The Top 10 Science Stories of 2017

Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images

Scientific breakthroughs of 2017 truly spanned a gamut, manifesting themselves in nearly every discipline—cosmology, biology, and anthropology, to name a few. They ranged from astonishing revelations about Jupiter's famous rings to discovering a new continent on our own planet. Human cellular and embryonic sciences were in the limelight: Researchers fixed a disease-causing gene in human embryos in one experiment and grew human cells in pig embryos in another. Here on Earth, scientists achieved the first ever teleportation (of a particle). Far away, cosmic forces forged an enormous amount of gold, literally of galactic proportions—200 times the mass of our planet. Here are the top 10 most notable science stories of 2017.

1. WE FOUND SEVEN EARTH-LIKE PLANETS ORBITING A DIM STAR.

TRAPPIST-1 planetary system
NASA, Getty Images

We found not one but seven Earth-like planets, out of which three could potentially host life. Orbiting around a cool, dim star 39 light-years from us in the Trappist-1 system, these planets were detected through their eclipses—a brief dimming in their star's brightness when a planet passes in front of it. Although Trappist-1 looks more like Jupiter and its Galilean moons than our own solar system, its seven Earth-sized planets may have "terrestrial" conditions. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone with their surface temperatures allowing for water oceans and an Earth-like atmosphere to form.

So far, most planet-hunting efforts were focused on brighter stars and bigger planets. Trappist-1 is the first planetary system found to revolve around a smaller, dimmer star—and its discovery holds the potential to uncover many more exoplanets.

2. WE CUT A DISEASE-CAUSING MUTATION FROM HUMAN GENES.

Scientists have successfully used a gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, to clip out a mutated gene in human embryos, replacing it with a healthy copy. Called MYBPC3, the defective gene causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that can lead to sudden death in young people. While this was a stunning medical success, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique remains controversial among doctors, ethicists, and sociologists, who are concerned that attempts to build a better human could lead to dismal medical and social outcomes. When the study was published, an international committee of genetics experts issued a statement advising against editing any embryo intended for implantation into future mothers.

A different group of scientists managed to convert CRISPR into a fast, sensitive, and cheap diagnostic instrument for a range of diseases. Called SHERLOCK (for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing), this method turns CRISPR into a tool that can sniff out specific genetic information, such as abnormal RNA. Surprisingly inexpensive, SHERLOCK can cost less than a buck per sample, and can hunt down the RNA of disease agents like dengue fever or Zika virus, and even search for mutations that can cause cancer.

3. THE LARSEN C ICE SHELF BROKE, BECOMING ONE OF THE LARGEST ICEBERGS EVER.

Larsen C ice shelf
ESA, Getty Images

A giant piece of ice the size of Delaware broke off the Larsen ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, and is now adrift in the Weddell Sea. Weighting a trillion tons, it's one of the largest icebergs ever recorded.

Over the last few decades, the Larsen ice shelf went through major changes. The sections called Larsen A and B collapsed in 1995 and 2002. More recently, a rift along the Larsen C section was detected, and it grew slowly over two years—until it was hanging by a thread, and then finally split off.

The scientists say that while climate change is responsible for melting sea ice around the world, this particular fracture may have been inevitable. Ice shelves naturally break up as they extend further out into the ocean. Neither will the massive iceberg cause a sea level rise as it melts—the same way ice cubes melting in your gin and tonic do not increase the volume of water in that glass.

4. WE ACHIEVED TELEPORTATION (OF PHOTONS, AT LEAST).

Purely the stuff of science fiction until now, teleportation became possible this year. Although not yet able to teleport an entire human, Chinese scientists said they managed to teleport a photon particle from the ground to a satellite 870 miles away.

How does it work? Teleportation is transmitting the state of a thing rather than the thing itself. It's not unlike a fax machine, which sends information as various marks on a paper sheet rather than the sheet itself.

If you combine this idea with the concept of quantum entanglement, in which two particles are created at the same time and place, so they effectively have the same existence, you can shoot one of the particles far away, but they will remain entangled—meaning if one changes, its remote twin will change too. So it's not a Star Trek–type of teleportation, where you can transfer objects or people from one place to another, but more like having a doppelganger tethered to you far away.

