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Revisiting the science stories that made us cry, think and say ‘OMG’ in 2017

2017 eclipse, as seen in Oregon

OMG THE ECLIPSE  The solar eclipse that crossed the United States on August 21, 2017, caught the attention and enthusiasm of millions of people across the country  — including the staff of Science News.

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Watch the SN staff sum up 2017

Our Top 10 stories of 2017 cover the science that was earthshaking, field-advancing or otherwise important. But choosing our favorite stories requires some different metrics.

Here are some of our staff’s favorites from 2017, selected for their intrigue, their power, their element of surprise — or because they were just really, really fun.

Stories that moved us

“The eclipse the eclipse the eclipse omg the eclipse.”

Astronomy writer Lisa Grossman didn’t hesitate in her e-mail reply when I asked for everyone’s personal favorites of the year.

For the Great American Eclipse, Lisa wrote a 10-part preview of questions scientists would pursue during totality. She then traveled to Wyoming for the eclipse itself, reporting from a Baptist summer camp–turned-observatory. The whole experience was surprisingly emotional, Lisa says, and one that has stuck with her. “I keep looking at the sun now and thinking about how all that beautiful gossamer structure is there, all the time, and we just can’t see it. And how lucky we are that the moon is just the size and distance it is, so that we can experience this.”

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The Cassini spacecraft’s journey to Saturn also struck an emotional chord with the SN staff. “Cassini crashing into Saturn wins the award for ‘2017 science event that made me cry the most,’” says staff writer Laurel Hamers. After traveling 4.9 billion miles over nearly 20 years, the spacecraft dove into Saturn’s atmosphere and vaporized. “It was a very human drama about a machine,” says audience engagement editor Mike Denison. “It was the sort of science story even a layman like me can get very invested in.”

At its core, Cassini’s mission was basic exploration — the same drive that made the moon landing so captivating. “It’s amazing that there is still so much of our solar system we haven’t explored directly, and the goodies from that mission and the final dive will be reported for years to come,” writes acting editor in chief Beth Quill. “Plus, I love the narrative potential of a spacecraft that sacrifices itself.”

Physics writer Emily Conover’s personal favorite was also our No. 1 story, the detection of two neutron stars colliding — a finding that she had predicted. “I’m patting myself on the back a little bit for that,” she says.

“It was a lot of fun to think about how we’ve detected something completely new and confirmed that some of the tangible stuff around us, like the gold in my wedding ring, came from collisions like that,” she adds. “It’s one of those stories that if you think about it hard enough, it makes you feel like a very small part in a giant, wonderful, fascinating universe.”

Stories that surprised us

We spend our days devouring science, combing scientific journals, interviewing scientists, attending meetings and reading science news in other publications. You’d think very little would surprise us. Not true.

Maria Temming’s story on the discovery of a mysterious void in the Great Pyramid of Giza was one of our most-read stories of the year. By placing detectors throughout the pyramid to measure subatomic particles called muons, researchers discovered a previously unknown cavity inside the pyramid. “The topic was this beautiful juxtaposition of modern, cutting-edge technology — as in the muon detectors — with the ancient technology of pyramid construction,” says Maria, SN’s technology writer. “It’s also kind of hilarious to think that the Great Mysterious Thing in this story is not the high-energy particles from outer space — that’s the thing we’ve got a handle on!”

Science News for Students managing editor and Wild Things blogger Sarah Zielinski has a keen eye for amazing animal stories, so her pick for a favorite story surprised me: It was our May story and infographic on how an asteroid impact would kill you. “You assume that you know what an asteroid impact would do,” Sarah says, “but it turns out that your assumptions are completely wrong.”

Senior writer Tina Hesman Saey has been covering molecular and developmental biology for more than a decade, but was surprised when a new study overturned the idea that female is the default sex in developing mammals, and that only male tissues have to be actively built. A study she reported on this year found that male structures must be demolished to set off female development. “I was amazed that no one knew a basic of developmental biology: that development of female reproductive organs is an active process,” Tina says.

sea spider
A story about circulation in sea spiders takes the surprise prize for biology writer Susan Milius. “I had never written a story about them, so they were on my taxonomic bucket list,” she says. It turns out that oxygen-rich blood circulates up and down the animal’s legs as contractions move bits of food through the digestive tract in the legs. “It’s circulation by gut lump!” Susan says. “This still blows me away.”

