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The 12 biggest and best science stories of 2016

SPACE & PHYSICS: SPACE-TIME RIPPLES

Gravitational waves were detected for the first time by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, it was announced in February. These are predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which says that massive objects warp space-time around them. When these objects accelerate, they form gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time. Their presence was inferred in 1974, but none had been observed directly – until now.

HUMANS: STALAGMITE CIRCLES

In May, Neanderthals were credited with building a series of mysterious large stalagmite structures in a French cave. Roughly 175,000 years old, they are made from 400 individual stalagmites snapped from the cave floor and laid in a circle. No one knows why they were built or if they signified anything, although it has been suggested they served as some kind of shelter.

TECHNOLOGY: AI BEATS HUMANS

Lee Jin-man/AP images

An artificial intelligence made by Google subsidiary DeepMind can now beat humans at the ancient game of Go. AlphaGo took on Go grandmaster Lee Sedol in March and won a five game series 4-1. The victory sent shockwaves through both the AI and Go communities as both had thought the game was too difficult for an AI to perfect.

HEALTH: END OF MENOPAUSE

Menopause doesn’t have to be the end of fertility. In July, we reported on a team that claims to have found a way to rejuvenate post-menopausal ovaries, enabling them to release fertile eggs. The technique may boost declining fertility in older women, allow women with early menopause to become pregnant, and help stave off the detrimental health effects of menopause.

TECHNOLOGY: GOOGLE AND THE NHS

Google’s DeepMind has access to a wide range of healthcare data on the 1.6 million patients who attend three London hospitals run by the Royal Free NHS Trust each year, we discovered in April. The data-sharing agreement is so that DeepMind can build an app to help hospital staff monitor patients with kidney disease. But privacy campaigners raised questions about whether Google should have such access.

EARTH: CO2‘S DEADLY SECRET

In a year when plenty of climate records were broken, we uncovered the fact that the negative effects of a build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere have been underestimated. We asked researchers to plug the latest temperature data into their climate models and found that a given amount of CO2 led to higher temperatures than had previously been predicted.

HEALTH: THREE-PARENT BABY

A 5-month-old boy was the first baby to be born using a controversial technique that incorporates DNA from three people, we revealed in September. The method allows parents with rare genetic mutations to have healthy babies. The child’s Jordanian parents were treated by a US-based team in Mexico. Separately, in October, we discovered that the first babies made using a similar method to overcome infertility are due to be born in 2017.

SPACE: MYSTERY PLANET NINE

In January, two astronomers announced that a planet around 10 times the mass of Earth might be lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system, on an orbit that comes no closer than 200 times the distance between the sun and Earth. Planet Nine, as it was dubbed, hasn’t been seen directly, but its presence was inferred from the strange orbits of smaller bodies orbiting within the Kuiper belt.

EARTH: SING WITH YOUR SUPPER

Gorillas sing and hum when eating, a discovery that could help shed light on how language evolved in early humans, it emerged in February. Singing seems to be a way for gorillas to express contentment with their meal, as well as for the head of the family to communicate to others that it is dinner time.

SPACE & PHYSICS: EARTH-LIKE PLANET

ESO

Hello neighbour. In August, an Earth-like planet was spotted just 4 light years away in our nearest star system. Proxima b orbits the star Proxima Centauri at a distance of 7.3 million kilometres – less than 5 per cent of the distance between Earth and the sun. Because the star is a small red dwarf, Proxima b sits in its habitable zone, which means the surface temperature may be right for it to host liquid water.

EARTH: DO TREES SLEEP?

Trees have been shown to undergo physical changes at night that can be likened to sleep, or at least to the day-night cycles seen in smaller plants. Branches of birch trees droop by as much as 10 centimetres at the tips towards the end of the night, it was reported in May. It isn’t known if the drooping is deliberate, dictated by an active sleep-night cycle, or passive, dictated by differences in the availability of water and light.

HEALTH: NEW BLOOD FOR OLD

Blood from human teenagers rejuvenates old mice, improving their memory, cognition and physical activity, it was reported in November. Old mice given blood plasma from 18-year-old volunteers were much better at remembering their way around a maze than untreated mice. The method could one day be used in people.

Source: newscientist.com

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