Instead of sending marks on a paper sheet to a receiving-end fax machine, the Chinese scientists transmitted a bunch of photons. The team created 4000 pairs of quantum-entangled photons and fired one photon from each pair in a beam of light towards a satellite that can detect the quantum states of these single photons sent from the ground.

So why all the excitement if we still can't teleport people? For one thing, quantum teleportation offers possibilities of creating un-hackable communications networks. Any attempts to eavesdrop on a quantum system or intercept the info being sent would cause detectable disturbances.

5. WE DISCOVERED A WHOLE NEW CONTINENT.

You'd think Earth was completely mapped out by now, but this year, an international team of scientists discovered an entirely new continent down under. Called Zealandia, this eighth continent broke off Australia millions of years ago, containing New Zealand and New Caledonia, an island further up north. More than 90 percent of Zealandia is underwater, which is why it managed to evade geographers for so long.

The team drilled cores 4000 feet underwater and gathered more than 8000 rock and sediment samples and several hundred fossils. They discovered microscopic remains of organisms that lived in warm, shallow seas as well as spores and pollen from terrestrial plants, revealing that in the past parts of Zealandia used to be above sea level.

Besides their historical importance, these findings will help us understand the planet's future prospects. The fossilized records of Zealandia's past will provide more insight into the movement of Earth's tectonic plates and the global climate system, and contribute to the computer models used to predict future climate flukes.

6. WE FOUND A MYSTERIOUS VOID IN THE GREAT PYRAMID OF GIZA.

Using a new type of tomography that employs subatomic particles called muons, scientists generated 3D images of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the biggest in Egypt. The images, generated as part of the ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, revealed a surprising void, suggesting an inner structure.

Despite being studied for more than a century, the Great Pyramid of Giza, built more than 4500 years ago as a burial place of pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), is still full of mysteries waiting to be discovered. Muons, which are byproducts of cosmic rays, pass through stones better than x-rays or other similar technology do, so they work very well for peeking inside the inaccessible ancient structures. According to the images, the void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it—the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long area that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi described it. The discovery marks the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

7. WE GREW HUMAN CELLS IN PIGS.

baby piglet
iStock

Researchers from the Salk Institute successfully managed to grow human cells inside pig embryos. The goal was to better understand how to develop functional and transplantable tissue or organs.

The project actually consisted of two parts. During the first part, researchers created a cross between a rat and a mouse by implanting rat cells into mouse embryos. During the second part, the team used the same technique with human cells and non-human animal hosts—such as cows or pigs, since their organs are closer in size to our own. The second feat was harder to achieve since people and pigs are further apart from each other than mice and rats are, and pig embryos develop faster than human ones.

While the experiment was successful, the technology remains very controversial, as many experts fear it could potentially lead to human-animal chimeras.

8. WE WERE WRONG ABOUT JUPITER AND SENT CASSINI ON A SUICIDE MISSION TO SATURN.

The Juno mission aimed at exploring Jupiter, which reached the target in 2016, proved that much of what we thought we knew about this planet is wrong. Turns out Jupiter's famous bands do not continue to the north and south poles. Instead, the poles are characterized by chaotic swirls and ovular features, which are Texas-sized ammonia cyclones. Ammonia, which emanates from Jupiter's great depths, plays a role in the planet's atmosphere and weather, but its levels vary greatly between different areas. Scientists still don't know whether Jupiter has a core, but they know that the pressure inside the gas giant is so strong that hydrogen, which normally is a gas, has been squeezed into a metallic fluid. The other mystery Juno may help shed some light on is Jupiter's magnetosphere, which generates spectacular auroras that are different in nature from Earth's Northern Lights.

In September, scientists deliberately sacrificed the Cassini spacecraft, which ran out of fuel after decades-long exploration of our other cosmic neighbor, Saturn. Launched in 1997 and reaching its target seven years later, Cassini tremendously expanded our knowledge about Saturn, its satellites, and our entire solar system. Thanks to Cassini, we assessed the composition of Saturn's rings and discovered that it has six moons. More interestingly, it expanded our assumptions about the habitable planets' range. We learned that a moon named Titan holds methane lakes, which could harbor a different form of life, and may have subsurface water oceans, possibly with hydrothermal vents akin to those in the Earth's undersea crusts. Now that Cassini's mission is over, all eyes are on Juno.

