Year In Review: 2017
It’s been quite the year. Astrophysicists struck gold—literally—in the detection of two colliding neutron stars, with the help of gravitational wave detectors LIGO and Virgo. The finding confirmed one thing researchers long suspected: that such a collision is a major source of heavy metals such as gold and platinum in the universe. In more bittersweet developments, NASA marked the end of its Cassini mission to Saturn after 27 years, and scientists found themselves talking politics, marching on Washington, and protesting what they say is an anti-science White House. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Science Friday news roundup contributors Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, Amy Nordrum, associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, and Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, talk about the stories that struck them from 2017…and make some predictions for the year ahead. Plus, SciFri listeners weigh in with their top picks, and we revisit some of our favorite guests of the year.
Reflect on the year in science below:
We wanted to know what science stories resonated the most with you. So, you told us! Of course, the Great American Eclipse made a splash across the continental United States.
And the bittersweet end to NASA’s Cassini mission was a moving and emotional experience for many—including 8-year-old Rosealee from Pennsylvania.
The story that resonated the most with Jason from Texas was one of taking a closer look at what we think we know about math and science.
And we hosted some pretty stellar guests this year, from mathematicians to killer cone snail researchers. Let’s take a minute to reflect on some of our dynamic guests from 2017:
Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer at Gizmodo in New York, New York.
Amy Nordrum is commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.
Rachel Feltman is Science Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The days trickle down to a precious few as the old song says. 2017 is slipping away, but a lot has happened this year, you think?
Three major hurricanes, wildfires in California, plans to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, Saturn and Jupiter posed for their close-ups– how about those colliding neutron stars and their gravitational waves? Bitcoin became a household name along with blockchain technology. We’re editing genes to save lives. And perhaps the event of the year– the total solar eclipse.
Oh my god. That is unreal.
Yeah, you had to be there for that one which I was. It was really some sight. We’re going to review the highlights in the world of science technology, medicine, nature. And joining me in August panel of journalists to round up the news with us every week. Let me introduce them– Ryan Mandelbaum, Science Writer at Gizmodo, Amy Nordrum, News Editor for The IEEE Spectrum, Rachel Feltman, Science Editor at Popular Science. Welcome, all of you.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having us.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, thanks so much.
AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We won’t be taking calls today, but we already asked you to weigh in on your favorite science story of 2017. We’ll be playing your thoughts throughout the hour. Let me begin that way. Let’s take one thought from Grace in San Francisco.
GRACE PANN: Hi, I’m Grace Pann from San Francisco, and the science story that has meant the most to me in 2017 was on cracking the mystery of egg and egg shape. It turns out, in general, the better of a flyer the bird is, the more elliptical or asymmetrical the egg it lays. I personally grew up as an amateur birder. So for me, this has just been so satisfying and fascinating and really encourages me to bird and to wonder about birds in a different way.
IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing what people get excited about. That’s still a nice story.
RACHEL FELTMAN: I think that’s a fantastic story. I’m with her on that one.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s talk about last year. It began with the discovery of gravitational waves. And this year, we used them to learn something about the neutron stars, Rachel.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, it was a really exciting year for gravitational waves to me because the LIGO Observatory really became an observatory. Until last year it was a detector. It was trying to detect gravitational waves and now it detects them all the time. I think it had its third black hole merger announced in June. And then Virgo, which is another facility in Italy, came online which was very exciting because with the two LIGO facilities and Virgo, they can triangulate.
They can do all of this exciting stuff. And then a few months ago, they detected a neutron star which is different from a black hole. It’s this very dense thing.
It only weighs a little bit more than our sun, but it is crammed into like 12 miles across– like the length of Manhattan. So it just totally different from the behavior of matter that we think about on a day-to-day basis. And using these three gravitational wave detectors, they were able to find this neutron star and look at it with more telescopes than have ever been when it had anything basically and determine a bunch of cool things about neutron stars and what they are and what they do.
IRA FLATOW: All right, are you impressed by that tutorial?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh my god. It was amazing. I think that for me, just the discovery of where a lot of the heavy elements in our universe come from. Gold and–
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that was amazing.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Platinum. Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and in fact, when we asked our listeners for their favorites, we got the most calls about this story believe it or not. Here’s Justin in Boise, Idaho enthusing about colliding neutron stars.
JUSTIN: My name is Justin. I’m from Boise, Idaho. The science story that mattered most to me this year was when scientists were able to detect two neutron stars colliding together through the use of gravitational waves detectors. Not only this part because the gravitational wave detector won the Nobel Prize this year but also because we were able to see it for the first time.