The story of how the house mouse came to live with people was a favorite for Science News for Students writer and Scicurious blogger Bethany Brookshire. “It was something I’d never thought of before and it was interesting to find how just how much we were affecting the species around us, even the littlest ones!”  

Graphic designer Tracee Tibbitts highlighted two more, well, animalistic animal stories: One about a coconut crab attacking a bird, and one about gulls eating hookworms from seals’ feces — directly from the source. “We see a lot of cute animal stories online that give us warm fuzzies or a ‘they’re just like us!’ reaction,” Tracee says. “But both of these stories remind us that — NOPE. Animals are still wild and out there fighting each other for food and resources and survival.”

Stories that intrigued, for better or worse

The gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 caught Beth’s attention this year, “though I would say that last year and would say it again next year,” she says. “It is especially interesting to me to watch a technology from its infancy and understand the twists and turns it takes, all the ways it’s used and the ethical implications that arise.”

CRISPR made our Top 10 list this year as Tina had predicted in 2016. “I was right that CRISPR would still be a thing,” Tina says.

But Susan hadn’t expected CRISPR to creep into her beat as well. “What I missed by light-years was how fast CRISPR would cease to be just Tina’s business and become a matter that someone writing about conservation, ecology and real outdoor evolution has to watch,” Susan says. In an in-depth story on ticks, Susan described preliminary work to engineer mice using CRISPR gene editing to curb the spread of the Lyme disease parasite. “It might happen in six or seven years, and at the current speed, gene editing for wild, free-roaming organisms may, for better or worse — or both — be a real thing,” Susan says. “I certainly see the need for caution, but wow, are the possibilities changing fast.”

Stories scientists tell

Part of the fun of many of the stories we cover is talking to the researchers who do the work. “I had so much fun interviewing scientists for [the neutron star collision] story,” Emily says. “Some of the members of LIGO were practically losing their minds about how amazing the detection was. It was so easy to get caught up in the excitement.”

Tina got a chance to talk to planetary scientists and astrochemists — not her usual crowd — for a news story on a molecule on Saturn’s moon Titan that could be a key building block for any strange life-forms that might exist in the moon’s frigid methane lakes. In 2016, Tina had written a feature story on what alien life might look like, and in it described computer simulations of a molecule that could form bubblelike structures that resemble cell membranes. The new work showed that the molecule actually does exist on Titan. “It was a thrill to see that one prediction about truly alien life might come true,” Tina says.

Laurel enjoyed talking to scientists trying to create better surgical adhesives inspired by slugs, worms and other critters. “People who study weird slime-making animals give the best interviews,” she says.

Associate editor Cassie Martin had a challenging time getting in touch with a scientist for a piece on the cholera epidemic in Yemen. “Finding a scientist and health worker in the war-torn country without actually traveling there took a lot of time and determination,” Cassie says. Once she did, though, she learned more than she expected. “I learned so much about what was happening not only with the epidemic, but about how war affects the scientific enterprise.”

For a video story on the anniversary of the detection of supernova 1987A, web producer Helen Thompson talked to Ian Shelton, who discovered the stellar explosion. The video told the story of the night of the discovery and reviewed all the insights the explosion has given to astronomy. The video also featured Shelton’s voice — and his likeness, in Claymation form. “I got to do a video that combined Claymation and glitter, which are my two favorite things,” Helen says.

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The story of the moment

You know when someone asks you what your favorite TV show is, and the show that springs to mind is the one you’re binge-watching right now? That often happens with our favorite science stories. Behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower is putting the finishing touches on a feature story, due out early next year, on fantasy and reality in children’s play. Today, it’s his favorite. “It brings together psychology, anthropology/ethnography and archaeology, an interdisciplinary service that journalists can provide because scientists rarely do,” Bruce says.

For biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham, it’s all of the stories. “The majority of the stories I’ve written this year have met my criteria for why I do this work: to talk to interesting people, learn cool science and share what I find out.”

And that’s what we love about the work that we do. Here’s to 2018 and all the moving, surprising, intriguing, fascinating stories it will bring.

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