What We Learned in 2017

Eclipse-watchers on Nye Beach in Newport, Ore., on Aug. 21.

It’s impossible to say that any particular scientific development was the most important in a given year. But if we had to choose some highlights, we’d opt for these unforgettable events and findings. (Find the year in climate change news here.)

We learned that nothing brings people together like the sun hiding behind the moon.

Credit...Toni Greaves for The New York Times

On Aug. 21,the country came to a pause as millions of Americanseven the president — put on eclipse glasses and stopped to take in the first eclipse to cross the United States since 1918. Its path across the United States was a scientific bonanza for astronomers who were able tomore easily point advanced equipment at the sun. It’s not too soon to start making your plans for the 2024 solar eclipse.

We learned that you can never turn a wolf into a pet dog.

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Scientists aren’t entirely sure how wolves evolved into dogs, but new research into the genetic and social behavior of wolf pups may offer some clues.CreditCredit...Renaud Philippe for The New York Times

James Gorman, a Times reporter, accompanied scientists who are trying to understand the genes that distinguish dogs from wolves. Humans who raise wolf puppies must spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with them in order to socialize these puppies for scientific study. And while the pups may seem cute, they will grow to be predatory wolves, not humanity’s faithful companions. The researchers hope their work will help reveal the trigger that made some ancient wolves into the dogs we know today.

We learned about fetal surgery’s potential to change lives.

A Times reporter, Denise Grady, went inside an operating room to observe an experimental technique to treat severe spina bifida in a 24-week-old fetus. The doctors performing the surgery hope it will result in superior outcomes for children born with the disorder. Their first 28 surgeries have seen good results so far. Jan. 14 is the due date for the mother who was the subject of the article.

We learned about the power of human ingenuity in our solar system’s deep reaches.

The Cassini spacecraft has been sending home images of Saturn, its rings and its moons since arriving at the gas giant in 2004. The mission ended in September with a planned fiery crash into Saturn’s atmosphere. While it studied the planet, Cassini explored moons — Titan and Enceladus — that could be home to extraterrestrial life. The probe also gave us great insight into our solar system, and will continue to do so for years as scientists pore over the data it collected.

We learned that animals may make choices based on aesthetics.

Why does beauty exist? To answer this question, Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist, is working to revive an idea advanced by Charles Darwin: the attractiveness of an animal to another of its species isn’t only tied to fitness and good genes. Rather, animals — especially birds in Dr. Prum’s work — are making subjective decisions. He hopes that evolutionary biologists will stop “explaining away desire.”

We learned that there is new hope for Africans with treatable cancers.

Major pharmaceutical companies, working with the American Cancer Society, will steeply discount cancer drugs for patients in African countries. Cancer kills 450,000 people across the continent each year, but many types here are among the most treatable: breast, cervical and prostate tumors. The new initiative to provide medication is modeled on efforts to bring cheap AIDS drugs to Africa, but the effort also aims to help overcome the shortage of oncologists there.

We learned about the causes and consequences of rising obesity around the world.

Makers of processed food, soda and fast food see markets in the developing world as their greatest growth opportunities. At the same time, obesity rates and weight-related illnesses are on the rise in developing countries. An ongoing series of articles examined the interaction of these two trends, starting with cases in Brazil, Ghana and Colombia. Taken together, these stories reveal “a new global food order, and a new health crisis.

We learned that there could be more solar systems with planets like ours.

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These new Earth-size planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1 about 40 light years from Earth. Some of them could have water on their surfaces.CreditCredit...NASA/JPL-Caltech

The cool red dwarf star, Trappist-1, is 40 light years from Earth. Of its seven planets, three could be at the right distance to contain oceans of water and may have the right conditions for life. While astronomers have detected planets around many stars in the Milky Way, this system was the first known to host so many planets with possibilities for life.

We learned about a warehouse that is like a mausoleum for endangered species.

When contraband goods made from prohibited wildlife are seized in the United States, they find their way to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver. Pictures taken by Tristan Spinski from inside the facility — shoes made of leopard skin, a lamp made with zebra hooves, a sea turtle’s skull, an elephant foot stool — “testify to the human appetite for other species,” Rachel Nuwer wrote for The Times in July.

We learned about the lingering toll of this frightening epidemic.