So we were able to quantify what we were actually seeing not through these gravitational waves but through visible light, x-rays, things like that. And now, we know where gold comes from, so that’s cool too.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I think that’s probably got the most press of anything. That’s where they all that gold. They had a lot of gold. They knew what they were talking about.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I think the overall the collision produced material that was 16 times more the mass of Earth itself. So it’s just this gargantuan amount of material coming out of this collision. And the actual detection of that, I believe only lasted about 100 seconds, so you can learn just so much from these events once you’ve built these observatories, and they’re functioning as we’d hoped.
IRA FLATOW: Ryan, when the gravitational waves came up last year, everyone was celebrating the proof of something Einstein had long predicted. We had another discovery like that this year, didn’t we?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, and this one is interesting because it does use Einstein’s theory of general relativity. But Einstein himself said, of course, there’s no hope of observing this phenomenon directly which is being able to measure the mass of an individual star using gravitational lensing. So the thing about gravity is that it changes the shape of space itself.
And thus when a massive thing passes in front of a bright thing, it can actually shift the light and cause a sort of lensing effect. Now, scientists were actually able to measure the mass of white dwarf star Stein 2051B using this gravitational lensing effect and just a little bit of simple math, actually. So I thought it was pretty cool to do that.
IRA FLATOW: So Einstein said this would happen. His theory said that this would happen, but we could never prove it until then.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: It was just yeah. It was just such a specific and would require so much in the way of precision that he thought would just never happen. And again, no hope of observing it directly, but he was wrong by proving him right.
IRA FLATOW: A long-anticipated giant iceberg capped off in Antarctica. Do you remember that?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh yeah. I remember Larsen C. Yes, so in Antarctica, this giant ice shelf broke off. It was bigger than Delaware I think. And ice shells break off in Antarctica all the time. They just kind of calve away, but people were really anticipating Larsen C because it was going to be a big one, and it was happening very quickly.
It seems that these kinds of calving events are accelerated unsurprisingly due to global warming. The water is warmer down there. The warmest period of the year is getting longer, so the time at which these ice shells are really vulnerable is becoming more of the year. So it wasn’t surprising that it broke off.
And on the one hand, something like this breaking off doesn’t immediately raise the sea level because it was already ice that was floating in the sea like having an ice cube in a glass of water. It was already there. But what it does is it leaves the ice that used to be within the Antarctic shelf then at the edge. So it means that now this is new ice that can break off and melt into the sea and raise it. So it’s not great, and scientists are still kind of figuring out just how much climate change is accelerating these kinds of events.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of climate change, we had all these natural disasters– three major hurricanes, we have these wildfires that are so raging out of control in parts of the West, and can we draw any clear line between those and global warming? Well, it’s interesting because a lot of people get very upset if they do not believe in climate change if you connect hurricanes and things that we think of as natural. But hurricanes are definitely getting worse because of climate change. Climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes, but hurricanes are fed by warm water. So if the ocean is warmer, a hurricane becomes more powerful.
RACHEL FELTMAN: The other thing is that as we saw a lot this year, storm surges are really the thing you have to worry about as a cause of death during a hurricane. So that’s when the sea level rises enough to flood an area. And if the sea level is already higher because of climate change which it is, then storm surges are going to be worse. So they’re very quantifiable ways that climate change is making these so-called natural disasters worse even if it’s not causing them.
IRA FLATOW: Amy, you’re nodding your head about that.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, even the amount of water that the air can hold increases with the temperature of the air itself, and there have been some analyzes that are now starting to come out toward the end of the year about Hurricane Harvey in particular– that was the Hurricane level 4 that hit Houston. And a couple of different analyzes we’re trying to measure what’s the difference in the amount of rainfall because Houston was absolutely inundated with rainfall during those couple of days. What’s the difference in the amount of rainfall in this hurricane than we would have expected from the hurricane if the climate were not warming in the way that we know it to be? And the analyzes have shown there’s 15 to 38% higher rainfall which is much higher than even scientists expected in that storm as a result of climate change.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and it’s been quite a year for the climate in general but also the way climate is treated politically.
AMY NORDRUM: Yes, I mean it’s been interesting to see some of these natural disasters. I mean there have been deaths attributed to all of these storms– Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey– throughout the United States. I mean it’s the wildfires in California are very dramatic damage happening there.
And yet, there does seem to be this disconnect. I mean the amount of public funding available for scientific research. Some of the very basic research that happens at the National Institutes of Health, for example, has been jeopardized by the new administration.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, and if I mean there were the March for Sciences this year. I mean scientists really got organized in a big way this year in a way that we might not have seen in quite a long time. Really rallying behind these issues and ensuring that they continue to get the funding and the support from the public that they need in order to do their jobs.
IRA FLATOW: In fact, the interaction of politics and science upset quite a few of our listeners who called in about the Paris Climate Accord. Here’s one.
