Colliding neutron stars, gene editing, human origins and more top stories of 2017

A gravitational wave discovery is the year’s biggest science story — again

illustration of neutron star collision


CI Lab/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In science, progress rarely comes in one big shebang. Well, it has now, two years running. The first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves, our top story in 2016, launched a long-dreamed-of kind of astronomy capable of “unlocking otherwise unknowable secrets of the cosmos,” as physics writer Emily Conover puts it. 2017’s key event: a never-before-seen neutron star collision that immediately validated some theories in physics and killed others. And so a new way to probe cosmic mysteries wins our top spot again this year.

Another turning point is coming, and maybe soon, via CRISPR/Cas9, a biotechnology that holds the promise of curing genetic diseases (and the peril of making permanent, heritable tweaks). Nearly five years after the gene-editing tool debuted, researchers for the first time have used it to alter genes in viable human embryos. That’s a big advance, and worthy of the No. 2 spot.

Don’t be fooled, though. Even eureka moments like these are the fruits of the slow build of progress: Fossil by fossil, paleoanthropologists draw a picture of Homo sapiens’ earliest days. Brain by brain, the extent of damage caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a disease linked to hard head knocks — becomes clear.

And crack by crack, one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded calves. That story, No. 3 on our list, is not exactly progress, but it’s surely an opportunity to make scientific headway. Teams racing to Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf will have an unprecedented chance to collect real-time data on how the remaining ice reacts and to reveal secrets of a long-hidden ecosystem. Building on those advances, as well as others described in our Top 10 picks, will fuel “aha!” moments — both revolutionary and incremental — well into the future. — Macon Morehouse, News Director

The Top 10 Stories of 2017

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society