Science News That Stuck With Us in 2016
As the year ends, the Science desk of The New York Times asked its reporters to look back at the news they reported on that was the most memorable. These are their selections, with a focus on archaeology, biology, physics and space.
Two other groups of reporters have also selected the news they find most memorable: Visit this link for a roundup of medicine and health news and this link for the year in climate change news.
“We Couldn’t Believe Our Eyes.”
Science tends to move forward in increments. But recently, explorers found a millennium of lost history at the bottom of the Black Sea, photographing more than 40 shipwrecks off the Bulgarian coast in one of archaeology’s greatest coups. The unusual chemistry of the sea’s depths left these victims of war and foul weather undisturbed in the darkness. The team’s robots lit up not only masts, timbers and rudders, but intact coils of rope and elaborately carved decorations, as if touring an undersea museum.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes.” said Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, an expedition member at the Center for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton in Britain.
In age, the shipwrecks range from the Byzantine, to the Venetian, to the Ottoman empires, dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries. Archaeologists say the discoveries will shed light not only on the history of shipbuilding but ancient trade routes. Back then, ships on the Black Sea carried things like furs, horses, oils, cloth, grains, wine, satin, musk, perfumes, spices and jewels. Marco Polo reportedly visited the Black Sea, and Italian merchant colonies dotted its shores. The profits were so enormous that, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Venice and Genoa fought a series of wars for control of the trade routes.
Brendan P. Foley, an archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., said the excellent condition of the shipwrecks implied that many objects inside their hulls might also still be intact, including books and documents. “Who knows?” he asked. “But now we have the possibility of finding out. It’s amazing.” — William J. Broad
The Tomato Soup of Dog Genetics
Science may be getting closer to an answer to that question thanks to a broad survey of modern and ancient dog and wolf skulls and DNA.
Greger Larson at the University of Oxford is leading the international effort. The difficulty in answering what seems a simple enough question is that dog genes now, Dr. Larson said, are a kind of tomato soup. It’s not that easy to identify all the ingredients and how they were blended is even murkier.
Most scientists who study dogs now agree that 15,000 or more years ago, one group of ancient wolves separated from another to become dogs, with different behavior and differences in skull shape and breeding patterns. People eventually took over the breeding of some dogs to get the qualities they wanted. But most dogs may have shadowed ancient human camps and farms and villages, living off garbage and handouts.
In the 19th century, dog genetics was turned upside down when all sorts of new breeds were developed in what Dr. Larson calls “the giant whirlwind blender of the European crazy Victorian dog-breeding frenzy.”
That is why the dog project that Dr. Larson helped develop is looking not only at the mixed up present, but at fossils and fossil DNA. Among the locales that have been in the running for the origin of dogs are the Middle East, the far East, Europe and Mongolia. The project has not come up with an answer yet, but Dr. Larson and his colleagues did publish a report that suggests that dogs may have been domesticated not once, but twice, once in Asia and once in Europe.
More evidence is needed to confirm this version of events, but researchers may actually come up with a definitive answer in the next few years. — James Gorman
A Secret in the Paint
Art conservators knew for almost a century that someone was hiding in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Over the years, they caught shadowy glimpses of her outline, but they could never say exactly what she looked like. This year, a team of scientists finally managed to identify her — with a particle accelerator.
She seems to be Emma Dobigny, a frequent subject of Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist painter. For 140 years, a portrait of Ms. Dobigny has slumbered underneath another Degas painting, “Portrait of a Woman.” Attempts to crystallize the underlying image using conventional X-ray and infrared techniques yielded only a blurry contour.
Recently, Australian researchers used a particle accelerator called a synchrotron to get a high-resolution X-ray scan of the under painting, blasting a beam of high-energy light, a million times brighter than the sun, at the portrait.
Researchers matched the elements they detected to ingredients in paint colors. Mercury was matched to red, chromium to green and cobalt to blue. The reconstructed image resembled other portraits Degas had painted of Ms. Dobigny.
Since rediscovering Ms. Dobigny’s portrait, the researchers have used the synchrotron to study a series of bird paintings made in the first years the British colonized Australia. The paintings are attributed to an unidentified artist, or possibly a group of artists, known as the Sydney Bird Painter, whose detailed watercolors of Australia’s birds provide a natural history record.
“It was a good experience to be using possibly Australia’s most advanced modern scientific instrument to study some of our earliest science,” said one of the researchers, David Thurrowgood, a conservator at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery at Launceston in Tasmania. — Steph Yin
Evidence of a Great Escape
In 1943, the Nazis forced 80 Lithuanian Jews to dig up the rotting bodies of their murdered neighbors, pile them on top of wood and burn them.
They were then ordered to mix the ashes with sand and bury the remains so no one would know of the atrocities committed at Ponar, an extermination site where the Nazis executed more than 100,000 people.
For several months the so-called Leichenkommando, or “corpse unit,” exhumed thousands of bodies from mass graves and incinerated them. But they knew that after they finished their jobs the Nazis would shoot them as well, so they hatched a daring escape plan.