CHAD MCCORMICK: Ira, it’s Chad McCormick in Park City, Utah biggest science for me this year was Trump administration dropping out of the Paris Climate Accord. I think in years ahead when the catastrophe potentially could happen, this could be the story. This could be the pivotal moment.
IRA FLATOW: Have we resolved any arguments about whether the political activism is appropriate or a healthy role for scientists?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I mean the thing that I think sticks out to me is the idea that while science shouldn’t be partisan, it is absolutely political because it should inform policy. So to me, seeing scientists get activated and start to really insist that the government listen to basic reason and fact is really important. And I don’t think it should be controversial at all, but I know that there are people who disagree.
IRA FLATOW: Well, there’s good precedent. Scientists have for generations been active about it. You can point to Einstein sending a letter to Roosevelt.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, also too in the technology sector, we’ve actually seen a lot of major tech companies take on what they see as fundamental workforce issues that are highly political issues. So this includes immigration, access to visas for their skilled workers, the people that they need to create the products and services that we use. And I think this year, more than in years past we’ve actually seen these companies like Apple and Google and Facebook start to step up and speak out on these issues that people may not have expected to hear from them on as well.
IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break and when we come back, more of the top science stories from 2017 brought to you by our nerdy trifecta– Ryan Mandelbaum, Amy Nordrum, Rachel Feltman. And we’re not taking your calls, but you can leave us a message on our website at sciencefriday.com. It’s the Science Friday year in review. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s our 2017 year in review, and we’re talking everything from colliding neutron stars to bitcoin. What a year it’s had. We’ll get into that a little bit.
And we asked all of you to call in with your favorite stories, and you did not disappoint. Boy, did we get calls like this one from Florida.
ABBY TUDOSE: Hi, Ira. My name is Abby Tudose in Pensacola, Florida, and I have to say I love the science story when you were interviewing the two spider experts. I learned more about spiders and got all excited about spiders. And decided that I think they’re really cool to have around the house, and it’s OK if a few of them get inside because they do a great job. Thank you for your work. Bye-bye.
IRA FLATOW: Here to talk more about the stories that stood out to them this year. My guests– Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, Amy Nordrom news editor for the IEEE Spectrum, Rachel Feltman science editor at Popular Science. And Rachel, one of our favorite stories of the year was sort of bittersweet. It is the end of the Cassini mission to Saturn. Did you a little twing twang?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I had more than a little twinge. I was very upset. I think a lot of people had a lot of strong feelings about Cassini. From a practical standpoint, it was just a fantastic mission. We got tons of amazing data. It outlived its lifespan. It taught us about not just Saturn but the moons around it, some of which we may soon be visiting to look for life.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, well, it is very sad that while Cassini’s gone, it’s amazing what kind of data they’re still getting and still analyzing from it. I mean just recently, there were new results that actually showed that the shadow of Saturn’s rings affected the charges sort of the particles in its ionosphere. So there’s still some cool Cassini stuff. It’s sort of got its swan song now.
AMY NORDRUM: Oh, totally. I mean having the robot itself perish– obviously a little tough for people. But it’s true that there are scientists who are now well into their careers who have spent their whole careers on Cassini and could easily spend the rest of their careers on data from Cassini. So it’s true that the story isn’t over. We just had to say goodbye to the actual spacecraft.
IRA FLATOW: In fact, Cassini hit home for a lot of folks like Rosalie who called in.
ROSALIE: Hi, I’m Rosalie, and I’m eight years old, and I live in Venetia, PA. And my favorite science moment was the final moments of Cassini. I was really happy to watch it on my mom’s laptop while I got ready for school, and I want to become a scientist when I grow up. And I was just so amazed.
It was just so amazing to see the final moments of a real space drone circling and orbiting Saturn– my favorite planet. Thank you for listening. Bye.
IRA FLATOW: OK, thank you for calling, Rosalie. I mean–
RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh my goodness.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh my gosh
RACHEL FELTMAN: Like she called it a space drone.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: My back-end to my computer is sadder now because of how beautiful some of those pictures were, so I totally get it.
IRA FLATOW: And I think sort of a sad coded to all of this is that we don’t really have any missions coming up like the Cassini mission.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I mean nothing like nothing like Cassini. It’s true there are robots out there who are still collecting data. New Horizons is going to be visiting its next target almost exactly two years from now? No, a year from now.
It’s going to be like New Year’s Day 2019. I’ve already forgotten what year it is.
IRA FLATOW: And we also have those rovers– 14 years.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, oh my goodness.
IRA FLATOW: I mean a three-month tour, and it’s 14 years.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, when Opportunity dies, I’m not going to be OK. The Mars rovers are definitely starting to show their age. We don’t really have any banner probes like Cassini coming for a while.