9. WE WATCHED TWO NEURON STARS COLLIDE AND SPEW ENOUGH GOLD TO MAKE 200 EARTHS.

Astronomers watched a never-before-witnessed cosmic phenomenon: two dead stars merging into one. It was a head-on collision of two neutron stars, which are superdense remains of previously exploded stars.

As the two stars smashed into each other in a distant galaxy 130 million light-years from Earth, they emitted gravitational waves which began traveling outward like ripples on a pond. When the waves began their cosmic journey 130 million years ago, Earth was still ruled by dinosaurs, and the complex equipment necessary to observe this phenomenon didn't exist. However, the existence of such waves was predicted by Einstein, so by the time they reached Earth, the scientists were ready with their detectors—two in the United States and one in Italy.

Moments after the detectors noticed the waves, advanced space telescopes registered a high-energy light burst. Hours later, astronomers spotted a bright new point up in the sky, emitting infrared and ultraviolet light, followed by x-rays and radio waves days later. These observations informed scientists about a "kilonova" hypothesis, which postulates that neutron star collisions generate and spew out heavy elements like gold, silver, platinum, and uranium. The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, scientists say.

10. WE DISCOVERED HUMANS ARE 100,000 YEARS OLDER THAN WE THOUGHT.

facial reconstruction of 300,000-year-old skull found in Morocco
Gunz et al. in Nature, 2017

Until this year, modern humans were thought to have originated between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to the oldest-known fossils of Homo sapiens found in Ethiopia. But recently unearthed remains of five early H. sapiens were dated at 300,000 years old, making our species 100,000 years older than we thought.

The new fossils were found in Morocco, on the other side of the African continent and further north than Ethiopia. Researchers now think that our ancestors may not have originated in any one specific spot in Africa, but rather evolved across the entire continent.

Before the Sahara became a desert, it sprouted forests and plains, making it possible for early humans to travel across the continent. The early hominids were likely following and hunting herds of gazelles or other animals, evolving new cognitive skills along the way, which enabled them to create more complex tools and develop advanced social behaviors. So as they spread across Africa, these early humans acquired the very traits that later came to define our species.

How to Cook a Turkey for Thanksgiving, According to the Experts

iStock.com/mphillips007
iStock.com/mphillips007

In a letter written to his daughter Sally in 1784, two years after the bald eagle was chosen as the country’s national emblem, Ben Franklin referred to the species as a “bird of bad moral character” that steals fish from weaker birds. A turkey, he argued, was a “much more respectable bird.”

But many Americans have a difficult time cooking turkey. Despite their fine moral fiber, turkeys have a reputation for being among the trickiest of birds to prepare. They're big and bulky, and cooking turkey to a safe temperature can easily dry out the meat. Techniques like brining and spatchcocking—essentially snapping the turkey’s spine in order to lay it flat—are best left to advanced chefs. So how can holiday hosts cook turkey to everyone’s satisfaction?

GET TO KNOW YOUR THANKSGIVING TURKEY

A turkey is placed into an oven
iStock.com/GMVozd

It helps to understand what kind of fowl you’re dealing with. “The average Thanksgiving turkey is 12 or 14 pounds,” says Guy Crosby, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “That’s opposed to a 3- or 4-pound chicken. And dark meat tends to need a higher temperature to cook than white meat, which runs the risk of drying out the breast when you’re trying to get the rest of it cooked. People also want a nice, crisp brown skin. Balancing all of that with safety is a big challenge.”

Undercooking a turkey can be problematic, particularly if you’d prefer not to serve up a Petri dish of Salmonella to guests. The bacteria that causes food poisoning and all its unpleasant symptoms is commonly found in poultry and has even led to a recent 35-state outbreak of illness due to contaminated raw turkey products that were apparently mishandled by consumers. The good news? Cooking turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F will kill any germs lurking inside.

Still, you want to be careful in how you handle your raw materials. According to Sue Smith, co-director of the Butterball Turkey-Talk Line, you should avoid washing the turkey. “We don’t recommend it because there’s no reason,” Smith tells Mental Floss. “You don’t want [contaminated] water to splatter around the countertops.”

