For most people, 2017 felt like the longest, most arduous year in recent times. Alternative Facts became popular. Fatbergs terrorized our streets. A sudden surge in Szechuan sauce demands triggered an embarrassing outpouring of confused rage.
Yes, this year, in some respects, was awful; it was like reality had malfunctioned, or that we had found ourselves in the darkest possible timeline.
Science, however, has something to say about that. Researchers across the planet have been working their proverbial butts off this year, as they always have done, to decipher another part of this beautifully bonkers universe we find ourselves in – and although some discoveries were somewhat scary, many have been uplifting, enlightening, or just downright awesome.
Picking a top 10 in this regard isn’t easy, and this is by no means a definitive list. We couldn’t resist giving it a go, though, so here, in no particular order, is a selection of scientific findings in 2017 that will maybe, just a little, give you a tiny bit of hope.
Let’s start with a truly colossal bang, shall we? The detection of gravitational waves may have been 2016’s story – one that was given the Nobel Prize in Physics just this year – but hey, science moves fast and even more exciting developments have happened since.
It was announced this October that, earlier this summer, the LIGO and VIRGO houses of astrophysical wizardry made the fifth detection of gravitational waves. Not only was the signal the longest and most potent to date, but all evidence pointed towards the ripples being caused by a neutron star collision, an observation that has proved elusive for a considerably long time.
A new era in astronomy has begun – which is the second time in two years that can confidently be stated.
Finding a well-preserved, fully-articulated dinosaur is about as rare as meeting someone who thinks that jet lag is just splendid, but hey, from time to time, a proverbial miracle occurs.
Last year, it was announced that the first fossilized dinosaur brain was serendipitously discovered by researchers. This year, we got something even better: a 110-million-year-old nodosaur, who was found with half of its skin and armor near-perfectly preserved. Found in 2011, it was publically revealed, named, and exhibited for the first time in 2017.
This ancient herbivore was found in an environment that once used to be far out to sea. It appears that it died and was buried in mud, which prevented normal biodegradation from taking place. This meant its skin became mineralized rather than breaking down, which turned it into a remarkable petrified monster.
Yes, we are causing Earth’s latest mass extinction event through habitat destruction, climate change, and so on and so forth, but every now and then, we find out that life, uh, finds a way to avoid us. This summer, it was announced that a remarkable 381 new species had been discovered in the Amazon Rainforest over the last two years alone, which roughly equates to one new species every two days.
These included new river dolphins, monkeys, birds, reptiles, plants, and more. It’s another reminder that this planet isn’t just ours – we may be the planetary kingmakers, but we have a responsibility to live conscientiously alongside a plethora of life, including these newly found critters.
Gene therapy may be a relatively nascent field of research, but already it’s managing to save lives. Two babies suffering from acute lymphocytic leukemia – one that’s notoriously aggressive and difficult to treat – were given a second chance at life when white blood cells, taken from healthy donors, were tweaked and given to these young patients in a novel form of treatment.
Although they initially reacted a little negatively to these “alien” white blood cells, ultimately they were found to have no signs of the leukemia they were once afflicted by. A year on from treatment, they’re doing well.
Peering inside the famous Egyptian pyramids is not exactly easy; they’re complex structures and parts are fragile or otherwise thoroughly blocked off. An intrepid team of international researchers decided to change the rules of the game by using particles given off by cosmic ray interactions with our atmosphere – muons – to indirectly see what may lie within.
Their work, on the bleeding edges of science, recently uncovered a huge void within Khufu’s Pyramid, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza. At present, it’s unclear as to what it is, but it’s safe to say that this discovery – which combined physics and archaeology to stunning effect – has set a considerable fire in our collective imaginations.
A global coalition of governments, private enterprises, charities, venture philanthropists, and more came together in 2012 in order to combat neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs. These infections barely made the headlines, but they affected 2 billion people around the world, particularly in low-income nations.
Fast-forward to 2017, and boy, how things have changed. As announced at a health summit in Tokyo this December, 1 billion of the world’s poorest people have received treatment for at least one of these NTDs, and several are set to be completely eliminated.
Back in 2016, we were thrilled to find out that a potentially Earth-like exoplanet named Proxima b resides just 4 light-years away in the closest star system to our own. This breakthrough was somewhat trounced in 2017, however, when it was announced that seven Earth-sized planets were found to be orbiting the ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1.
This system may be 10 times further away than Proxima b, but the idea that at least three of these planets could be rocky and habitable sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Remarkably, in just a decade, we may know for sure whether this truly is our second home away out there in the deep, beautiful dark.
There are two stories this year regarding HIV that we simply can’t pick between. Science, after all, is increasingly built on a foundation of discoveries, not just one single game-changing revelation.
The first comes courtesy of a new type of drug, which appeared to suppress the ability of the virus from reactivating or replicating in the body – even when treatment was interrupted. Although not a cure, it could be described as a “functional cure”, in that the infection cannot in this state be passed on to someone else. Yes, it was only tested in mice, not people, but the stunningly effective treatment bodes well for future human-based experiments.
The second study focused on the weaponization of a new type of antibody. When used in animal trials, it was shown to push back against 99 percent of all known strains of HIV – which suggests that fabled 100 percent coverage isn’t as far off as some may have thought.
Hemophilia often doesn’t make the news, but it really should. It’s rare, but debilitating and currently incurable. It’s not perfectly understood, and many suspected its two main types – A and B – would not be remedied for a long while.
Two groundbreaking studies this December, however, revealed that a cure may actually be around the corner after all. Using a specific type of virus to infect the patients in order to give them artificially engineered DNA strands, it was found that most participants experienced normal levels of blood clotting, and didn’t require their usual treatments to live their lives normally.
Make no mistake: This was a huge breakthrough, and normally cautious journal editorials lavished them with well-deserved praise.
It’s easy to see why the story of our own species enraptures us more than almost any other, whether it’s looking into our future or peering deep into our past. This year has seen a slew of new – and sometimes controversial discoveries – about our own species, including one that suggested our ancestors visited the Americas 100,000 years earlier than anyone previously thought.
One incontrovertible piece of research, however, tops this list: the discovery and subsequent re-dating of skeletal remains in the mountains of Morocco. After careful analysis, it was found that they were 350,000 years old, and belonged to our very own Homo sapiens. This means that the origin of humans has been definitively pushed back 100,000 years.
Like we said, it’s been difficult to pick. How about that interstellar asteroid that paid us a visit this winter? What about the dragon blood that may give us a new weapon in the fight against antibiotic resistance?
In any case, the real MVPs are the scientists themselves. Never have they worked harder, strived further, or stood up for their profession and the wonder of discovery like they have in 2017.
Science is, to put it simply, very hard. It cannot be summed up with one simple discovery, let alone a top 10 list like this. It’s often a long, slow process of self-correction; it’s a tiring quest to drag our entire world into the future, one step at a time.