Science is good at measuring progress — and where we fall short. Science News’ Top 10 stories of the year reflect that duality, from celebrating great achievements to highlighting problems we had hoped to avoid.
This was the year in which more than a decade of effort by hundreds of scientists who created a globe-spanning “telescope” to see the previously unseeable paid off. The Event Horizon Telescope captured the first image of a black hole. That now-iconic picture confirmed a fundamental theory of how our universe works (Einstein, still right) and opened up a new era of exploration, making it our top story of 2019.
That wasn’t the year’s only big milestone. Just seven years after its development, the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 moved into human clinical trials in the United States to see if the approach can treat cancer, blood disorders and an inherited form of blindness. And Google claimed quantum supremacy, saying it had created a qubit-based computer that could speedily solve a problem that would take a classical supercomputer thousands of years to do. That announcement provoked immediate pushback, but highlighted the groundwork being laid for the next big leap in quantum computing.
Yet for every advance, there are setbacks. In 2019, several countries officially lost a hard-earned public health achievement — the elimination of measles, defined as a year without continuously spreading infections. The United States racked up its most measles cases since achieving elimination in 2000, but managed to just barely hold on to that status: An aggressive public health campaign ended one outbreak just before its one-year anniversary.
Many other records we never wanted to see were set in 2019; temperatures spiked to all-time highs in hundreds of places in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to deadly heat waves, fires and droughts. Scientists have been warning of looming catastrophes fueled by climate change for years. Perhaps 2019 will be remembered as the year that message finally caught fire with the public. Climate protests, many led by teen activists, spread globally to include millions of people. Only time will tell if the rising tide of people demanding action on climate change will become the turning point we remember in years to come.
— Macon Morehouse, News Director
The Top 10 science stories of 2019
Portrait of a black hole
After more than a decade of work, results from the Event Horizon Telescope stunned the world this year with the first direct image of a black hole’s event horizon, the region beyond which not even light can escape. FULL STORY
In 2019, measles sickened more people in the United States than in any year since 1992. Two outbreaks in New York accounted for more than 75 percent of the cases. One of those outbreaks ran almost long enough to strip the United States of its measles elimination status, which it achieved in 2000. FULL STORY
This year, summer temperatures broke hundreds of all-time records, bringing unprecedented melting to Greenland and helping to fuel wildfires that raged across the Arctic. A stark report warned of a bleak future for Earth’s oceans and frozen regions. But climate scientists say that’s not 2019’s only takeaway: This year also saw record-breaking waves of climate activism. FULL STORY
Dangers of vaping
E-cigarettes have enjoyed a reputation of being relatively harmless, at least among the public. But that began to change in 2019, when the first reported lung injuries and deaths linked to vaping provided a stark corrective. FULL STORY
Discoveries reported in 2019 brought an ancient group of hominids called Denisovans into focus — but left plenty of room for interpretation. As fossils accumulate, investigators will grasp how Denisovan anatomy influenced the skeletal makeup of Denisovans’ occasional mating partners, including Homo sapiens. FULL STORY
CRISPR in clinical trials
This year, researchers in the United States began testing the gene editor CRISPR/Cas9 in people, a crucial first step in determining whether the technology can fulfill its medical promise. FULL STORY
Quantum supremacy claim
In October, researchers from Google claimed to have achieved a milestone known as quantum supremacy. But IBM researchers countered that Google hadn’t done anything special. The clash highlights the intense commercial interest in quantum computing, as companies jostle for position at the forefront of the field. FULL STORY
Biodiversity under fire
Some big numbers from nature made news in 2019. They were enough of a shock to get people talking about the dwindling diversity of plants, animals and other life on Earth, and what to do about it. FULL STORY
Return to the moon
After decades with almost no traffic to the moon, space agencies clamored to land probes on Earth’s nearest neighbor in 2019. And the moonshot renaissance is just getting started. FULL STORY
New depression drug
For the first time in decades, a fundamentally new drug became available for people with severe depression. But there are still big questions about the drug’s effectiveness and safety. FULL STORY