2017 was terrible for science. An orange turd got elected as head of the global hegemony, and that covers at least 50 of the shitty things that happened. Climate change is getting worse thanks to capitalism, Elon Musk has a religious following, and flat-Earthers seem to be getting more popular.
Despite that, some pretty amazing things have happened too. So let’s take stock while we’re filling our stockings.
10. The Death of Cassini
On Friday, September 15, NASA’s 20-year-old, $4 billion spacecraft took its final pictures of the giant-ringed planet, and crashed down onto Saturn in a blaze of glory. If only it could have taken a selfie.
The space agency had to let Cassini go. It had almost run out of fuel, and had already been functioning years past its intended mission duration. If they kept it going, it risked bringing contaminating microbes to one of Saturn’s moons like Enceladus, an icy world with some ingredients necessary for life, or Titan, a moon with hydrocarbon rivers and lakes, where it rains methane.
9. Continent Zealandia
This year, scientists presented evidence for a new continent in the southwest Pacific beneath New Zealand, called Zealandia. Even though the landmass is 94 percent submerged, geologists say it meets all the important criteria to be recognised as Earth’s eighth continent.
However, no scientific body formally recognises continents, so it remains to be seen whether Zealandia will appear in future geography textbooks. Scientists have also started to called Europe and Asia “Eurasia”, due to the connected landmass. 2017 really is weird.
8. Enter the Sixth Mass Extinction
Scientists this year published a study in March where they referred to the severe decline in a number of animal species as “biological annihilation”. Humans have wiped out 50% of wildlife in the last 40 years, and in the next 40, more will continue to disappear from the face of our world.
However, other scientists have argued that we are not in another mass extinction event. If we were, then there would be no need for biological conservation. We would simply have to sit back, and watch the world burn. Perhaps there’s hope in that.
7. It’s a TRAPPIST
In recent years, astronomers have been spotting a bunch of exoplanets thanks to technological advancements. Some of the exoplanets aren’t too far from here, and some actually resemble Earth in size and possibly their habitability. Back in February, scientists announced that they had found seven planets orbiting the ultra cool red dwarf star, TRAPPIST 1.
Not only that, but they found that 3 of them were in the habitable zone, and that all the planets were tightly packed but avoided collisions because they have incredibly harmonious orbits.
6. Neurocide for Knowledge
In November, biologists published a paper that explained what happens to the brain when you learn a new skill. The brain shrinks and grows according to one of the most fundamental principles of neuroscience: plasticity. As new cells come to life, others are killed off.
The burst of new cells helps the brain deal with new information. The brain works out which of these new cells work best and which are unnecessary, killing off the latter in a Darwinian-esque slaughter. Survival of the smartest.
5. Water From Air
This isn’t as game-changing as it sounds, but it does mean a lot for the future of technology. Researchers at MIT successfully designed a solar-powered, spongelike device that sucks water vapour from air, even in low humidity.
The device can apparently produce nearly 3 litres of water per day for every kilogram of spongelike absorber it contains, and researchers say future versions will be even better. On a large scale, that’s a tiny amount, and the device is very limited still (it hasn’t been tested in a desert yet, so there’s no telling how it would work), but it does pave the way for some amazing possibilities in the near future.
4. Beam me up, China!
Less than a year after they launched the world’s only quantum communications satellite, physicists managed to teleport entangled photons down to Earth. The pair of particles were produced on the satellite, which then sent them down to ground stations in China 750 miles (1,200km) apart, where they remained quantum entangled.
Einstein famously called quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance”, because two entangled particles could be any distance apart in the universe and still share a number of properties. So not only did the scientists help bring quantum entanglement into public discussion, they teleported something. Don’t get your hopes up though. Teleporting a subatomic particle is not even close to the same thing as teleporting biological life.
3. Bespoke Embryos
Using the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas9, scientists managed to remove disease-causing mutations from viable human embryos.
Research groups have previously reported editing human embryos that could not develop into a baby because they carried extra chromosomes, but this was the first report that actually involved viable embryos. This is a massive deal because it means we can potentially stop lethal or chronically impairing conditions.
However, there is also a cause for concern with this development as well. Some scientists have commented on the possibilities of eugenics with CRISPR: editing out variations that society says is bad even when they may not even pose real danger to the person. And that’s just the surface of it.
2. Neutron Stars Collide
In August, for the first time ever, scientists detected two neutron stars colliding, causing an enormous explosion (kilonova) that rippled through spacetime from 130 million light years away. It was such a defining moment that the journal Science named it the scientific breakthrough of 2017.
The two mega-dense stars “confirmed several key astrophysical models, revealed a birthplace of many heavy elements, and tested the general theory of relativity as never before”, said the report.
This event was important because it didn’t require specific instruments to witness. The kilonova produced radio waves, gamma rays, and X-rays in addition to gravitational waves, meaning any astronomer could study it. In addition, experts said it was the kind of event to produce as much as half of the universe’s gold, platinum, uranium, and mercury.
As astrophysicist Daniel Holz put it: “I can’t think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe.”
While neutron stars colliding is a big deal (literally), Octopi engineering underwater civilisations is also a pretty big deal, considering the implications behind it. It’s much closer to home, but those kinds of stories are always more important to us in the grand scheme of things. We’re learning more about octopi each day. They are capable of textured and coloured camouflage; they can regrow their arms; they’re boneless; they use their arms to sense taste; and they also have culture.
The study’s co-author, Stephanie Chancellor, explained that the octopuses are “true environmental engineers”. While they may not be urban planners, the eight-armed invertebrates excel at everything they do. Octlantis as well as the other octopus city found in 2009, Octopolis, raise many more questions about the sticky species.
If they are sensitive to their environment like humans, do they have varying social systems? Or are they all the same? Will they migrate to a different site and create another city there? Why do scientists keep describing them as the closest things to aliens?