We do have the Europa Probe that’s maybe going to launch in 2020, so that will be pretty exciting but not landing on the surface until– I think they’re talking about maybe a mission in 2031. So it’s true that after like Rosetta and New Horizons and Dawn and Cassini’s finale, we had a really busy couple of years. And now, it’s going to be a little slower.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, we’re certainly I mean we’re certainly closer to home, seeing a lot of movement and progress on being able to image our own Earth more accurately and more frequently so we’re seeing a lot of low Earth orbit and Near-Earth orbit satellites being launched by companies as well. So that’s a positive. And I think as satellites get smaller and cheaper to launch, we’re going to continue to see that as well.
IRA FLATOW: And talking about the moon continuing to talk about that for a moment. I think I would rate this as the biggest event– national event of the year was the total solar eclipse. And Leanne thought the eclipse was the best thing she experienced all year.
LEANN: I think the coolest science story of the year was the eclipse. That was beyond beautiful. I loved how it brought the entire planet together. All the people, all the photographs, all the science behind the eclipse, all the science experiments going on that had to do with the eclipse. And that so many people got to enjoy it was just absolutely phenomenal.
IRA FLATOW: Ryan, did you go?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: I did. I was I was in Nashville for the eclipse. Unfortunately, I was there outside. It was a beautiful day, and then at 1:20 just before– I guess like 1:15 right before totality, a big cloud went right in front of the sun.
I still saw it. It was incredible. You can see the 360 sunset and all of the animals started to act as if the sun was going down. So it was a really incredible experience otherwise, but I’m looking forward to the next one because I’m going to go to the next one too.
IRA FLATOW: You going to go to the next one here or the one that you can see in South America?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: I don’t know if I have South America money but the next one here.
IRA FLATOW: Rachel, you went to the eclipse too?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, and I wasn’t going to. I hadn’t made plans and then my boyfriend had friends in St. Louis. And we’re like, OK, I guess we’ll just go even though the viewing conditions aren’t supposed to be great in St. Louis. And we could think the most totality we could get was barely a minute, but it was amazing. And that ended up being perfect. We had a perfect view of the eclipse. I had never seen a total eclipse before, and I did not expect it to be as amazing as it was. And I definitely– I’m an eclipse chaser now. It’s what I do, and I needed to go to another one.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you get hooked. This was my first total solar eclipse also. And it was like in a movie. It was exactly like people said it would be, and it was like suddenly the sun is there. It’s at 99%.
And then when it gets to 100 totality, it’s like somebody changed a slide. New slide and whoa– it just popped out.
Amy, also let’s talk about something really hot that ended spiking up this year. And that is the bitcoin. Do you understand what a bitcoin is? We’ve talked about this. We try to get– give us in a nutshell what a bitcoin is.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny because it really came back in a big way this year. I think most people if they had heard of bitcoin before 2017, it might be would have been back when it very first launched like almost a decade ago. But this year, all of a sudden, it was back in the spotlight.
This cryptocurrency– so a virtual currency that you can trade and spend much like you can your US dollars or other currency that you might have in your pocket. It’s all built on this interesting data architecture– this thing called the blockchain which is also really heating up in 2017. And that’s largely or arguably part of the reason that bitcoin itself has gotten so much attention as well is the overall blockchain that it’s built on is really starting to go mainstream or almost mainstream. And this blockchain is basically a list of transactions that’s shared between many different kinds of people on their computers rather than controlled by a central authority like a bank.
And the way that the transactions– the list of transactions is updated is through these algorithms that all these computers do at once in order to keep it more or less hack proof. And there’s been so much speculation all year about what is bitcoin going to do next? And then all these other cryptocurrencies like ether, litecoin– they’re also kind of in the same situation where we could see them go up.
Like beginning of the year, bitcoin was under $1,000. By October, it had hit $5,000, and everyone wants to know where it’s going to go next. And it’s really kind of a fool’s game to try to guess. But of course, that’s the big question.
IRA FLATOW: But blockchain which bitcoin is based on is big. That whole technology– banks, MasterCards. People like anybody who handles money.
AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. Really, the best way to think about it is actually as a platform rather than a currency. I think that’s the way that most people will probably end up using it. And I understand that that’s even more confusing to state it that way.
But ultimately, you’re seeing a lot of big companies get serious about investing in a blockchain developers. They are hiring blockchain consultants. There’s like this entire mini-economy now running on helping major companies get in on blockchain technology because it can do things like automatically execute contracts. It can organize data in interesting ways. It can make trades and exchange of information easier using the cryptocurrencies as a kind of tool to get that done.
IRA FLATOW: This is how I know it’s important– because I hear people on the subway talking about it.
