The Top 10 Scientific Discoveries that Renewed Our Faith in Humanity This Year
Not everything this year was shit, we promise.
NASA scientists celebrate Juno arriving at Jupiter. This wasn't technically a discovery, but look how happy! Image: Aubrey Gemignani/ NASA
On each of the three NASA Mars rovers, there's a tiny inscription written on the sun dial. It details the mission and what us mere Earthlings hoped to achieve by sending our robots to the planet next door. The last line reads: "To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery."
The joy of discovery. Isn't that lovely?
I never knew this about the rovers until I heard it from Bill Nye (who helped design the sundials on which the inscription is written) when I heard him speak at SXSW Eco this year. Nye told the audience that it brings him hope to think of an astronaut one day reading that message on Mars. "She or he will walk up to this thing and feel that joy of discovery," Nye said. "That's what science is all about: the joy of discovery."
It's been, to say the least, a bit of a rough year here on Earth. But among all the turmoil, there has been some joy, in particular the joy of discovery. Humanity has continued to march forward and seek out answers to the mysteries of the universe, gaining understanding that will only draw us closer together.
When big discoveries are made in science, it reminds me that, as a species, we can do good. We're curious and intelligent and make amazing discoveries that fascinate and thrill us—and we value science to make those discoveries happen. It warms my cold, black heart.
If you're feeling the need to be reminded of some of 2016's redeeming factors, here are 10 of our favorite, most "faith in humanity restored" scientific discoveries that happened this year, in no particular order:
Gravitational waves detected for the first time
Gravitational waves, very simply, are ripples in gravitational fields caused by the movement of cosmic bodies, like black holes. Though Albert Einstein predicted they existed, even he wasn't convinced we'd ever be able to detect their existence. It may have taken us 100 years since that prediction, but we did it.
Researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Louisiana and Washington detected the gravitational waves caused by two black holes colliding earlier this year, marking a new era in how we can observe our universe. It proves the ability to not only look out at the stars around us, but also listen and detect things we would never be able to see.
The Earth-like planet next door
A short 4.2 light years from our solar system lies Proxima Centauri, our sun's closest star. And orbiting that star, we learned this year, is an Earth-sized planet within the habitable zone—not to close and not too far from the star. The size, and position, of this rocky planet means it has the potential to have liquid water, which we consider a necessity for life beyond our own planet. This discovery took more than a decade of work, and though there have been many potentially habitable, Earth-like planets discovered, finding one so close to home is thrilling. It opens up the possibility for all kinds of discovery we may not have found possibly, including sending a probe to Proxima Centauri to check out this planet up close.
New critters of all shapes and sizes
Despite the fact that we've been documenting the planet's species for centuries, some studies predict more than 80 percent of the world's organisms are still undiscovered. But the good news is that we are constantly discovering previously unknown species, and 2016 was no exception. From the "ghost-like" octopus discovered on the ocean floor, to the leaf-mimicking spider documented for the first time, to this bizarre millipede with some extra, uh, appendages. The world is full of magical creatures just waiting to be discovered.
Fighting Zika with science
The start of this year brought the realization that the previously little-known Zika virus could cause a rare birth defect known as microcephaly. Panic set in as the virus quickly spread throughout Latin America and the southern US. But in the face of this fear, scientists step up, quickly developing interventions that ranged from a vaccine, to a treatment for pregnant mothers, to genetically-modified, self-destructing mosquitoes. Though we don't have a slam dunk solution, medical researchers advanced our understanding of this virus, its effects, and how to protect our babies tenfold over the past year, demonstrating the incredible things we can achieve when we put all our scientific effort into it.
Giving paralyzed monkeys back on their feet
Giving paraplegics the opportunity to walk again has been a dream of medical researchers for decades, and there have been a number of innovative advancements in this area. But this year brought some exciting new progress as Swiss researchers used brain chips to successful give paralyzed monkeys the ability to walk again. Animal studies are stepping stone, and don't necessarily mean this technology would be effective for humans, but it was a fantastic example of how technology and science can converge to help solve puzzles like this one.
The world's oldest fossil ever
Sometimes new discoveries are of very old things, that teach us some very cool new information. Take the discovery of a 3.7 billion-year-old fossil uncovered in Greenland this year, which surpassed the previous record-holder: a 3.5 billion-year-old fossil in Australia. This ancient snapshot gives us a look at our planet's earliest glimmers of life, showing that even on an Earth that was, at that time, still formative and bombarded with asteroids. But life still managed to stake out a foothold, showing that life really does find a way.
The origins of life traced to a single molecule
Speaking of what we can learn from new discoveries of very old things, this year brought the incredible discovery of a single molecule that allowed the first transition from single-celled to multicellular life on Earth. The molecule, called GK-PID, is necessary for multicellular creatures (like, ahem, us) on Earth to develop and researchers found that an ancient genetic flip in this molecule is what launched the whole thing in action, reminding us all how incredible it is that we even exist.
Understanding water bears
Tardigrades, sometimes called "water bears" or "moss piglets," are tiny micro-animals that have fascinated scientists with their uncanny tenacity. They can survive in some of the harshest environments, including outer space, and this year we started to gain a better understanding as to how. Researchers have been learning lots about these critters by sequencing their genome, including discovering a protein that protects tardigrade DNA from radiation. If we can unravel the mystery of tardigrades' hardiness, we might even be able to harness some of it to help humans.
A baby with three parents
Though babies with "three parents" have been born before, this year marked the first time a procedure known as a mitochondrial transfer was successfully performed. Previous "three parent" babies had small traces of DNA from the donor who supplied cytoplasm—the "goo" the holds the nucleus and the mitochondria together in a cell—to the parent couple. But this child will was conceived using a donor's mitochondrial DNA, a much more significant leap. Though controversial, the procedure could mean new hope for parents unable to conceive for a variety of genetic complications.
The panda is no longer endangered
I've written before about how the myth that pandas aren't "worth saving" misunderstands the species and conservation. So I was cheering earlier this year when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature upgraded the giant panda's status from endangered to threatened, the result of decades of international conservation efforts. It doesn't mean the work is over, but I've said before that if we can't save pandas, we can't save anything, so this is a very promising step.