Since I apparently get antsy when I’m between semesters and don’t have hundreds of papers to grade, I’ve decided to once again rank the ten biggest science stories of the year. You can revisit my previous year-end lists at the following hyperlinks: 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013. Annual disclaimer: I am not a scientist. I teach and write about the history of science for a living, but my interest in modern science is purely a layman’s affair. Before I get to the top ten, a few stories that didn’t make the cut…
Runner Up: Fly Me to the Moon?
In late February (on my birthday, in fact), the ever-industrious Elon Musk announced that his company, SpaceX, would send two as-yet unnamed people on a trip around the moon and back, and that they would do it by the end of next year (see my original post here). Since then? Crickets. I remain optimistic, but December 2018 is a pretty tight deadline. The first chance we’ll have to chart their progress is next month, when SpaceX is scheduled to launch the Falcon Heavy rocket (the one that would carry people into space) for the first time.
Runner Up: Artificial Intelligence Continues to Advance
Few branches of science and technology are advancing as quickly as artificial intelligence (AI), and, as a result, AI almost always makes an appearance on my annual year-end list. Among other headlines, this was the year that AI proved capable of beating human competitors at games like no-limit Texas hold ’em poker (links here and here). This is especially noteworthy, because poker is as much about psychology as it is logic. Of course, AI’s biggest impact will be felt not in games but rather in the labor force (learn more at the links here, here, and here). The threat to my own career as a professional historian was made abundantly clear in March, when PNAS published an article (accessible at this link) detailing how AI analyzed and summarized 150 years of British periodicals with surprisingly astute results. To learn when/if AI will take your job, check out the fascinating/terrifying website at this link.
Runner Up: The White House is Anti-Science
Back in 2015, I ranked President Obama’s orchestration of the Paris climate agreement among the top ten science stories of the year. That now seems like a million years ago. In June of this year, our current President withdrew from the Paris agreement, leaving the United States and Syria (!) as the only countries in the world refusing to participate. I could obviously say a lot more about the President’s never-ending attacks on science and reason, but I think the man gets enough press as it is. Also, I’d hate to deliberately antagonize the vast majority of my beloved hometown (nearly 70% of whom voted for the most anti-science Presidential candidate in American history), so I’ll refrain from pointing out that he is an ignorant, fascist asshole. Starting now. Okay, on to the list…
10. New Perspectives on the Two Biggest Planets
In the spring, the Cassini spacecraft went where no human (or reconnaissance robot) had ever gone before: between Saturn and its innermost rings. The maneuver yielded some pretty awesome up-close images, and it invigorated those of us who appreciate exploration for exploration’s sake. It was a fitting end for the extremely successful Cassini mission, which later disintegrated in Saturn’s atmosphere after 13 fruitful years orbiting the ringed planet. You can revisit all of Cassini’s photographs at this link. A few months later, the Juno spacecraft swooped in for its closest look at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The results were predictably awesome. Juno remains in orbit around our solar system’s largest planet, and we are all the better for it. If you’re in need of a healthy dose of perspective, check out Juno’s gallery of absolutely beautiful photographs at this link.
If you haven’t yet heard, “organoids” are all the rage in the biological sciences. As their name suggests, organoids are miniature organs that are derived from stem cells and grown in petri dishes. They allow researchers to test the structure and function of organs without slicing up their patients, and that’s great. But then you remember that the brain is an organ, and you learn that researchers are cultivating “mini-brains” in the lab for experimental purposes, and it all starts to feel a little creepy. The technology is a few years old, but it’s progressing quickly. To learn about some of this year’s advances, check out the links here, here, and here.
8. Honesty with Brain Stimulation
Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth might be one step closer to reality. In April, researchers published an article in PNAS (link here) announcing that they had managed to successfully and substantially increase honesty in their test subjects using noninvasive direct-current stimulation (aka: a skullcap with electrodes). I know this doesn’t apply to my dear readers, who have never lied about anything, but just imagine how different things would be if everyone was always compelled to tell the truth. It would transform every aspect of the human experience, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. Those sort of applications are still a looong way off, but at least this year’s research proved that they’re not theoretically impossible. “And that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”
7. Electronics in the Brain
The human brain is the most mysterious object in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be studied, or understood, or even improved. Despite its seemingly magical qualities, the human brain runs on good-old-fashioned electrical impulses. As a result, researchers have long understood that there is no absolute barrier preventing electronics from being integrated directly into the brain. Some even think we’re heading for a “technological singularity.” In other words, they think parallel advances in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology (among other fields) will soon converge to produce super-intelligent superhumans. We’re not there yet, but this year proved that we might be on that path. Earlier this month, Science published an essay (link here) heralding the “rise of the cyborg.” The essay explains that bio-friendly mesh-like electrodes can be implanted into the brain with minimal side effects, and that those electrodes can be used to activate (or suppress) both small and large networks of neurons with potentially radical effects. Meanwhile, super-secretive DARPA announced that they were actively trying to perfect an implantable brain-computer interface, and, since it’s DARPA, a part of me suspects they’ve already succeeded (links here and here). I’ve told my students that I foresee a day when they’ll be able to access the internet from their brain, and while they almost always laugh me off, I’m actually being serious. In any event, you’ve probably already thought of a gazillion ethical landmines. For example: who gets the upgrade first, how long before everyone get its, and how much abuse will transpire during the interim? (See: income inequality.) To read about some of the biggest ethical quandaries, check out the links here and here. Thus concludes the brain section of this list.
