No need to feel down
It’s been an interesting year hasn't it? England chose to sever its ties with the European Union and America decided to elect a former celebrity-businessman as the new president. Many famous and talented people died including Vera Rubin (discoverer of dark matter), Walter Kohn (inventor of density functional theory) and of course, Lemmy (inventor of Motorhead). OK, technically Lemmy died in 2015 but the pain's still real for me.
And, as if all this death wasn’t enough, we had the killer-clowns, the Dakota access pipeline fiasco, exploding phones, and I had to organise a school trip to London.
But while the news has been dismal and grim and miserable and doom-spreading (as it usually is) Science has made some awesome, uplifting, optimistic and life-changing discoveries (as it usually does).
There may be tough times ahead for Scientific literacy (link here) but we can never lose hope in the ingenuity and brilliance of our species. So, for the sake of everybody’s sanity, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the inspiring, mind-bending or just plain fascinating stuff Science and Technology achieved in 2016. In approximately chronological order.
Planet 9 (January 20th)
Michael Brown is the man responsible for demoting Pluto to dwarf-planet status (rightly so). But for those who objected, don’t hate the man too much - he's just brought the concept of a 9th planet back, only this time it's a lot bigger. Brown published data this year showing how some of the asteroids in the Kuiper belt are being pulled at a strange angle by some enormous mass floating in the darkness. We don't know what it is, but there's a very good chance we could be on the brink of discovering a whole new planet...ten times the size of the Earth. None of your wussy Pluto nonsense. #planetFeynman #planetSagan #planetAsimov
First Human Thought Transplant (February 10th)
This story was overshadowed by gravitational waves the following day, but I considered it one of the most remarkable discoveries of the year. Thought transplants had been achieved with mice in 2013 by Susumu Tonegawa at RIKEN-MIT, and in 2016 Matthew Philips of HRL laboratories reported the first rudimentary human version. By recording the electrical activity of a pilot’s brain, Philips was able to effectively ‘beam’ the thought-patterns into the brains of people learning to fly. The research showed that students receiving these ‘thought-beams’ picked up the skills much faster than the control group. It’s hardly The Matrix but it’s an exciting step.
Gravitational Waves Discovered (February 11th)
Physicists at the LIGO observatory announced the long-anticipated discovery of gravitational waves. I’ve done a video explaining it here, but the short and tall is that not only do gravitational waves confirm a century-old theory, they open up a new era of cosmological exploration. Probably the "biggest" story of the year - certainly one that future history books will record.
Humans and Neanderthals Interbred (February)
In mid-February (appropriately around Valentine’s day) we discovered, thanks to Sergi Castellano of the Max Planck Institute, that early humans were having sex with Neanderthals about 100,000 years ago. This is interesting because Neanderthals mainly occupied Europe and humans, it was thought, were still hanging around in Africa. To find human DNA in the Neanderthal genome suggests we may have left Africa a lot earlier than people thought, changing what we knew about human evolution.
Stem Cells for Stroke Patients (Early June)
Gary Steinberg of Stanford University published preliminary findings on the use of stem cells in stroke-victim therapy. Although the results are moderate and involve only a dozen patients, the use of stem-cells seems to have led to record-breaking recovery times for stroke victims, particularly in helping them regain mobility. Also, I have a confession to make regarding the picture above: the caption isn't true. Nobody enjoys the novels of Nicholas Sparks.
Biological Life After Death (June 11th)
This was another criminally under-reported study led by Alexander Pozhitkov at the University of Washington. While studying the death of mice and zebrafish, Pozhtikov discovered that death is not necessarily the end, in fact, for some parts of the body it is the beginning. Certain genes, associated with birth, cell-growth and cancer, are actually switched on 24 hours after the host organism dies. We have no idea why.
Juno Enters Orbit (July 5th)
After a five-year journey, the Juno probe successfully entered a stable orbit around Jupiter. Over a period of 37 rotations, the probe will gather data on the gas giant before its descent into Jupiter’s atmosphere (February 2018). This will give the human race our first glimpse inside a gas-giant planet. Hooray for Juno (the probe, not the Ellen Page movie).
