In the race for Top Science Story of 2014, some of the contenders stumbled before reaching the finish line.
A South Pole–based experiment called BICEP2 appeared to hit a Nobel-winning home run in March, with researchers proclaiming the detection of gravitational wave imprints in radiation left over from the Big Bang. But upon further review, galactic dust may have been responsible for the signal instead. In November, the Rosetta mission’s robotic comet lander Philae appeared to score a touchdown, but there was a flag on the play. Rather than anchoring itself securely on the comet’s surface, Philae bounced twice, ending up in the shade of a cliff. Without the sunshine needed to recharge its batteries, Philae’s mission was drastically shortened. And a supposed advance in stem cell research announced in January turned into a tragic case of science insufficiently scrutinized. The papers were retracted in July.
Still, there was plenty of good science news in 2014. The planet-hunting space probe Kepler, given up for dead the previous year, was revived by a clever plan to restore its balance using pressure from sunlight. Analysis of Kepler data already collected provided hundreds of new planets to contemplate, while the new K2 mission began to search for even more planets and to study asteroids and star clusters. And evidence for active plate tectonics on Europa buoyed hopes that the solar system possesses another place besides Earth that might support some form of life.
As for the year’s top story, it combined bad with sad. An epidemic of Ebola struck West Africa and initiated an epidemic of fear elsewhere, as scientists grappled with both medical and policy issues. The Ebola outbreak was a sign not only of science and society’s combined shortcomings, but of the need for more and better science to confront the problems that society faces.