6. Artificial Womb for Sheep
There are few places on Earth more heart-wrenching than your local NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). Today, babies who are born prematurely face daunting odds, even with the superhuman care provided by their angelic nurses. Those odds may soon improve, however. In April, scientists announced that they had developed a fully operational artificial womb, complete with functional artificial placenta, that successfully nurtured a premature lamb throughout the gestation period. You can learn more at this link, which includes an incredible video of the transparent womb in action. Experts predict that we’re at least another three years from the first human trials, but given that we now have proof of concept, it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of saving millions of premature babies with this promising new technology.
5. Interstellar Asteroid
Our solar system is home to a variety of heavenly bodies, from rocky planets to gas giants to asteroids to comets, yet, no matter their differences, they are all gravitationally bound to the Sun. So too is everything else in the solar system, with one notable exception. In November, astronomers chanced to discover an asteroid zipping through our solar system at a blistering speed. After accounting for the object’s speed and trajectory, the scientists confirmed that it was not in orbit around the Sun, and that it had originated from elsewhere in space, presumably a different solar system. This is the first time in recorded history that researchers have identified an asteroid (or anything) that originated from a different solar system. Pretty trippy stuff. Curiosity was further piqued when additional observations showed the asteroid was shaped like a cigar. Since none of the asteroids in our solar system are shaped anything like that, some have speculated that the object might not be an asteroid and might instead be some sort of spacecraft. Alas, absolutely none of the evidence supports that hypothesis. On the off-chance it was a starship, the pilots must not have seen anything they liked because the object has already left our neighborhood, continuing its breakneck trek ‘across the universe divide’ (to quote Johnny Cash).
4. Life is Everywhere On, In, and Above the Earth
Carl Sagan once remarked that our home planet positively teems with life. The conspicuous ubiquity of plants and animals is obvious enough, but it’s the microbes who are really found everywhere. They cover just about every surface that you see on a given day. What’s more, they suffuse you. Billions live on your skin, in your gut, and everywhere in between. They even thrive in the most inhospitable places on Earth, from radioactive toxic sludge to boiling hydrothermal vents (see: “extremophiles”). I marveled at the ubiquity of life on Earth in the runner-up section of last year’s top ten list (link), but 2017 featured several discoveries that expanded life’s range farther still. Within the past month, researchers published a microbial survey of the interior of the International Space Station (they obviously relied on astronauts to collect the swabs). They reported that thousands of different (harmless) microbes make their home on the ISS, and that these microbes more closely resemble microbes on Earth than microbes on the astronauts. Also within the past month, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov has claimed that he swabbed the exterior of the ISS and that it too was covered in microbes. Details are sketchy, however, and Russian space agency has yet to elaborate. The prevailing opinion is that these exterior microbes probably hitched a ride on the astronauts themselves, or perhaps their provisions. Meanwhile, life also thrives in the exact opposition direction. Last fall, researchers announced that they had discovered microbes living in coal beds almost two miles beneath the ocean floor. In other words, life is everywhere.
3. Mice Born from 3D-printed Ovaries
Last year, I learned that healthy mice had been born from their mother’s skin cells (link here and here). Short version: Scientists can now induce skin cells to revert back to their original status as pluripotent stem-cells, and then further induce them to develop into ovaries containing eggs . Some of those eggs were fertilized, developed to full term, were born, and are now living perfectly healthy lives. My mind was blown, but this year brought news that was no less bonkers. In May, scientists published an article in Nature explaining that they had created artificial embryos using a 3D printer. They inserted follicles (containing hormones and eggs) into these artificial embryos, which were subsequently inserted into infertile female lab mice. After a brief dalliance with male lab mice, the the previously infertile females gave birth to perfectly healthy offspring. Once again, we’re a long way from human trials, but the hope is that this method could help people who are otherwise infertile conceive healthy babies.
2. Seven Exoplanets Orbit TRAPPIST-1
As I’ve now explained in several previous posts, the hunt for planets outside our solar system is booming. Scientists have identified thousands of these “exoplanets,” and they estimate that there are hundreds of millions more scattered throughout our galaxy. Potentially habitable exoplanets remain the holy grail, and this year scientists hit the mother lode. In February, a team of astronomers announced that they had found seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a red-dwarf star relatively close by (a mere 39 million light years away, give or take) using the Spitzer space-based telescope. What’s more, several of these rocky exoplanets fall within the so-called “Goldilocks zone,” meaning that liquid water could potentially exist on any (or all) of them. Meanwhile, in June, scientists published a really cool (and really speculative) article on the “theoretical ecology” of the TRAPPIST-1 system. In particular, they reasoned that the exoplanets were sufficiently close to one another that if life arose on any of the exoplanets it would have almost certainly spread to the others as well (a process they call “enhanced interplanetary panspermia”). It’s possible (even probable) that the discovery will not amount to anything, but it’s certainly fun to think about the possibilities.
1. CRISPR in Viable Human Embryos
By now you’ve surely heard about CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology that promises to revolutionize the biological sciences and reshape the living world. (You can read my previous posts on CRISPR at this link.) Though it was only discovered a mere five years ago, CRISPR is poised to transform, among other things, agriculture, medicine, and human reproduction. It seems like every year brings some radical new development, and 2017 was no exception. In February, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published a comprehensive report on the science, ethics, and governance of human genome editing (available at this link). The report urged caution and restraint, but neither of those seem likely given CRISPR’s potential. Sure enough, less than a month after the aforementioned report, scientists in Beijing announced that they had used CRISPR to edit healthy human embryos. (You’ll recall that all previous experiments used non-viable embryos that had no chance of developing to full term.) A few months later, scientists in Oregon announced that they too had used CRISPR to experiment on healthy human embryos, the first such experiment in the United States. These taboo-shattering developments mean that we’re one step closer to the first CRISPR baby, probably within the next few years. Whether that’s a good idea is unclear, but it does seem inevitable.