Late last year, the World Health Organization declared that Zika virus was no longer a global emergency. But the disease’s effects on babies who may live for decades are only beginning to be understood. In northeastern Brazil, where links between the virus and birth defects like microcephaly were first detected, families struggle to give the best lives possible to stricken babies. Researchers hope to find clues about the virus’s effects on the fetus by studying pairs of twins in Brazil in which one was born with birth defects and the other was not.

We learned that we could see a source of ripples in space-time.



Detecting a Kilonova Explosion

For the first time, astronomers have seen and heard a pair of neutron stars collide in a crucible of cosmic alchemy.

130 million years ago, while dinosaurs still walked the Earth, a pair of dead stars collided. The explosion rattled spacetime and sent waves of light across the universe. On August 17, 2017, light from that explosion appeared as a bright pinprick in the galaxy NGC 4993, then faded to a glowing red ember. Ripples of traumatized spacetime from the distant explosion squeezed and stretched the L-shaped arms of the LIGO and Virgo gravitational-wave detectors. Converted to sound waves, the ripples produced a faint rising chirp. Two seconds later, NASA’s Fermi space telescope detected a gamma ray burst. A brief glint of high-energy radiation from one of the most violent events in nature. Astronomers raced to point their telescopes before the precious light faded away. First on the scene was the Swope telescope in Chile. Right on its heels was the nearby Dark Energy Camera. The antennas of the Very Large Array strained to record radio emissions from the fireball. Even the Hubble space telescope turned its peerless mirror toward NGC 4993. Within hours, the distant explosion had become one of the most observed events in recent astronomical history. Astronomers think the story began with a pair of massive stars that were orbiting each other. The larger star ran out of fuel and collapsed into a dense neutron star. Neutron stars are the densest visible objects in the universe, spinning dervishes bristling with powerful magnetic fields. A teaspoonful of this starstuff would weigh as much as Mount Everest. The intense gravity of the neutron star began to steal gas from its aging sister star. The swirl of hot gas dragged the two stars together until the neutron star began orbiting inside its sister, shredding its outer layers into a swirling cloud of elements. But the sister star survived this mutilation, and eventually exploded, too. Collapsing into a second neutron star. The fuse was now lit for one final cataclysm. Twin spheres of incredible density were now locked in an ever tightening dance of doom. Shedding energy in the form of gravitational waves, the two neutron stars spiralled closer and closer, faster and faster. And finally merged in a moment of astrophysical ecstasy. A kilonova explosion. A crucible for cosmic alchemy. The swirling cloud of superheated atoms was bombarded with neutrons, forging new atoms of gold and platinum and other heavy elements. Scientists think most of the precious metals in the universe were created in kilonova explosions like these. When black holes collide there is nothing to see, though LIGO can hear the chirp from their gravitational waves. But neutron stars are visible matter, and collide within a glowing cloud. This was the first gravitational-wave catastrophe that astronomers saw as well as heard. Our first glimpse of the mysterious physics inside neutron stars. And a first fleeting glimpse of a cosmic mint in the sky.

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For the first time, astronomers have seen and heard a pair of neutron stars collide in a crucible of cosmic alchemy.CreditCredit...Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

Astronomers confirmed a key of part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 2016 when they announced that the LIGO array had detected gravitational waves released by the collision of two black holes. The researchers won a Nobel Prize for the discovery. But they’re not done: In October, scientists announced the finding of two dead stars colliding — not only hearing the ripples in space-time they made, but confirming the event visually with powerful telescopes. Collisions of neutron stars are believed to be the source of all heavy metals in the universe, including gold and silver, and the detection by LIGO helps verify accepted explanations of how the chemistry of the universe formed.

We learned it’s challenging to contain the spread of an old S.T.D.

For decades, syphilis was considered a sexually transmitted disease of the past. But a fast-spreading outbreak in Oklahoma City confirmed public health data showing syphilis on the rise again in the United States, spreading as a consequence of the heroin and methamphetamine epidemics.Investigators in the conservative state’s capital raced for months this year to contain the disease, turning to tools like Facebook to find infected people and get them into treatment.

We learned that even addicted mothers are needed by their newborns.

In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of babies born dependent on drugs, especially opioids. Such babies are often taken from their mothers, who struggle to visit them as they wrestle with their addictions. But a growing body of evidence suggests that separating these babies from their mothers slows the infants’ recovery. The difficulties of one mother in Kentucky, Jamie Clay, underscored the complicated balance of recovery for both mother and child in America’s epidemic of opioid addiction.


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