For 76, days the prisoners dug a tunnel using only their hands and some spoons they found. On April 15, 1944, during the darkest night of Passover, they staged their escape. They climbed through the 100-foot tunnel and into the nearby woods. But the noise alerted the Nazi patrol, which fired at them. Only 12 of the original 80 escaped.
Of those who escaped, 11 survived the war. Their testimonies were the only evidence of the escape. But in July, a team of archaeologists working with the PBS science series NOVA, found the tunnel. Using tools that allow researchers to peer beneath the ground, the archaeologists were able to pinpoint the exact location of the underground escape path.
Finally, there was physical evidence to help tell the tale of one of the greatest escape stories during the Holocaust.
After writing the story I came across a chilling interview with Mordechai Zeidel, who was one of the survivors of the escape. After leaving Ponar, which is called Ponary in Polish, he returned to liberate Vilnius, the city where he had once lived.
“I had no family left,” he said. “I knew I had burned them all in Ponary.” — Nicholas St. Fleur
New Beginnings Around the Solar System
In the solar system, 2016 was a year of endings and beginnings. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft ended two years of examination of Comet 67P/ Churyumov–Gerasimenko with a soft belly-flop on the comet’s surface. The spacecraft was never designed to land, so it automatically turned itself off, ending the mission.
As Rosetta made its slow suicidal dive to the surface, it took the sharpest images of the comet surface. The mission revealed many surprises. Rather than the expected sphere, the comet was shaped like a two-lobed toy duck (scientists concluded it was originally two comets that stuck together). The comet also emitted bright bursts of dust as a gas when the comet approached the sun and a measurement that showed the water in Earth’s oceans did not come from comets like 67P.
Scott Kelly, the NASA astronaut, also finished his year in space at the International Space Station, an experience that will help with understanding what long-term weightlessness does to the human body.
For the beginnings, a European-Russian mission called ExoMars launched in March and arrived in November. A spacecraft that is to measure trace gases in the atmosphere — the main portion of the mission — successfully entered orbit, although an accompanying lander crashed. NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter on July 4. Its mission is to peer deep inside the solar system’s largest planet. In September, NASA launched Osiris-Rex, headed to a rendezvous with an asteroid in 2018. It’ll scoop a bit of the asteroid and bring it back to Earth for closer study.
The year ended in limbo, though, as President-elect Donald J. Trump has yet to say much about his plans for NASA. He is likely to cut back on earth science, which expanded under President Obama, and NASA’s ambitions to send astronauts to Mars may be steered closer, back to the moon. — Kenneth Chang
“They Are Not Monsters.”
It was 1996. Dolly was a sheep, and I was a child. I didn’t really get the details, but I knew she was a clone. My early take-away was that in the future, humans would all be clones that would die early from unanticipated, lethal mutations.
It turned out a lot of adults were unsettled, too, by the story of Dolly, the cloned sheep with the health problems who died early, at the age of 6. Fearful of the medical consequences of cloning, along with other more dystopian concerns like ethics and cloning inefficiency, governments enacted bans across the world.
But this July, scientists revealed that four sheep cloned from the same cell line as Dolly, and nine other clones, were as old and healthy as any old sheep. The D-squad: Daisy, Debbie, Diana and Denise, had some signs of arthritis, but nothing out of the ordinary. As Pasqualino Loi, a scientist who studies cloning at the University of Teramo in Italy, wrote to me at the time, “They are not monsters.”
While scientists hope the news will change the perception of cloning in the future, the same problem that existed decades ago continues to baffle them. It’s not that cloned animals fall victim to early aging — the ones that reach adulthood are typically fine. It’s that few cloned animals ever make it that far. Trying to solve this problem is why Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist at the University of Nottingham in Britain, created the D-squad in the first place.
If scientists like Dr. Sinclair can solve that puzzle, maybe cloning will fight world hunger. Maybe it will save endangered species. But when the D-squad passes, he will conduct more tests, searching for the tiny differences hidden inside them. Don’t worry. Or do. There are still plenty of futures to ponder. — JoAnna Klein
A Good Year for Einstein and Astronomy, Mostly
Every year is Einstein’s year, and 2016 was no exception.
Physicists capped a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of his theory of general relativity by announcing in February that they had discovered gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein had predicted a century ago but which had never been directly detected.
They were produced by a pair of black holes colliding 1.2 billion light years from here. The collision, producing more energy than all the stars in the known universe, rattled a pair of detectors known as LIGO, for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, in Washington and Louisiana. At least two more black-hole collisions have since been recorded.
Closer to home, astronomers announced in August that there was a potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth circling the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. That makes it the closest and most alluring of the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered in the last 20 years.
The discovery underscored the foresightedness of Breakthrough Starshot, a project which had been announced earlier to send a fleet of miniature probes to Alpha Centauri, a triple star system of which Proxima is a part.
Yuri Milner, the Russian entrepreneur behind the project, said it could take 20 years to develop the technology and get underway.
In particle physics the biggest news was of dogs that did not bark. Efforts to detect both a fundamental particle and dark matter particles came up dry. Those twin failures cast further doubts on a popular speculative notion called supersymmetry, which would unify the disparate forces of nature. Now it seems as if nature might have had better thoughts, something even Einstein didn’t think of. — Dennis Overbye