AMY NORDRUM: I think that’s really the sign that absolutely– it’s kind of hit mainstream. I mean one of the apps that you can use to trade bitcoin has gotten to the top of the Apple Store this year because people have gotten so into trading it. And it’s obviously as an investment, it’s still a very risky proposition for the average person.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of risky, here’s one that I quite can’t wrap my head around. Something we’ve talked about to Ryan and maybe you can help me. And we’re talking about quantum computers. Are they finally ready for prime time?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: So a quantum computer is essentially a machine that can do computations with the rules of quantum mechanics in mind. A regular computer is built on the architecture of bits which is essentially there’s billions of zeros and ones that do the calculations whereas a quantum computer is a system that can do those calculations with zeros and ones simultaneously using the idea of quantum superposition, quantum entanglement, and quantum interference. So now, I would say that this has been a really big year in quantum computing. There have been a number of different architectures that can actually be these qubits– can actually do this the superposition.
However, that doesn’t mean that we’re at a place where a quantum computer can beat a regular computer at its own job, but I think that this year has been a big one. Next year, we’re going to probably hear some really big quantum computing stories from maybe Google, IBM– there’s a couple of other smaller companies that are coming up now. But it’ll probably be maybe 5 to 10 years before businesses are really starting to use it and then maybe 20 to 30 years before you’re seeing some of the biggest concerns which are like breaking public key encryption that a lot of people are talking about. Amy, I know you follow it also.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, the key phrase to listen to in future coverage will be the point of quantum supremacy which is what all these companies including Google and IBM and Intel have been trying to kind of inch closer toward.
IRA FLATOW: Quantum supremacy? It’s like that Star Wars
RYAN MANDELBAUM: The quantum advantage is the way I like but all right.
AMY NORDRUM: We can debate our quantum terms here. But basically, it means that they’ve been able to demonstrate that a quantum computer can actually perform tasks better than a class computer, and we’re still kind of not at that point but getting closer. That’s what all these major companies are interested in as they build these 49 qubit systems and 50 qubit simulators.
IRA FLATOW: I guess if you talk about quantum computers, you can be right and wrong at the same time. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI– Public Radio International, talking about the year in review with my guests Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo. Amy Nordrom, news editor at the IEEE Spectrum. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. They’ve been here all year talking about their stuff, and we’re going to review some more of it. Let me move on, Rachel, to health research. We saw some big advances for gene and immunotherapies, didn’t we?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, and there were a couple of stories that really stood out to me that both really came out in the latter half of the year. So people started talking about CAR-T which finally got FDA approval. And it’s in immunotherapy that basically takes patients’ T-cells, removes them, then doctors, scientists, engineer them to have the certain antigen receptors, then they re-infuse them into a patient’s body, and those T-cells are then basically programmed to fight off a specific kind of cancer cell in a way that normal T-cells just can’t do. And it’s still, it’s a last-ditch treatment for this very specific kind of leukemia that mostly affects children, but it has successfully treated a few kids. And in theory, it works for life.
There was one of the studies that helped to get FDA approval– they infused a ton of T-cells. I don’t remember if it was 10,000 or 100,000 or in the millions but a lot of T-cells, and it took about a month for it to start working. And then suddenly, it worked. And when they kind of traced back the genetic lineage of the T-cells that were now propagated in the body, it had just been one of the engineered T-cells that survived. But it had just replicated so prolifically that it had put this child into remission.
Another couple of studies came out about using it, and I want to say a kind of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma– definitely a kind of lymphoma. Again, for patients with no other options. And it showed that it can work really well, but it can also not work at all. And it can also cause a huge cytokine reaction that is life-threatening for the patient.
IRA FLATOW: That’s the downside of this thing.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. When you amp up the immune response that can obviously cause a fatal immune response. Our immune systems are totally capable of killing us, and they do frequently. So it’s not exactly ready to replace chemotherapy and radiation, but it is really promising.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and we don’t need to use CRISPR for this.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Right, no and there is some research– some researchers think that CRISPR could be a faster, easier way to accomplish this kind of gene therapy. But CRISPR’s error rate is still pretty high. It’s a tool that in theory is way faster and cheaper than all other gene editing, but there are a lot of bugs to work out.
IRA FLATOW: And there was just a story right at the end of the year coming out about CRISPR. A new kind of CRISPR being able to not have to cut the DNA– get it to express itself without actually having to cut it up.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, no, it has definitely been an exciting year for CRISPR as well. But I think a lot of people working on immunotherapy are not quite ready to factor CRISPR into it yet. There was another really cool immunotherapy story actually where this child with a genetic condition that basically makes your skin really susceptible to infection and abrasion.
He was close to death, and they did something they’ve done on small patches of skin before where they basically took skin cells, genetically engineered them to be free of this condition, and then basically did a skin graft using those engineered skin cells. And they did it on 80% of his body to replace all of the affected skin, and it worked. So that skin is just new healthy skin now. And it’s his own, so there’s not a fear of rejection. We’ll have to see if it works as well as it seems to have worked, but it was one of those moments where therapy really seems to be groundbreaking and kind of miraculous which is so rare in the biomedical world that that was a really cool story to me.