BRINE A TURKEY UNDER ITS SKIN

If you bought your turkey frozen, let it thaw breast-side up for four days in your refrigerator. (A good rule of thumb is one day for every four pounds of weight.) Place the bird in a pan and put it on the bottom shelf so no juices leak on to other shelves or into food.

Once it’s thawed, you can consider an additional step, and one that might make for a juicier bird. Rather than brine the entire turkey—which allows it to soak up saltwater to retain more moisture during cooking—you can opt to moisten the meat with a 1:1 salt and sugar mixture under the skin.

“Turkeys are so darn big that brining it is not something you can do conveniently in a fridge,” Crosby tells Mental Floss. “If you want to add salt to a turkey, the general recommendation is to salt it under the skin.” Crosby advises to use the salt and sugar blend anywhere meat is prone to drying out, like the breast. Let it rest in the fridge for 24 hours, uncovered. (That’s one day in addition to thawing. But check to make sure your turkey didn’t already come pre-brined.)

This accomplishes a few things. By adding salt to the meat, you’re going to let the meat retain more moisture than it would normally. (Cooking effectively squeezes water from muscle tissue, wringing the bird of its natural moisture.) By leaving it uncovered in the fridge, you’re letting the skin get a little dry. That, Crosby says, can encourage the Maillard reaction, a chemical response to heat in excess of 300 degrees that transforms amino acids and sugar, resulting in a tasty brown skin.

Once your bird is ready for roasting, Smith advises you to place the bird on a flat, shallow pan with a rack that raises it 2 or 3 inches. “The rack lets airflow get around the bottom,” she says. If you don’t have a flat rack, you can use carrots, celery, or even rolled tin foil to give the turkey a little boost off the pan.

COOK TURKEY TO A SAFE TEMPERATURE

Sliced turkey is served on a plate
iStock.com/cobraphoto

A 12- to 14-pound turkey will need to roast for roughly 3 hours at 350°F in order to cook thoroughly. But you’ll want to be sure by using a food thermometer. Both Smith and Crosby caution against trusting the disposable pop-up thermometers that come pre-inserted in some turkeys. Invest in a good oven-safe meat thermometer and plunge it right into the deepest space between the drumstick and thigh and get it to a safe 175 to 180 degrees. (The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends heating it to no less than 165 degrees.) “By that point, the breast will be over 180 degrees,” Crosby says. If you’ve stuffed the turkey—and roughly half of people do, according to Butterball research—make sure it’s cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Once your bird is done, let it sit out for 35 to 45 minutes. The turkey will retain enough heat that it won’t get cold (don't cover it with tin foil, because the crispy skin will get soggy). Instead, a cooling-off period allows the muscle fibers to reabsorb juices and the salt and sugar to bring out more of the flavor.

REHEAT LEFTOVER TURKEY SLOWLY

When it’s time to put the leftovers away, be sure to keep slicing. Individual portions will cool down more quickly than if you shoved the entire bird into the fridge. Eat them within two or three days. If you want to keep it from drying out during reheating, Crosby suggests putting the meat into a covered baking dish with some vegetables, potatoes, or gravy and using the oven on low heat or a saucepan on the stovetop. “You’ll retain more moisture the slower you reheat it,” he says.

Roasting isn’t the only approach, as some of your friends or family members may attest. In addition to the brutal triumph of spatchcocking, some people opt to deep-fry turkeys, grill them, or slice them up into pieces prior to cooking. There’s no wrong way, but roasting will give you the most predictable results.

“Roasting is Butterball’s preferred method,” Smith says. “It consistently turns out a tender, juicy turkey.” Or, as Ben Franklin would say, a much more respectable bird.

6 Factors That Determine Whether or Not You Remember Your Dreams

iStock
iStock

Within the scientific community, dreams are still something of a mystery. Many experiments have been conducted and many theories have been put forth, but researchers still don’t fully understand why or how we dream. Further complicating matters is the fact that everyone dreams, but some people never remember their subconscious escapades.

However, improvements in brain imaging and recent physiological studies have brought us one step closer to answering the question of why some people remember their dreams more than others. There’s no simple, definitive explanation, “but there are a number of things that correlate,” Dr. Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep, tells Mental Floss. Barrett shared a few of the factors that can affect your dream recall.

