2016 top science stories: Spacetime ripples, feathered dinos, a 'fairy' in space

MANILA, Philippines – Another year, another remarkable time for science.

The year 2016 has been an exciting time for science and technology, with major breakthroughs from the physical sciences to health to the environment. From the detection of gravitational waves to the coming into force of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, there has been no shortage of major stories around – and beyond – the world.

In what has become a yearly tradition, Rappler again asked the Mind Movers of the Mind Museum, the country's leading museum dedicated to science, about what they think are the top stories in the world of science this year.

Let's take a look at their top picks for 2016!

A undated handout graphic, made available February 11, 2016 by NASA / CALTECH-JPL, showing an artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars. R. HURT / CALTECH-JPL / Handout

A undated handout graphic, made available February 11, 2016 by NASA / CALTECH-JPL, showing an artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars. R.

HURT / CALTECH-JPL / Handout

After decades of “listening,” scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have finally announced the detection of gravitational waves. The waves were first detected on September 14, 2015, and took several months for researchers to verify the findings.

Gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s General Relativity, are ripples in the curvature of spacetime which spread outward from the source. Accelerating objects generate gravitational waves, although most are weak sources. Strong gravitational waves may come from a star falling into a big black hole or from a collision and eventual merger of two black holes, as in the case of the announced detection.

The discovery confirms Einstein’s equations as well as opens a new window in the way we observe the universe.  New detectors are being developed to detect gravitational waves that ranges not just in the millisecond range, but in the range of minutes to up to decades or even longer. – Art Galapon

A clinical trial led by the Stanford University School of Medicine has found that injecting modified bone marrow stem cells into the brains of stroke patients led to substantial, sustained discoveries in their motor function.

“Patients who were in wheelchairs are walking now,” said neurosurgery chair Gary Steinberg. He adds that substances secreted by the stem cells near the stroke site likely stimulated regeneration of the nervous tissue.

Previously, recovery from stroke was believed to come only within the first 6 months after the event. This discovery provides more hope, especially to older patients, that their injured brains can recover. – Erin Mercado

The historic Paris Agreement entered into force in November after being ratified by at least 55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, the US, China, and India have ratified. The 3 countries represent about 42% of carbon emissions. Upon entering into force, the Agreement becomes legally binding on the countries that have ratified it.

The Agreement aims to strengthen the response of the international community to the threat of man-made climate change by keeping the global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” within this century, with efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The Philippines, which signed the Agreement last year, is yet to ratify it. President Rodrigo  Duterte has changed his mind on the issue several times. (READ: Duterte to sign Paris climate pact)

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Becoming a party to the Paris Agreement can help the Philippines respond better to these effects. – Pecier Decierdo

This illustration depicts NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, with its solar arrays and main antenna pointed toward the distant sun and Earth. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This illustration depicts NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, with its solar arrays and main antenna pointed toward the distant sun and Earth.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After a roundabout 5-year journey, NASA’s Juno space probe finally arrived at Jupiter this year. The spacecraft successfully entered into an orbit around the gas giant last July and is now performing maneuvers that would take it into a unique orbit around the planet. 

Among the goals of the Juno mission are measuring the amount of water in Jupiter, mapping the differences in temperature and pressure in the gas giant’s clouds, measuring the strength of the planet’s magnetic and gravitational fields at different places, and determining the shape and size of the planet’s core.

To do this, Juno is equipped with a host of instruments that allows it to peer through the upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Its unique orbit also brings it both really close and relatively far from the gas giant. It will scan Jupiter from one pole to another, which means it will have spectacular views of Jupiter’s auroras, which are larger than the entire Earth. – Pecier Decierdo

In the process of learning, we make connections between neurons. There are 3 different routes from neurons to the brain's hippocampus, and as memories are cemented, the main route to the hippocampus is strengthened. 

Scientists at EMBL and University Pablo Olavide found that blocking this main route prevented mice from learning. However, if the mice had learned something before blocking this route, they would be able to recover it even after blocking. A side effect of the block, however, was that the memory was eventually weakened.

The scientists hypothesized that this effect was the brain's way of making room for new learned information. They also suggested that this could be a form of treatment for patients with traumatic memories. – Garrick Bercero

When teenagers are hard to wake up for school, it's better not to blame the kid's laziness or refusal to sleep early but the unscientific demand for them to function so early in the day.

 

Researchers at Boston's Children's Hospital studied teenagers' sleep habits and found that if a teenager is naturally more of a night owl, they will have a harder time controlling emotions, cognitive functions, and behavior when they are sleepy during the daytime. They also have more memory problems, are more impulsive, and are highly irritable. According to the research, since teens tend to be night owls, our expectations should adjust, and so should school schedules. This tendency towards a particular time to sleep is called the chronotype. – Garrick Bercero

Materials engineers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have achieved a big milestone in nanotechnology with the development of carbon nanotube transistors that surpassed its silicon counterparts.

Published in the journal Science Advances, the team, led by Michael Arnold and Padma Gopalan, was able to address several issues in the production such as minimizing metallic nanotube impurities which disrupts its semiconducting properties. 

The team compared the carbon nanotube transistor against a state-of-the-art silicon transistor of the same size, geometry, and leakage current to benchmark its performance. The team reported a current 1.9 times higher than silicon transistors.

