During Outbreak (11 points)

Unbeknownst to many in the developed world, the world's second largest outbreak of ebola ever is raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hundreds have been sickened and roughly 60% of those infected have died. Thankfully, responders to this devastating outbreak are armed with something they didn't have during the previous epidemic just a few years ago: an experimental vaccine. Over 40,000 people have received it, and though it's still too early to properly gauge the vaccine's effectiveness, officials on the ground think it is having a major impact.

Sources: Gizmodo, BBC, Vox, Science Magazine, Nature News, ScienceNews, The Scientist

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