1. SEX

Women, on average, recall more dreams than men. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but Barrett says it could be a biological or hormonal difference. Alternatively, women might be more cognizant of their dreams because they tend to be more interested in dreams in general. However, Barrett notes that differences between men and women in regard to dream recall are “modest” and that there are greater differences within each sex than between the sexes. In other words: There are plenty of women with low dream recall and plenty of men with high dream recall.

2. AGE

As we get older, it often gets harder to recall our dreams. Your ability to remember dreams improves in late childhood and adolescence, and tends to peak in your twenties, Barrett says. After that point, people often experience a gradual drop-off in dream recall. However, there are exceptions, and people sometimes experience the opposite.

3. PERSONALITY

Again, this is by no means a prescriptive rule, but there seems to be a correlation between certain personality traits and high dream recall. "More psychologically-minded people tend to have higher dream recall, and people who are more practical and externally focused tend to have lower recall," Barrett says. In addition, better dream recall has a “mild correlation” with better recall while completing certain memory tasks during waking hours, according to Barrett.

4. AMOUNT OF SLEEP

The amount of sleep one gets on average is one of the most important factors related to dream recall. People dream every 90 minutes during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle. However, those REM periods get longer throughout the night, meaning that you’re doing the most dreaming toward the morning—generally right before you wake up. If you only sleep four hours instead of eight, you’re only getting about 20 percent of your dream time. For this reason, some people report remembering more of their dreams on the weekend, when they have the chance to catch up on sleep.

5. BRAIN ACTIVITY

Thanks to brain imaging, scientists now have a better idea of which parts of the brain are associated with dreaming. A part of the brain that processes information and emotions is more active in people who remember their dreams more often, according to a 2014 study. This region toward the back of the brain, called the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), may help people pay more attention to external stimuli. In turn, this may promote something called instrasleep wakefulness.

"This may explain why high dream recallers are more reactive to environmental stimuli, awaken more during sleep, and thus better encode dreams in memory than low dream recallers," Dr. Perrine Ruby told the International Business Times. "Indeed, the sleeping brain is not capable of memorizing new information; it needs to awaken to be able to do that."

Higher activity in the TPJ and another region of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) might also "promote the mental imagery and/or memory encoding of dreams," researchers wrote in the study's abstract.

More recently, in 2017, researchers discovered that high dream recall is also linked to higher activity toward the front of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with abstract thinking, so it makes sense that it has been linked to dream recall and lucid dreaming (being aware that one is dreaming), Barrett says.

6. RESPONSE TO EXTERNAL STIMULI

In a similar vein, people who remember their dreams more frequently also tend to exhibit more brain activity after hearing their name spoken aloud while they’re awake, according to a 2013 study. Upon hearing their names, a group of “high recallers,” who remember their dreams almost every night, experienced a greater decrease in a brain wave called the alpha wave than a group of “low recallers,” who remember their dreams once or twice a month. This decrease in alpha waves is likely preceded by an increase in brain activity upon hearing their names. Essentially, people with greater dream recall tend to experience activity in more regions of their brain in response to sounds. According to Barrett, there may be an evolutionary explanation for this.

“Evolution wants us to get restorative sleep but it also wanted us to wake up to danger and check it out and be able to go back to sleep quickly afterwards,” she says. Think of the all the dangers our prehistoric ancestors had to deal with, and it's clear that this response is important for survival. In essence, high recallers are “probably just a little more aware and watching during their dream, and that helps make it a long-term memory.”

So what can you do to help you remember your dreams? It may sound simple, but before you go to bed, think to yourself, “I’m going to remember my dreams tonight.” The very act of thinking about dreaming can make a big difference.

“You could say that just reading this article is somewhat more likely to make you recall a dream tonight,” Barrett says. “People who are taking a class on dreams or reading a book on dreams—any short-term intervention of paying more attention to them—tends to create a short-term blip in dream recall.”

When you first wake up, don’t do anything except lie in bed and try to recall any dreams you had. If something comes back to you, write it down or use a voice recorder to crystallize your thoughts. Dreams are still in your short-term memory when you wake up, so they’re fragile and easy to forget.

If you don’t remember anything, Barrett says it’s still helpful to assess how you feel when you first awaken. Are you happy, sad, or anxious? “Sometimes if you just stay with whatever emotion or little bit of content you woke up with,” she says, “a dream will come rushing back.”

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