Proxima b (August 24th)
In January, the European Southern Observatory launched the Pale Red Dot program to investigate the possibility of a planet orbiting our Sun’s nearest neighbour. On August 24th, they confirmed that not only does Proxima Centauri have a planet going around it, Proxima b, but it sits smack-bang in the goldilocks zone (more explanation here). In other words, rather than having to scour the Universe, it turns out there is a potentially habitable world in the next star-system! If only we had the means of getting there…
Breakthrough Starshot (April 12th)
I know this one should go earlier in the timeline, but it seemed like a nice way of linking the two stories. Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking announced the beginning of project Breakthrough Starshot, a new type of spacecraft based on solar-sail technology which, when built, will be able to reach Proxima b in 30 years, rather than the proposed hundreds of years it would take using conventional fuel-rockets.
Three-Parent Baby (September 27th)
Researchers led by John Zhang of New York helped deliver a baby boy containing genetic material from three adult humans. The couple who underwent the procedure suffered from a rare genetic disease which they would have passed to their son. By carefully altering the child’s DNA, Zhang was able to introduce DNA from a third parent and create a perfectly healthy baby, opening up a new realm of possibilities for parents who would otherwise be unable to have healthy children.
Robot Arm which can Feel Touch (October)
Nathan Copeland, who was paralysed after a road accident, volunteered for a revolutionary new technique in which a robot arm was wired directly into his brain. Not only does this arm respond to his thoughts and move as if it were his own, it feeds back sensory information, giving him back the sense of touch. I wanted to make some reference to the Transformers movie here about "you got the touch" but I realised there was a more obvious comment to make. We have just given a human being a fully-working, fully-sensing cybernetic limb.
First Successful Paralysis Cure (November 9th)
As if giving a paralysed man his sense of touch back wasn't enough, we've also made our first breakthrough in curing paralysis altogether. I'm not joking. Gregoire Courtine was able to successfully restore movement to previously paralysed monkeys by implanting wireless devices into their central nervous systems. One implant sits inside the brain of the monkey and wirelessly transmits a signal to the other implant in their legs, allowing the signal to bypass the damaged spinal column entirely, creating a newly reanimated cyborg-monkey! Human trials are a long ways off, but Courtine’s team has begun preparation at the CHUV University Hospital of Lausanne.
The EM-Drive Might Work (November 17th)
By far the most controversial discovery of the year, I’ve written about the EMDrive in detail here so I won’t go on. But there’s a possibility Harold White of the Eagleworks lab may have uncovered a new form of locomotion for spacecraft, as well as maybe settling the longest-standing debate in quantum mechanics. That’s if his research holds up to scrutiny of course.
Evolutionary Speciation Observed (November 28th)
One of the cornerstones of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is that a species can, over a long period of time, split into two forms of creature - a process called ‘speciation’. Unfortunately it usually takes such a long time that it’s not something we can observe (giving anti-evolutionists a pretty reasonable objection). However, thanks to Justin Meyer’s team at San Diego University, the process of speciation was finally observed for the first time in an extremely fast-breeding species of virus. It’s as if Darwin was onto something.
Psilocybin may help Cancer Depression (Early December)
Stephen Ross and his team at New York University announced the remarkable finding that administering psilocybin (the active ingredient in ‘magic’ mushrooms) to patients with cancer may significantly improve their depression. To be clear, this doesn’t mean magic mushrooms cure depression, but it’s certainly an avenue for investigation.
Preserved Dinosaur Feathers (December 19th)
Lida Xing from the China University of GeoSciences announced the discovery of a perfectly preserved dino-feather. Just like in Jurassic Park, a bit of fossilised tree-sap from 99-million years ago was unearthed containing a fully preserved feather. And now, I highly recommend you listen to the epic Jurassic Park theme by John Williams. In fact, as you listen, go back through my list and remember how wonderful we truly are.
In 2016 we carried out thought transplants, created cyborgs, discovered life after death, cured paralysis and invented new ways of improving people’s lives and helping people bring healthy babies into the world. Don’t feel down-hearted when you look around, my fellow humans. We’ve done a lot of great things, and we will continue to do great things because we are the human race and we invented Science. Take it away John...
I love science, let me tell you why.