IRA FLATOW: Great way to lead us into the break. We’re going to take a break. And after the break, we’re going to come back with more stories from the 2017 highlight reel plus some of our favorite Science Friday guests from that year. And if you’re curious about the stories and projects that caught the fancy of the Sci Fri team, some of them waiting. Some of them just plain fun.
You can see our office’s 2017 hall of fame on our website. Visit sciencefriday.com/staffpicks. See what we like in the office on sciencefriday.com/staffpicks. We’ll be back after the break with Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo. He may know a German news editor at the IEEE Spectrum. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science.
It’s the Science Friday year in review. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking this hour about the top science stories from 2017, and we’ve asked you to tell us what yours were. And here’s a listener.
JASON PRAWLE: Hi, this is Jason Prawle from Houston, Texas. Definitely the story that hit me the hardest was that they redefined the kilogram in terms of actual fundamental constants and not just an arbitrary agreed upon amount. When I started out as a physics major, it had really bothered me that things like time and length were clearly defined based on the universal constants. But mass was just something we had agreed upon. But as of this year, that has been finally resolved.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, a lot of people were happy for that one. And before we go back to the stories, we want to throw out our own nod to the hundreds of scientists and other experts who joined us on the air this year. We could name you all right now, we would but instead, here’s something a little more creative. A short selection of favorite moments from 2017.
Behind the scenes of all this is Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist and program manager of the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian here in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday.
CARLA DOVE: Thank you so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Before everybody does it, let me ask you about–
CARLA DOVE: Yes, that’s my name.
SPEAKER 8: My mom gave me this age-appropriate non-OSHA certified chemistry set back in the day when could have things that blow up, and I mixed these two chemicals together. I can’t remember what it was, but it created this explosion. I burned her carpet. She ran in the room. And yeah, I got a spanking, but my brain was activated to science because I was a scientist at that point. And it was one of those moments where I became a chemistry major in college because of that one experiential moment in my life.
CARLA DOVE: They have a siphon which is kind of like a sniffer– a nose so they can smell if they’re spraying the water. If they think there’s game to be had, then they’ll let out their proboscis which is like a tongue on the tip of the tongue as a harpoon which they’ll then inject into the fish, and then they open their mouth– the rostrum– really wide and swallow and engulf the whole thing. So it’s not dead, but it’s paralyzed, so it’s going into what we call excitotic shock sometimes. And then it gets swallowed whole. It’s like the worst death you could imagine. There’s no escape.
SPEAKER 9: It’s much easier to find dinosaur bones than it is to find fossilized species. When you think about it, a dinosaur only died one, so it only produced one skeleton. On the other hand, it desiccated a gazillion times during its lifetime. And yet, because of the difficulties of fossilizing the soft materials, it can be very rare, and it’s also very difficult to recognize.
SPEAKER 10: And I think what happens is that they try at different locations– maybe one ant says, let’s start something here. And basically, send out some pheromones and gather two ants which will gather four ants, and eventually get a couple thousand. And they’ll try to build on sort of the flat edges of the container kind of like a wall. But the problem is there’s not enough places they can get support, so they really sort of build and build, and it might get into something like 10 ants tall by literally the ants piling themselves on top of each other. But then the whole thing– it just kind of flops over.
SPEAKER 11: I think one reason that many people have put off math is that they think they don’t understand it, but none of us really understand it. Honestly, we were just trying to understand it more all the time. And being confused doesn’t mean that we’re not good at it. I think a lot of people are put off because they feel confused, and they go, oh, I’m no good at math. But actually being confused and caring about it is what matters. Often, the people who think they understand it– they really don’t.
SPEAKER 12: I think probably science became a political issue when the discussion was should we carry fire with us or not when we travel? I think that any time you have a group of people who are making decisions about how we use nature, that’s a political decision. It’s a human activity– politics as is science. And so as we have gotten more complex, of course, the arguments get more complex.
SPEAKER 13: How do we figure out how to have computers understand our human goals? This is incredibly important. If you take a future self-driving car and tell it to drive you to JFK as fast as possible. And you show up covered in vomit and chased by helicopters, and you say, no, no, no, no, that’s not what I asked for. And the caller replies, that’s exactly what you asked for. Then you’ve really just illustrated why it is so hard to have computers understand what we really want.
SPEAKER 14: There is so much that is unknown in this field. But I do believe that just as Craig Venter and David Cullen suggested that whereas the 20th century had been the century of physics with all of these fantastic breakthroughs and achievements, the 21st century was going to be the century of biology. And of course, they were talking about genomics. I think actually the 21st century is going to be the century of biology on Earth and beyond. I think there is a real opportunity in this coming century to discover life beyond Earth.
IRA FLATOW: How many of those voices could you recognize? I’ll tell you who is on here. Carla Dove, Leland Melvin, Mandy Holford, Karen Chen, David Who, Eugenie Chang, Lydia Villa-Komaroff Max Tegmark, and Jill Tarter wound up with that last comment. And thanks to all of them and our great guests who joined us in 2017. And thanks to our producer, Katie Hiler, who put that montage together.
I want to bring back our expert panel to wrap up our review of 2017. What will go down as the stories that we should remember from this year? Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, Amy Nordrum, news editor for IEEE Spectrum, and Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science.
And Ryan let me begin the final discussion with I know you’ve been following CERN– the news out of CERN this year. And while some people have been down on particle physics, you think there’s some promising news. Tell us why.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: So I know that I think people have really had their eye on supersymmetry this year, and they’re really worried that they won’t find it. But one of the experiments people don’t talk about quite as much– LHCB has had some really interesting results this year. No five sigma discoveries yet, but there are a couple in like the 2 to 2.5 Signa range sort of bombs that are coming from the decay of a particle called the B meson particle. And people don’t know. There might be another particle there.
And then LHCB also discovered a new baryon which is an arrangement of three quarks. But this baryon was really special. It’s called XC double charm double charged– it’s pretty awesome.
IRA FLATOW: Tell me, why is it awesome? People say wow, that’s a nice technical term. But you seem to be into it as we used to say.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: I just saw so much cool theory papers that came out of this one particle because it had two really heavy quarks in it. Your protons– they have just light quarks, the ups, and the down quarks– same thing with neutrons. But this just really wacky particle– some of the theories that came out of it was perhaps there could be some sort of quark fusion the way that we have fusion with hydrogen. Or maybe there are these particles with four quarks called tetraquarks.
I mean just this one particle got a lot of theorists really thinking a lot. So keep your eyes on LHCB being next year. They might have similar results.
IRA FLATOW: Are we going to get any closer to them finding a dark matter particle?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: So that’s a little different. As far as dark matter goes, you may have heard that we’re looking right now for a particle called the Weakly Interacting Massive Particle or WIMP. And the idea behind a WIMP is that it’s sort of in this Goldilocks mass that people think they’d find it, but they have these huge vats of liquid xenon underground that have yet to actually find one of these WIMP particles. They are just releasing their first results, so we’re not really there to make a conclusion yet.
But next year, people might be a little concerned. So they are looking for some other potential options like Strongly Interacting Massive Particles or SIMPS.
IRA FLATOW: Amy, what do you think is this just hopeful?
AMY NORDRUM: I mean there are really exciting experiments. I think we really haven’t been able to ask or try to answer these questions in this way ever before. So I’m just kind of looking forward to the results and hearing more in the coming year.
IRA FLATOW: Rachel, is it always 20 years away?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I mean I think it’s reasonable to hope that dark matter will get figured out in the next lifetime. I think guessing more specifically than that is probably a little foolhardy at this point. There are a lot of like irons in the fire that could work but nothing like, oh, yeah, it’s five years away.
IRA FLATOW: Dark energy– should we just forget about it? We’ll get dark energy– going to figure that out?
RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean the universe is expanding and the expansion universe is accelerating. So we have to figure that out because as you know, right now it looks like 70 something percent of the universe is mass-energy is just weird. We’re not there yet with dark energy. We know it’s happening, and we’re really still trying to figure all these things out. And a lot of physicists are thinking about it, but it’s unlikely that somebody is going to just have one Eureka moment with one paper that ties it all together.
IRA FLATOW: I do say maybe we need new physics whatever that means.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, if you know that Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been pretty bulletproof for the past– since he made it up. So I mean, it’s really been tough to find a real weakness in that theory. And a lot of people are testing and trying but have yet to actually break it. So breaking Einstein’s theory of relativity might be sort of foolhardy as well.
IRA FLATOW: Published in 1915– I think was the date. Well, let’s move on to self-driving cars. We’ve seen advances in health care, quantum computing, but as we heard from Max Tegmark’s clip earlier, what about those self-driving cars? Are they 20, 30 years away or are they a lot closer?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I’m looking forward to this because I mean humans aren’t very good at driving cars. We’ve only been doing it for like about a century. There are many, many traffic accidents that cause fatalities or injuries every single year. And the really big idea behind self-driving cars is that it could eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries which would be phenomenal. And there have been some important progress points made this year.
There are major companies invested in this on the car side and on the technology side. So you have Alphabet which is the parent company of Google, also running a company called Waymo that’s invested in self-driving cars. They’ve actually said that they’re going to skip level 3 autonomy which is the level at which Tesla and Audi are currently operating. And that requires somebody to be in the driver’s seat ready to take over the car if something goes awry.
Waymo plans to skip that and go straight to level 4 driving autonomy in which you do not need a human sitting in the car. They’re actually programmed well enough that they’re able to navigate in certain weather conditions and in certain pretty much urban environments on their own. And they’re hoping to launch this. Planning to launch this in the Phoenix area in early 2018. So these are pretty big milestones.
There’s a lot of money being put into this with the technology on the car itself, the cameras, the LIDAR. They’re all getting better, and there are projections for 2040 to 2100 to actually have level five self-driving cars which is the thing we all dream about– any road, any conditions– any urban or rural area. The car can just handle everything on its own. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. But I’m hopeful and confident that these companies will be able to figure this challenge out and actually improve public safety quite a bit.
IRA FLATOW: But you have also there are ethical questions. There is even software ethical questions, Rachel. I mean the car has got to hit somebody. How does it decide whether you’re going to be the one in the car that’s going to get hurt or the pedestrian?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I mean a lot of people talk about how should self-driving AIs deal with the trolley problem? Do you hit one person, hit five people, swerve them to somebody who wasn’t even on the road at the time? But I think that self-driving cars themselves are kind of like a broader trolley problem. I hate philosophy. I’m sorry.
But I think people assume this level of risk when they get into a car and drive it and feel like they’re in control of that risk because they are the ones driving. And if we have the self-driving cars, the question is will we accept any number of accidents from self-driving cars or will we think that that’s an unacceptable risk because this is a software that some corporation created and said was going to be safe. So I think that question of whether people are willing to hand over that assumed risk to an AI is a really big hurdle to actually getting these things adopted.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And let’s wrap things up. And let’s talk about the what else do you want to remember for 2017 that we haven’t talked about? Let me ask you, Rachel, first. What other things happened?
RACHEL FELTMAN: So one thing that really sticks out for me– not exactly a hugely important study, but some researchers were trying to figure out if like the total annihilation of life on Earth was possible. And it’s not a perfect study but based on all their calculations, tardigrades– otherwise known as water barriers or my personal favorite moss piglets– would survive an event that would wipe out all other life on Earth. And personally, I find that very comforting. I think moss piglets would leave our planet better than they found it.
IRA FLATOW: At least we know it’s not a cockroach going to survive. It’s going to be hit harder. Amy?
AMY NORDRUM: I just can’t figure out if that was a happy story or a sad story. I love that. Well, one thing– story I’m interested in following certainly into 2018 is this massive hunt for Planet Nine. So finding this ninth planet in our solar system.
And there was hope that that might have occurred in 2017. It has not yet been confirmed, but there are enough lines of inquiry that point to and suggest that this planet exists that astronomers are honing in on it using both classical techniques with telescopes and also software techniques actually doing the computational work to mine old images. So I’m looking forward to keeping my eye on that story in the next year as well.
IRA FLATOW: We had a major astronomer on talking about that. I think he credited us with inspiring him to continue with the research that we got a little mention in the research paper.
AMY NORDRUM: That’s fantastic.
IRA FLATOW: To continue looking for planet– I always want to think of the movie– Planet 9 From Outer Space every time I say that, but that’s another story. Ryan, give us your pick.
RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah I mean so for next year, I will be keeping my eye on quantum computing. But I think that a story this year I thought was really cool was scientists discovered five new Homo sapien specimens that were pretty far away from the traditional spot in Africa where people sort of pegged our origin at. And they were dated some 100,000 years earlier than the origin of humanity. So I mean humans have been around probably longer than we think. So I thought that was really amazing.
IRA FLATOW: A lot of stuff to look forward to follow up on 2018. I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, Amy Nordrum, news editor for IEEE Spectrum, Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science– we’ll see you all in the new year. Oh, and one last thing before we go.
Did you know that Google backs up your emails on magnetic tape, and that librarians are hard at work saving web pages on the internet? You may think that your photos on Facebook or your tweets will last forever, but your data is actually not quite that permanent. These are just some of the digital dilemmas covered in our new File Not Found series– a three-part look at the ways data can be lost in a digital dark age. And now, researchers and archivists are battling to preserve it for the future. Check it out– it’s up on our website right now at sciencefriday.com/data. That’s sciencefriday.com/data.
Charles Bergquist is our director. Our senior producer is Christopher Intagliata. Our producers are Alex Alim, Christy Taylor, and Katie Heiler. We had technical and engineering help today and all year from Rich Kim, Sarah Fishman, and Jack Horowitz.
And we are active all week on Facebook, Twitter, Instagrams, all social media. And you can ask Amazon Echo and Google– well, I won’t say the words because they’ll all turn on. If you want to listen to Science Friday whenever you’d like to because every day now is a Science Friday. Have a great and Happy New Year. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.