2017 was, as my mom would say, a doozy. I have never paid such close attention to the news as I did in 2017 and most of my friends have said the same. Not only do I know the name of Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Ben Carson), but also his crazy views on the Pyramids (they were made for grain storage). I couldn’t tell you the name of Obama’s secretary much less their views on contemporary Egyptology. Even if you divorce science news from political news, which I’m not convinced is possible, it was a doozy. Merriam Webster tells me the plural of doozy is doozers. If I had to sum up 2017 in one word it would be doozers.
With the CDC preparing people for the possibility of a nuclear war and Hawaii accidentally declaring it, I understand that most people haven’t had the time to keep up on the latest science news. Even if that’s your jam, like it is for me, it’s been depressing AF. It’s hard to read article after article about the inevitability of climate change.
So, I’ve done all the hard work and pulled out what I consider the most interesting/important science news of 2017. Of course this list is not comprehensive, and I won’t be able to dive into any depth, so if you’re interested you should click the links to learn more. I’ve divided the stories up into five categories: climate change, space, medicine/biology, tech, and fossils.
Let’s start with the most depressing one: climate change. I’ve already written about the disaster of the USA leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, but since then Syria joined, leaving the States the only nation to not sign on. A study in Science posits that climate change will continue to increase wealth inequality in the US, particularly in the South. A study in Nature corroborates this by predicting some of the most important agricultural crops in America will suffer “abrupt and substantial yield losses” this century. Science Advances journal told us that global warming is happening faster than we thought, which agrees with a study in Anthropocene Review that humans have changed the climate 170 times quicker than normal.
Science Advances also told us that there was no “pause” in global temperatures and that our oceans are warming faster than we thought. We now have proof that 2016 was the hottest year on record, following 2015 and 2014 as the previous record holders.
But there is some good news: there have been many developments in solar technology and a Carnegie study found that North Atlantic wind farms could theoretically meet all our energy needs. So, there’s that.
Much less depressing: space!
Most exciting to me was the detection of gravitational waves! Juno brought us some truly incredible photos of Jupiter’s red spot, which I find very calming. Curiosity found boron on Mars, which is another clue pointing towards possible ancient Martians. Cassini flew to her death in Saturn’s atmosphere after being the best space probe we could have asked for. The amazingly named European Extremely Large Telescope began construction, which could help with NASA’s newly planned mission to Europa.
#MCM Elon Musk published his plans for a Mars colony, where I hope to live someday. Speaking of, SpaceX succeeded in reusing its Falcon rocket for the first time. We found lots and lots of exoplanets, and NASA announced that Saturn’s moon Enceladus might have life. So fun!
Now onto: biology/medicine
We’ve made many discoveries in aging science, so I assume soon we’ll all live forever. A large study found that working out more leads to longer lifespans. CRISPR was used for the first time to remove a genetic illness from an embryo. We now can 3D print organs using living matter, which are far easier to transplant. The Nobel was given to a discovery about circadian rhythms. The Aussies have figured out how to create a vitamin A rich banana, which would be particularly helpful in areas of the world where people eat a lot of bananas but have vitamin A deficiencies – such as Uganda.
A study in Current Biology successfully tested a potential cure for PTSD. But it was on snails, so it’ll take a while to make its way to human testing. It’s still cool though. As there are every year, there are many small steps in cancer research. And what I think is the coolest: researchers have created (semi)synthetic organisms from synthetic DNA. So cool!
An exciting new form of matter was discovered, creatively named excitonium. Google’s artificial intelligence AlphaZero taught itself to be the best chess playing software in the world in only four hours. Honestly, this one frightens me a little bit. Facebook jumped on the AI game by analyzing their users at risk for suicide, which also frightened people. Elon Musk is the only person on this list in two categories for two of his companies: SpaceX, and now Tesla’s release of their first semi-autonomous semi-truck. So far all of the tech I’ve mentioned has frightened me. Maybe I’m more of a Luddite than I thought.
Anyway – the most frightening was the development of a tiny mechanical bee that could pollinate flowers, giving me the feeling that we’ve given up on bees entirely. One of these days I’m going to publish my longform article on why we shouldn’t do that, but today is not that day.
Lastly, one of my favorite topics: fossils!
Or, at least, really old remains.
Everyone is confused about when early humans moved out of Africa and to other places in the world. Did they stay in Africa until about 60,000 years ago or 270,000 years ago? Were they already in Australia by 60,000 years ago? Did we get to Morocco100,000 years earlier than we thought? What about South Africa? No one knows. This is a topic that I’ll do a deep dive into later this month.
The largest dinosaur ever found finally got named: Patagotitan mayorum. They’re larger than 10 African elephants, so that’s pretty distressing. Speaking of extremes, researchers may have also found the oldest ancestor of mammals (145 million years), and the oldest life on Earth, ever (3.45 billion years old).
I have three more news items that didn’t fit anywhere else: