How was science’s year, you ask? Oh, not too shabby. A robot rocket fought a robot barge and won. Humans detected gravitational waves from space for Pete’s sake. And a certain company that rhymes with Chairanos brought serious drama the biomedical world. The biomedical world.
So yeah, it was an eventful year for science—thanks for asking. From space on down to the future of genetic manipulation, may we present to you WIRED’s nine biggest science stories of 2016.
SpaceX’s Rocket vs. Barge: The Robot Battle of the Century
Space, the old maxim goes, is hard. Engineers have to somehow keep their rockets from immediately exploding on the launch pad, then they have to deposit humans in orbit, and then they have to land those humans safely back on Earth.
The more automation, the better, and they don’t come more automated than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 robo-rocket. After several explosive attempts to get the rocket to land by itself on a robot barge, Musk and Co. finally stuck the landing on April 8. On top of that being a beautiful thing to behold, it was a huge moment for the future of spaceflight. Why? Because cash rules everything around aerospace. A dollar saved is an extra rocket launch earned.
That’s not to say SpaceX has it all figured out quite yet. Because in September one of its rockets exploded on the launch pad. Again, space is hard.
Do the Gravitational Wave
Much farther out in space, black holes collide and supernovas go boom, sending ripples through the universe. That is, they did theoretically until this January, when scientists announced that they had finally detected so-called gravitational waves. That’s thanks to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Here, in a pair of 2.5-mile-long tubes, lasers bounce between mirrors. When a wave hits Earth, it tweaks the path of the lasers ever so slightly.
And boom—a discovery that has profound implications for understanding how the universe is built. As theoretical astrophysicist Chiara Mingarelli told WIRED in January: “The direct detection of gravitational waves will open new avenues to explore the universe, and as such, will almost certainly be revolutionary.”
America Struggles With a Monumental Opioid Crisis
America’s opioid crisis has reached staggering proportions. Every day, 3,900 people start using prescription opioids for non-medical purposes. Every. Day. Tens of thousands are dying of overdoses every year. One promising development is the increased availability of naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose. Though that means hospitals need to stock the drug and staff enough doctors—two tall orders in a broken health care system.
And no single drug can fight an epidemic—which is why it’s important to pay attention to the voices of addicts who are finding a plant called kratom can help wean them off of opioids. The problem? The DEA wants to make the stuff very, very illegal. Just maybe, with enough weapons at its disposal, America can really begin to fight this war against opioid abuse.
It’s Getting Hot in Here, So Take Off All Your Geopolitical Squabbles
Getting almost 200 nations to agree on anything is a feat in and of itself, but it’s all the more impressive when that thing is giving fossil fuels the finger. Such was the miracle of the Paris Climate Agreement, which officially entered into force in November.
Here’s the thing about global warming: It’s very real. And while it’s great and all for individual countries to pledge to cut back on the emissions that are causing global warming, the world won’t make any progress unless a whole mess of countries hop on board. So here’s to hoping they collectively ensure global temperatures don’t exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution levels—and stay as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible—like the Paris Agreement demands.
The Zika Menace
As the world banded together to fight climate change in 2016, the Americas were grappling with a more local crisis: the Zika virus. Scientists reckoned it was what was causing some babies to be born with undersized heads, known as microcephaly. And indeed in April the CDC confirmed the connection. That may not seem like any kind of victory to you, but this was big for science. With better understanding of Zika and microcephaly, scientists can go into 2017 with that much more ammunition to fight the scourge.
Water, Water, Everywhere—Except for the American West
California continued to reel from a historic drought in 2016. Sure, things are a bit better this year, thanks to a particularly generous El Niño. But in a state of 40 million people and 27 million acres of crops, a little water doesn’t go a long way. In fact, California’s drought isn’t just sticking around for a while: It’ll probably last forever.
Science, Meet Politics. Politics, Science
Alright, maybe politics creeping into science is nothing new. But 2016 was the year when the two really, really got to know each other—though more in an enemy sense than a romantic one.
First it was Brexit. The UK sealing itself up from the rest of Europe doesn’t exactly encourage the movement of ideas. And it could jeopardize the nation’s involvement in physics experiments and space exploration in particular.
Across the pond, Donald Trump is coming into power. Yes, the same Donald Trump who claimed global warming is a hoax (it’s not, as mentioned earlier) and that vaccines cause autism (they don’t), and whose cabinet is all tied up in anti-gay pseudoscience. So American scientists are a bit worried.
Theranos: Kinda Sounds Like a God, But Most Certainly Isn’t
No slow-motion-train wreck science story was more riveting this year than the implosion of Theranos, once the darling of the biomedical world. It promised accurate blood tests using just a drop of blood, which didn’t turn out to be strictly speaking “true.” So came the fraud investigations. The lawsuits. The inevitable pivot (a Silicon Valley word meaning “wow what we had in mind at first definitely isn’t a thing”). So where’s Theranos headed in 2017? Eh, probably not super great places, if we’re being real.
We’re stuck with the genes we’ve got, I’m afraid. My genes, for instance, coded for a slight bow-leggedness, which I’m totally fine with why do you ask. But thanks to the immensely powerful tool that is Crispr, scientists can now edit genes in living organisms. For instance, they can modify mosquitoes to resist the parasite that causes malaria.
Increasingly, and more controversially, scientists are trying to edit human genes in embryos. This year, a second team of scientists in China announced it had used Crispr on human embryos, this time to stave off HIV infection. (The first team used it last year to edit a gene tied to blood disease.) That, my friends, is fraught with ethical conundrums. Prepare to hear a whole lot more from the Crispr front in 2017.