Carbon nanotube transistors are expected to perform 5 times faster or use 5 times less energy than silicon transistors and will pave the way to longer battery life, faster wireless communication, and faster processing speeds for computing devices. – Art Galapon

Photo of the tip of a preserved dinosaur tail section, with feathers arranged down both sides of tail. Image courtesy R.C. McKellar/ Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Photo of the tip of a preserved dinosaur tail section, with feathers arranged down both sides of tail. Image courtesy R.C.

McKellar/ Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Paleontologists have discovered a dinosaur tail preserved in amber sold at a market in Myanmar. Not only does it contain ancient plant debris and an ant, but also the well-contained detail of feathers. Analysis by the researchers suggest that the plumaged tail belonged to a coelurosaur, a relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, trapped in 99,000,000-year-old amber.

Previous feathered specimens are usually detached from the spine or other skeletal material. However, this discovery has led to a more in-depth study on dinosaur feather development, suggesting that the presence of barbules or very fine and thin branches and absence of a strong central shaft could mean feathers initially evolved for color and not for flight. This could mean that dinosaurs had very colorful and flamboyant feathers. 

This discovery further reinforces the link between dinosaurs and modern birds. – Artha Ting

Results of clinical trials for the male hormonal contraceptive were published this year, indicating the 96% efficacy of the injectable drug. Researchers subjected 320 healthy male respondents, in monogamous relationships, to a combination contraceptive shot every 8 weeks that decreases sperm count to less than 1 million/ml. Only 4 pregnancies were reported out of the remaining 266 participants. Meanwhile, the reversibility of sperm suppression was also studied after 52 weeks of recovery and results show that 95% of the men regained their normal sperm count.

However, the second phase of clinical trials were stopped due to the side effects experienced by the men who dropped out of the study. These side effects included severe acne, mood changes, increased libido, and some severe emotional disorders. – Artha Ting

Self-driving cars aren’t on their way – they’re already here. In September, Uber partnered with Volvo to add a limited number of robo-taxis to its fleet in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Riders weren’t greeted by a completely empty car though: during the trial run, an engineer was in the driver's seat to observe the car's performance and take over at a moment's notice.

There are still some kinks. For example, the car gets confused by obstacles such as double-parked cars and lacks human intuition on how traffic will speed up or slow down. Nevertheless, Uber seems determined to figure these out and disrupt the market yet again. – Cara Evangelista

A new form of technology called a neural bypass has helped a 24-year-old quadriplegic to regain partial control of his hand, and has shown promise in improving the quality of life of patients with similar injuries. 

Researchers from Ohio State University discovered that signals recorded from the brain can be re-routed around a spinal cord injury, allowing movement to be restored.

A computer chip was first implanted into Ian Burkhart’s brain, which sends motor signals directly to the muscles that control his hand and fingers.

He has since been able to grasp and control items, swipe credit cards, and even play Guitar Hero – just by using his thoughts. – Erin Mercado

NEW ELEMENTS. The 4 new elements on an updated periodic table of elements. Image adapted from iupac.org

NEW ELEMENTS. The 4 new elements on an updated periodic table of elements. Image adapted from iupac.

org

The seventh row of the periodic table is now complete as 4 superheavy elements discovered in the past decade are formally named.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) approved the names proposed by the elements’ discoverers: nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og) take up slots 113, 115, 117, and 118 respectively.

As is tradition, the elements have all been named after a place or a scientist. “Nihonium” is based on "Nihon," the Japanese name for Japan. “Moscovium” honors the Moscow region, “Tennessine” recognizes the contributions of labs in the Tennessee area of the USA, and “Oganesson” honors Professor Yuri Oganessian’s pioneering research in the field. – Cara Evangelista

Scientists assess coral mortality on Zenith Reef following the bleaching event, Northern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Andreas Dietzel/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Scientists assess coral mortality on Zenith Reef following the bleaching event, Northern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016.

Andreas Dietzel/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Scientists have confirmed that the Great Barrier Reef had suffered the worst die-off of corals ever recorded due to higher than normal water temperatures in 2015 and 2016.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that 67% of the shallow-water corals in the northern part have died because of the worst bleaching event in the past 8-9 months. In the south, the scientists were relieved that two-thirds of the Reef escaped with minor damage and 6% in the central region which died have now regained colors and in good condition.

However, they expect that the north will take at least 10-15 years to regain the lost corals and worried that a fourth bleaching event could happen and affect recovery. – Christer de Silva

The microsatellite Diwata-1 being deployed into space. Photo courtesy ESA/Astronaut Tim Peake/Twitter

The microsatellite Diwata-1 being deployed into space.

Photo courtesy ESA/Astronaut Tim Peake/Twitter

On March 23 at 11 am PST, Diwata-1, the first-Filipino made microsatellite was launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Diwata-1 was aboard Cygnus, an unmanned cargo spacecraft designed to carry supplies to International Space Station (ISS). Diwata-1 reached the ISS on March 26.

On April 27, 2016, the microsatellite was deployed into space from the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), "Kibo."

Now, Diwata-1 aids in disaster management program, agriculture health, protection of cultural and historical sites, and research.

A team Filipino engineers from the DOST-Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI) and the University of the Philippines created the microsatellite in collaboration with Tohoku and Hokkaido universities in Japan. – Christer de Silva

How about you: What are your top science stories for 2016? – Rappler.com

You can also check out the 20152014, and 2013 lists.