How can we describe 2016? Well, Charles Dickens would say: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” And indeed, 2016 was horrible and breathtaking at the same time. Too many good people died, too many innocent people died and too many crazy people gained power, but when it comes to science, it was an awesome year.
Here are some of the best achievements:
1) Discovering Gravitational Waves (Twice)
First predicted by Albert Einstein over a century ago, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) have finally proven his theory. At the beginning of the signal, their calculations told them how stars perish: the two objects had begun by circling each other 30 times a second.
By the end of the 20 millisecond snatch of data, the two had accelerated to 250 times a second before the final collision and a dark, violent merger.
“This observation is truly incredible science and marks three milestones for physics: the direct detection of gravitational waves, the first detection of a binary black hole, and the most convincing evidence to date that nature’s black holes are the objects predicted by Einstein’s theory.”
2) CRISPR Gene-Editing In Plants
A new gene-editing method is providing a precise way to modify crops in hopes of making them yield more food and resist drought and disease more effectively.
Research in the past year has shown that the resulting plants have no traces of foreign DNA, making it possible that they will not fall under existing regulations governing genetically modified organisms and will sidestep many of the consumer concerns over these GMOs.
The gene-editing technique could be critical in helping scientists keep up with the constantly evolving microbes that attack crops, says Sophien Kamoun, who leads a research group at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich, England, that is applying the technology to potatoes, tomatoes, and other crops to fight fungal diseases.
3) Reusable Rockets
Thousands of rockets have flown into space, but not until 2015 did one return like this: it came down upright on a landing pad, steadily firing to control its descent, almost as if a movie of its launch were being played backward. If this can be done regularly and rockets can be refueled over and over, spaceflight could become a hundred times cheaper.
Two tech billionaires made it happen. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin first pulled off a landing in November; Elon Musk’s SpaceX did it in December.
The companies are quite different—Blue Origin hopes to propel tourists in capsules on four-minute space rides, while SpaceX already launches satellites and space station supply missions—but both need reusable rockets to improve the economics of spaceflight.
A reminder of how many things can go wrong came in January, when SpaceX just missed a second landing because a rocket leg didn’t latch into place. Even so, it’s now clear that the future of spaceflight will be far more interesting than the Apollo-era hangover of the past 40 years.
4) Self-Teaching Robots
The human brain has billions of neurons, and between them they form an unfathomable number of connections. As we think and learn, neurons interact with each other and certain pathways that correspond to rewarding behavior will be reinforced over time so that those pathways are more likely to be chosen again in future, teaching us and shaping our actions.
An artificial neural network follows a similar structure on a smaller scale. Robots may be given a task and instructed to employ trial and error to determine the best way to achieve it.
Early on, their behavior may look totally random to an outside observer, but by trying out different things, over time they’ll learn which actions get them closer to their goals and will focus on those, continually improving their abilities.
While effective, this process is time-consuming, which is where cloud robotics comes in. Rather than have every robot go through this experimentation phase individually, their collective experiences can be shared, effectively allowing one robot to teach another how to perform a simple task, like opening a door or moving an object.
Periodically, the robots upload what they’ve learned to the server, and download the latest version, meaning each one has a more comprehensive picture than any would through their individual experience.