Maybe 2016 hasn’t been a great year in general, but at least for science it has. A year full of discoveries: expected, missed, surprising. From Solar System exploration to the frontiers of artificial intelligence, from the atomically small to the immensely big, it has been a busy year!
Here’s my personal top 5 news of this year. Sit back. Enjoy.
5: ExoMars & Schiaparelli
In March, he European Space Agency (ESA, in collaboration with the Russian Roscosmos) launched the first part of its ExoMars mission. Launch went great, the arrival (in October) somewhat less: while the TGO satellite positioned itself perfectly in orbit, the Schiaparelli lander crashed on the ground instead of softly landing.
The goal of ExoMars (a two-part mission, the next is scheduled for 2020) is chiefly to look for signs of life on Mars.
World robot domination is coming! DeepMind, a Google department of sort, that deals in artificial intelligence (AI) created AlphaGo, an AI that plays Go. This ancient Chinese game was one of the last in which machines hadn’t quite made it through yet.
Curiously, DeepMind researchers did not program AlphaGo to play Go, rather to learn by observing human players. Analyzing a vast sample of tournament-level matches, AlphaGo developed an “intuition”—so to say—for the game. And crushed the world champion.
3: The antimatter spectrum
Right at the end of the year came a piece of news that shoots straight to the podium: researchers at CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research) measured the spectrum of an anti-hydrogen atom.
The researchers created and kept under control bona fide atoms, with “protons”, “electrons”, and whatnot, but made of antimatter. They also made the positrons (the “electrons” of antimatter) jump from one energy level to another and measured the emitted light (the spectrum). They determined that anti-atoms work just like atoms of conventional matter.
It isn’t surprising, but nobody was sure until now, because nobody ever managed to do this experiment to check.
This is amazing news, which deserves more extensive explanations: stay tuned!
During summer came one of my favorite stories ever: the discovery of Proxima b.
This planet orbits very close to Proxima Centauri, a small star, which is also the closest one to the Sun. Not only that: the first data suggest that the planet should have a solid, rocky surface and be about as large and as massive as Earth.
Ant that’s not even all! Proxima b is dead on in the “habitable zone”, the area where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for water to remain liquid on the surface, which is necessary for life as we know it.
1: Gravitational waves
I suspect this was pretty obvious… Hard to pick anything else as the top discovery of the year. Through a long and winding road of expectations, speculations and rumors, we finally observed gravitational waves directly!
Gravitational waves are small perturbations in the fabric of space-time. When objects move in space in a certain way, they produce this waves. Once generated, the waves travel through space at the speed of light, stretching and compressing space itself in their wake.
They are a consequence of Einstein’s hypotheses, which make up the theory of General Relativity (our best description yet of gravity and space-time). Their effect is tiny, so very tiny you need unprecedentedly sensitive instruments to measure it, even if the event raising the waves is a cosmic cataclysm like two black holes colliding.
Observing gravitational waves means we can now measure the universe beyond electromagnetic waves (visible light, radio waves, X-rays…). Researchers compared it to being able to hear the universe after being able to only see it. It’s a whole new way to do astronomy.
Speaking of hearing, here’s a nice audio clip of what gravitational waves would sound like if we could hear them (and yes, it is a little funny).
More nice stories:
Because picking five was a bit reductive! So here’s—in no particular order—more space missions (with more or less happy endings), an unusual Nobel prize, and discoveries (successful or not) in particle accelerators around the world.
- The new periodic table – Nihonium, Moscovium, Tennessine, and Oganesson are the four new elements, announced in January, which filled the last row of the periodic table.
- The end of Rosetta – After two years filled with discovery and adventure, the European probe Rosetta ended its mission around comet 67P. The probe was made to crash on the surface.
- A Nobel prize to theory – This year’s Nobel prize went to the authors of the theory of topological phase transitions. The coveted prize rarely goes to purely theoretical discoveries, but this one seems particularly promising.
- No new particle – Data from last year hinted to the possibility of a new particle being discovered at CERN. New data disproved the hypothesis.
- The Juno mission – NASA’s Juno probe reached Jupiter, whose atmosphere it will study. Despite some issues, that prevented it to get in the right orbit around the planet, Juno’s observations are underway.
Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about that in the comments!
Copver photo: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL