Thursday, 23 March 2017 10:58

Year in science: 15 amazing things humans discovered in 2016


While various pundits have claimed we are living in a post-truth world, those slaves to reality – scientists – have been busy discovering facts and explaining the world for anyone who cared to listen.

Here are some of the amazing things humans discovered in 2016.

1. There is a planet orbiting the nearest star to the sun

This artist's impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System.

This artist's impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the solar system. Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In August, astronomers announced they'd detected a planet 1.3 times the mass of the Earth orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light years away. The planet, called Proxima b, sits in the so-called Goldilocks zone of the faint red dwarf star, where the average surface temperature of the planet is not too hot, nor too cold, to harbour liquid water.

It's been a bumper few years for "exoplanets" – planets orbiting distant stars – but we will never find a closer one than this.

Astronomer Paul Butler from the Carnegie Institute of Washington said: "What Proxima b does is act like a neon sign: right here, folks, this is not fuzzy or vague, it's the very nearest star in the sky."

2. Gravitational waves were observed. Einstein was right. Again

A simulation of two black holes colliding.

A simulation of two black holes colliding. Photo: LIGO

This was the biggest scientific discovery of the year. In February, scientists from LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) detected the tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by the collision of two unbelievably massive black holes, more than a billion years ago.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity predicted that gravity would have infinitesimally small waves but he thought them so tiny, they'd never be detected. However, the sensitivity of LIGO, whose mirrors were built in Sydney by CSIRO scientists, allowed for the detection of the gravitational remnant of that collision passing by Earth in two-tenths of a second.

The discovery is opening up a new view on the universe. Up until now we have only been able to see the stars in the electromagnetic spectrum of lightwaves. We will now be able to view the universe using gravitational waves.

3. Dinosaur feathers were found trapped in amber

A 99-million-year-old piece of amber with a feathered dinosaur tail trapped inside.

A 99-million-year-old piece of amber with a feathered dinosaur tail trapped inside. Photo: Ryan McKellar/Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Like a scene cut from Jurassic Park, Chinese palaeontologist Lida Xing announced the discovery of a small dinosaur feather trapped in amber that he'd found for sale in a market in northern Myanmar.

The first evidence that dinosaurs had feathers was announced in 1996 with the discovery of sinosauropteryx. It revolutionised thinking about dinosaurs, many of which are now thought to have had feathers. It is also thought birds evolved from dinosaurs.

The discovery of the feathers in amber was a world first. The 99-million-year-old feathers likely belonged to a sparrow-sized theropod, like a mini-velociraptor or tyrannosaur.

4. Humans have been living in Australia's interior for at least 49,000 years

Giles Hamm inside the Warratyi rock shelter.

Giles Hamm inside the Warratyi rock shelter. Photo: Giles Hamm

chance discovery of a desert rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges has pushed back the established age for human inhabitation of inland Australia by more than 10,000 years. 

"A man getting out of the car to go to the toilet led to the discovery of one of the most important sites in Australian pre-history," archaeologist Giles Hamm told the ABC.

Earlier in 2016, archaeologists from ANU and Sydney Uni announced the discovery of the world's oldest hafted axe, uncovered in the Kimberley and dating from between 46,000 and 49,000 years ago.

5. Male redbacks have developed a trick to have sex more than once in their lives

A female redback.

A female redback. Photo: Kitty Hill

Male redbacks are usually eaten by the larger female during or after sex. However, biologists this year revealed that the males have developed a tactic to pass on more of their genes.

Before juvenile females undergo their final moult, the males break through their exoskeleton and mate with them. 

The research found that 65 per cent of males had copulated with immature females. They also found that one-third of immature female redbacks carried sperm.

Daniela Biaggio at the University of Toronto and Iara Sandomirsky at the Ben-Gurion University suggested that "immature-mating may be a widespread, previously unrecognised mating tactic".

6. World's oldest fossils are 3.7 billion years old

Modern-day living stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Modern-day living stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Australian scientists found the world's oldest fossils in Greenland, a discovery that could help astrobiologists look for signs of life on Mars.

The fossilised remains of stromatolites formed 3.7 billion years ago were uncovered by a team led by University of Wollongong researcher Allen Nutman.

Stromatolites, which are still growing in places like Shark Bay in Western Australia, are layers of single-celled microbial lifeforms. 

7. Some scientists think there is a ninth planet in the solar system

An artist’s rendering of Planet Nine.

An artist’s rendering of Planet Nine. Photo: Caltech / R. Hurt (IPAC)

It hasn't been directly detected but the unusual motion of distant dwarf planets and other matter beyond the Kuiper Belt and in the Oort Cloud, billions of kilometres from Earth, have some astronomers convinced there is a ninth planet out there somewhere.

CalTech astronomers Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin propose the planet has the mass of 10 Earths with a highly elliptical orbit of about 15,000 years.

Some scientists are sceptical but there is a serious search under way to find Planet Nine.

8. Chinese scientists used CRISPR gene-editing technology in a human for the first time

CRISPR gene-editing is opening up a new world in biomedical science

CRISPR gene-editing is opening up a new world in biomedical science.

One US scientist described it as a "Sputnik 2.0" moment. Chinese cancer researchers have taken cells from lung cancer patients, genetically modified them using the relatively new CRISPR gene-editing tool and reinserted them in the patient.

The scientists at Sichuan University in Chengdu will look to see how the re-engineered cells work to combat cancer in the 10 terminally ill patients and see what side-effects there are.

CRISPR – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – technology allows geneticists to remove, add or alter sections of DNA using an enzyme discovered inside a bacterium. It can lock on to specific chains of DNA and cut and splice, allowing manipulation of the genome.

