The 10 Coolest Science Stories of 2016

There was a lot of interesting stuff that happened this year, from discoveries to developments of fancy new technologies. This article is all about the science of the last 12 months – the news that was overshadowed by the politics. Therefore, this is a subjective list, because some stories are just better than others. But by staying away from the stories that dominated the news, I am sure you will learn something new as well as find out how the science world is changing. The 10 stories are not ranked, just aggregated for being fascinating.

Quadriplegic Man Plays Guitar Hero, With Cybernetic Implant

This is an amazing story. Years after a spinal cord injury rendered an American man paralyzed from the neck down, this individual has regained some of his lost movement. However, this is not by some miracle of biology. It is because of a mix of a cybernetic implant, a computer that is linked to a complex sensor-sleeve on his arm, complicated software, and many hours of biofeedback-based physical exercises. He has regained enough physical movement to swipe credit cards, pick up a glass, pour bottles, and even play the video-game Guitar Hero. Furthermore, since he now has movement in his fingers, he is able to use a stick-based motorized chair, which means he can now move around unassisted.

Stroke Patients Who Required Wheelchairs Able to Work After Stem Cells Injections

This is in a similar vein to the story above, but I found both of them so hopeful that I wanted to put them at the top. As described on Listverse:

A clinical trial held at Stanford University School of Medicine injected modified human stem cells directly into the brains of several chronic stroke patients. The procedures were all successful with no negative effects described from the injection and only mild headaches as a result of the procedure, which was performed on mildly anesthetized patients. All 18 showed significant healing long after any healing is expected following a stroke (a period of six months). This included increased mobility and actually allowed for patients who were previously limited to wheelchairs to walk again freely.

Baby Born with Three Biological Parents

Despite this being a controversial and ethically questionable technique using DNA from three people, this was amazing news. I am not ashamed to say that I had no idea this was even possible, but the baby is around 8 months old, so it’s not just theoretical. New Scientist reports:

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.

“5D” Technology May Revolutionize Data Storage

A coin-sized glass disk has been developed to be able to store not only all those Game of Thrones episodes you downloaded illegally, but all of your music too! Joking aside, it’s much cooler than that. From a University of Southampton report:

Scientists at the University of Southampton have made a major step forward in the development of digital data storage that is capable of surviving for billions of years. [. . .]

The storage allows unprecedented properties including 360 TB/disc data capacity, thermal stability up to 1,000°C and virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (13.8 billion years at 190°C ) opening a new era of eternal data archiving. As a very stable and safe form of portable memory, the technology could be highly useful for organisations with big archives, such as national archives, museums and libraries, to preserve their information and records.

Rocket Landed Vertically …On a Drone Ship!

Do you have any idea how hard it is to land a rocket on a ship that’s floating on the water? In fact, it was a “floating autonomous drone ship,” no less. Reporting form the Verge:

The whole point of landing these rockets is to help save SpaceX money on launch costs. Right now, most rockets are destroyed or lost after they launch into space, meaning entirely new rockets must be built for each mission. SpaceX hopes to recover as many rockets as possible to cut down on cost of creating new vehicles. The Falcon 9 costs $60 million to make and only $200,000 to fuel. If a recovered rocket doesn’t need too much updating and refurbishment between launches, reusability could eliminate a good chunk of that manufacturing cost. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell expects reusable rockets to bring down launch costs by about 30 percent, according to Space News.

Menopause Might Not be the End of Fertility

We all know that menopause is the period at which women are (among other things) no longer able to give birth. But that may only be true for a short time longer. As New Scientist explains:

Menopause need not be the end of fertility. A team claims to have found a way to rejuvenate post-menopausal ovaries, enabling them to release fertile eggs, New Scientist can reveal.

The team says its technique has restarted periods in menopausal women, including one who had not menstruated in five years. If the results hold up to wider scrutiny, the technique may boost declining fertility in older women, allow women with early menopause to get pregnant, and help stave off the detrimental health effects of menopause.

The T-Rex Was Probably Just a Big Wuss

I know what you’re thinking, “but wait… they’re the scary ancient dinosaurs that chase after us in our jeeps and kill all the other smaller dinosaurs because they’re wusses.” Well not so fast, Indiana Jones. Whatever you know about the dinosaur is probably actually from Jurassic Park (probably not Indiana Jones). As Science Magazine explains:

A rare set of tyrannosaur footprints is giving researchers insight into the walking speed of the prehistoric beasts, and it’s possible that humans might have been able to outrun them. According to the new estimate, Tyrannosaurus rex may have ambled as quickly as 8 kilometers per hour (5 miles per hour), slower than a plodding amateur marathon runner or even a middle-aged power walker. [. . .]

The analysis doesn’t prove that T. Rex couldn’t have gone faster, however. Because trackways are records of single events—one walk along a lakeshore, for example—the odds are that any particular set of footprints doesn’t capture a dinosaur’s peak performance

But if that didn’t convince you, then you should see the exhibit reported in National Geographic. In case you didn’t know, T-rexes are going over somewhat of a retroactive make-over. Rather than looking like an bipedal alligator, they look more like… well… birds. With feathers.

Trees Might Actually “Sleep”, Kind of Like Humans

Researchers have observed that trees actually droop down, as if they’re resting, at night. The New Scientist reports:

For the first time, trees have been shown to undergo physical changes at night that can be likened to sleep, or at least to day-night cycles that have been observed experimentally in smaller plants.

Branches of birch trees have now been seen drooping by as much as 10 centimetres at the tips towards the end of the night.

“It was a very clear effect, and applied to the whole tree,” says András Zlinszky of the Centre for Ecological Research in Tihany, Hungary. “No one has observed this effect before at the scale of whole trees, and I was surprised by the extent of the changes.”

Life After Death is a Reality (for Genes)

Here comes the zombie uprising. Well, not really. But researchers did look at the cadavers of mice and zebrafish to track genetic changes that occurred after their deaths (for 2 and 4 days after dying, respectively). Science reports:

At first, the researchers assumed that genes would shut down shortly after death, like the parts of a car that has run out of gas. What they found instead was that hundreds of genes ramped up. Although most of these genes upped their activity in the first 24 hours after the animals expired and then tapered off, in the fish some genes remained active 4 days after death. [. . .] Researchers may be able to parlay this postmortem activity into better ways of preserving donated organs for transplantation and more accurate methods of determining when murder victims were killed.

AlphaGo Beats Human Opponent

If you haven’t heard of the game “Go” (no, not Pokemon Go), then you probably aren’t Japanese; but think of it as a checkers-like game. AlphaGo is an artificial intelligence that beat a professional player a decade earlier than people were expecting, making both the Go and the AI communities something to think about. The final score was 4-1 for AlphaGo. From Science News:

AlphaGo’s design mimics the way human brains tackle problems and allows the program to fine-tune itself based on new experiences. The system was trained using 30 million positions from 160,000 games of Go played by human experts. AlphaGo’s creators at Google DeepMind honed the software even further by having it play games against slightly altered versions of itself, a sort of digital “survival of the fittest.”

These learning experiences allowed AlphaGo to more efficiently sweat over its next move. Programs aimed at simpler games play out every single hypothetical game that could result from each available choice in a branching pattern — a brute-force approach to computing. But this technique becomes impractical for more complex games such as chess, so many chess-playing programs sample only a smaller subset of possible outcomes. That was true of Deep Blue, the computer that beat chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997.

But Go offers players many more choices than chess does. A full-sized Go board includes 361 playing spaces (compared with chess’ 64), often has various “battles” taking place across the board simultaneously and can last for more moves.

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