2017 delivered humility, and proved our potential

composite image of top science stories of 2017

Scientists witnessed gigantic events this year — a neutron star collision and a calving Antarctic iceberg — and also demonstrated the transformative power of more minuscule changes.

See top 10 stories for photo credits

The Top 10 science stories of 2017, selected by Science News staff and presented in this year-end issue, have the potential to make you feel small and certainly humble. Our No. 1 story of the year takes place an unfathomably distant 130 million light-years away, where a neutron star smashup produced, by some estimates, 10 Earth masses worth of gold — wow! That’s enough for many trillions of trillions of wedding bands. A bit closer to home, in a solar system just 39 light-years away, seven Earth-sized worlds, at least three of them potentially habitable, had astrobiologists buzzing. That story, No. 5, forces us to dismiss any lingering notions that Earth is unique.

Here on Earth, but also in remote and unfamiliar territory, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke away from the fourth largest ice shelf in Antarctica, earning our No. 3 spotand offering scientists a chance to study newly forming ecosystems. This year was heavy with science events — both energizing and fear-provoking. A vast stretch of the United States stopped in wonder as the moon slid between us and the sun, turning day into dark. And the destructive power of nature was on full display during hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires that pay no heed to human life or property.

Other stories that made our Top 10 list cover topics not necessarily grand in scale but deep in complexity. Our No. 2 story, on gene editing in viable human embryos, reminds us of the many intricacies of human biology. Each of us somehow emerges from fragile strands of DNA into breathing, yearning individuals. And the beginnings of our species are also humble. Homo sapiens may have emerged piece by piece beginning about 300,000 years ago, according to our No. 4 story. Despite all efforts, there is still so much left to figure out about ourselves and our world. Stories No. 9 and No. 10 show how much we don’t know, for instance, about head trauma and the Zika virus.

Yet in spite of our small size and humble beginnings, we have demonstrated through scientific advances in 2017 that we humans are a mighty force. Desiring to detect gravitational waves from some of the most impressive cosmic phenomena, scientists spent decades creating instruments sensitive enough to spot distance shifts smaller than a proton. After two neutron stars collided, researchers numbering in the thousands collaborated on a global scale to make sense of the data. When that Antarctic iceberg calved, scientists mobilized quickly to learn as much as possible about the remaining ice.

We’ve found innovative ways to treat challenging diseases (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of CAR-T cell therapy for certain blood cancers is our No. 8 story). We’ve gathered some of the clues necessary to begin to understand how climate change might affect nutrient availability (story No. 7). And despite our complex biology, we have figured out how to edit our DNA, changing our own lives and those of our children.

We might not have the power to collide neutron stars or to produce more gold than we could ever mold into jewelry, but with science, we have the tools to shape our lives and our planet. I’m both anxious and excited to see what we will do in 2018.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

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