Science News drew over 21 million visitors to our website this year. Here’s a rundown of the most-read news stories and long reads of 2021.
Top news stories
1. Space station detectors found the source of weird ‘blue jet’ lightning
Instruments on the International Space Station detected the origins of an odd type of lightning called a blue jet. The bizarre bolt is sparked by a “blue bang” — a flash of bright blue light that may be brought on by the turbulent mixing of oppositely charged regions within a thundercloud (SN: 2/13/21, p. 14).
2. A newfound quasicrystal formed in the first atomic bomb test
The first atomic bomb test, in 1945, forged a peculiar, glassy material called trinitite — and within it, a rare form of matter called a quasicrystal. Quasicrystals’ atoms are arranged in an orderly structure like normal crystals, but the structure’s pattern doesn’t repeat (SN: 6/19/21, p. 12).
3. An Indigenous people in the Philippines have the most Denisovan DNA
The Ayta Magbukon people in the Philippines set the record for the highest known level of Denisovan ancestry — about 5 percent of their DNA comes from the ancient hominids. The finding suggests that several Denisovan populations independently reached Southeast Asia and interbred with Homo sapiens groups that arrived thousands of years later (SN: 9/11/21, p. 16).
4. Astronomers may have seen a star gulp down a black hole and explode
In a first, astronomers caught a glimpse of a rare double cosmic cannibalism: A star swallowed a black hole or neutron star, which then gobbled that star from within, resulting in an astonishing explosion (SN: 10/9/21 & 10/23/21, p. 6).
5. Frog skin cells turned themselves into living machines
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Skin stem cells plucked from frog embryos organized themselves into miniature living robots, dubbed “xenobots,” that can swim, move around debris and even self-heal. Xenobots may one day serve a useful purpose, but ethical questions need to be considered (SN: 4/24/21, p. 8).
Top feature stories
1. New drugs that block a brain chemical are game changers for some migraine sufferers
A class of drugs that inhibits a neurotransmitter called calcitonin gene-related peptide is helping some patients who suffer from chronic, debilitating migraines (SN: 3/27/21, p. 16).
2. Einstein’s theory of general relativity unveiled a dynamic and bizarre cosmos
Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity has served as the bedrock of our understanding of the cosmos. In the last 100 years, scientists have confirmed its most radical predictions, including black holes, gravitational waves and an expanding universe (SN: 2/13/21, p. 16).
3. Chemists are reimagining recycling to keep plastics out of landfills
No matter people’s dedication to sorting and recycling plastics, most still end up in landfills because the materials are too difficult to transform into useful new products. Some chemists are trying to change that (SN: 1/30/21, p. 20).
4. Psychology has struggled for a century to make sense of the mind
In the last 100 years, psychologists and other social scientists have dug into the muddy “science of us” and developed conflicting theories about human thought and behavior. From the messy, contentious research bloomed insights into what makes humans tick (SN: 8/14/21, p. 18).
5. Fossils and ancient DNA paint a vibrant picture of human origins
From the Taung Child to Lucy, the last century of paleoanthropology has sketched a rough timeline of how humans came to be. Scientists now agree that human evolution has its roots in Africa, but many mysteries in our history remain to be solved (SN: 9/25/21, p. 20).