9. The radiation resistance of weird microscopic animals could help humans survive space travel

Colourr enhanced scanning electron micrograph of a tardigrade.

Colour enhanced scanning electron micrograph of a tardigrade. Photo: Eye of Science

Tardigrades, also called water bears or moss piglets, are segmented water dwelling critters that have remarkable survival capabilities. They can survive extremes of temperature from near absolute zero to 150 degrees and they were shown to withstand 10 days in the vacuum, cold and radiation of space.

In January it was announced that researchers had revived the one-millimetre long, eight-legged animals after they had been kept frozen for 30 years.

But perhaps the biggest news came in September when biologists at the University of Tokyo announced their discovery of DNA in tardigrades that protect them from X-rays. Amazingly, the scientists also said they could transfer this resistance to human cells.

10. Four new chemical elements were named

Kosuke Morita, researcher of Riken (Institute of Physical and Chemical Research) who led a group discovered element 113, points to a periodic table of the elements. Nihonium, symbol Nh, for element 113 was discovered in Japan. It's the first element to be discovered in an Asian country.

Nihonium, symbol Nh, for element 113 was discovered in Japan. It's the first element to be discovered in an Asian country. Photo: AP

The heaviest naturally occurring, stable element is uranium with 92 protons in its nucleus. Elements heavier than that, such as plutonium, are made in nuclear reactions. The latest elements to be recognised are nihonium (113), moscovium (115), tennessine (117) and oganesson (118).

Nihonium, for instance, has 113 protons in its nucleus and decays very quickly. It has a half-life of 20 seconds. The heaviest of the elements named is oganesson, with an atomic number 118 (the number of its protons). Its half-life is 0.89 microseconds.

The elements were recognised and named by a joint working party of the international chemistry and physics bodies IUPAC and IUPAP in November.

11. World's largest radio telescope is finished, with a CSIRO sensor in its heart

China's FAST observatory is the biggest of its kind in the world.

China's FAST observatory is the biggest of its kind in the world. Photo: AP

The biggest radio telescope in the world, in Guizhou province, south-west China, started operating in September. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, dwarfs the previous largest dish, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

The FAST observatory will help us to better understand exotic astronomical phenomena such as pulsars and black holes, and also let us peer into the nursery of early galaxy formation in the cosmic web of hydrogen gas that existed before galaxies formed.

It will also examine radio emissions from exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars. This will pick up natural radio emissions, but also has the potential to detect radio emissions from extra-terrestrial intelligence.

The 19-beam detector at the heart of FAST was designed and built by CSIRO scientists in Marsfield, Sydney.

12. World's oldest vertebrate lives about 400 years

The world's longest living vertebrate is the Greenland shark, here seen returning to the cold waters of the Uummannaq Fjord, Greenland.

The world's longest living vertebrate is the Greenland shark, here seen returning to the cold waters of the Uummannaq Fiord, Greenland. Photo: Julius Nielsen/AP

It doesn't have sex until it is about 150 years old and then lives for another 250 years. Meet the Greenland shark.

Using a new technique examining the shark's eye nucleus, scientists at Copenhagen and Oxford universities said one shark they studied lived for 392 years. At 400 years, the oldest of this species was born when Pope Paul V was persecuting Galileo, Pocahontas arrived in England and Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

13. World's first baby with three genetic parents is born

Dr John Zhang with the child who has three genetic parents.

Dr John Zhang with the child who has three genetic parents. Photo: New Hope Fertility Centre

A controversial technique that uses the DNA of three humans to form an embryo was used by US scientists in Mexico, leading to the birth of a boy in April, New Scientist reported.

The mother of the child carries the genes for Leigh syndrome, which affects the developing neural system. It is fatal and the woman's two previous children died from the disease.

Dr John Zhang from New Hope Fertility Centre in the US took the nucleus from the mother's egg and inserted it in a donor's egg, which had the nucleus removed. It was then fertilised using the sperm of the father.

14. Atmospheric carbon dioxide stays above 400 parts per million for the first time in modern era

The Cape Grim station measures carbon dioxide and ozone concentration in the atmosphere.

The Cape Grim station measures carbon dioxide and ozone concentration in the atmosphere.

A symbolic concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was passed in May, according to measurements at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station operated by the Bureau of Meteorology with the CSIRO.

CSIRO atmospheric scientist Paul Krummel said: "It's not going to go back below 400 ppm for a very long time unless we get very good at mitigation."

Global carbon dioxide levels were running at about 280 parts per million up until about 1850 when they started to take off.

15. The spectrum of antimatter hydrogen is measured for the first time

Measuring the anti-hydrogen spectrum with high-precision in CERN's ATLAS experiment.

Measuring the anti-hydrogen spectrum with high precision in CERN's ATLAS experiment. Photo: CERN/Maximilien Brice

When the universe began, theory suggests equal amounts of matter and anti-matter should have been formed. Now, 13.7 billion years later, pretty much all we find is matter. And we don't know why.

At the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) this year, scientists created an anti-matter hydrogen atom ("anti-hydrogen") with a negatively charged proton nucleus and a positively charged electron ("positron"). They then measured the wavelength of light it emitted.

It's the first time the spectrum of anti-matter has been recorded. And, as predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, the wavelength of light from anti-hydrogen is the same as emitted by hydrogen, with an accuracy within 20 billionths of a metre.

Author : Marcus Strom

Source : http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/15-amazing-things-humans-discovered-in-2016-20161227-gtiajb.html

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