Here’s the science you loved most this year
The latest findings in science can be huge. Scientists might discover what killed the dinosaurs or find a new solar system. Some scientific findings may seem small by comparison. How our phone affects our sleep or why onions make us cry may not seem like such a big deal. But in our day-to-day lives? They can make a huge difference.
Our readers this year loved lots of science stories. Some were big deals, like dinosaurs or weather control. Others were more personal, like vaping and fidget spinners. Here’s what you were reading in 2017:
10. Should we be weather wizards?
Weather control used to belong to the X-Men. But real people can change the weather, too. Scientists are trying to seed clouds to make more rain or snow form and fall. So far, those effects have been small. People have had much bigger impacts Earth's climate, though we didn’t mean to. Climate change caused by burning fuels has raised surface temperatures. Could weather wizardry chill us out? Unfortunately, Earth’s climate is complex, so that may not be a good idea.
9. If the sun goes out, what do animals do?
On August 21, 2017, the sun vanished in the middle of the day across a swath of the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina. It was a total solar eclipse, when the moon swung in front of the sun and completely blotted it out for a few crucial moments. People across the country looked up. But what about the animals? Scientists asked viewers to use the app iNaturalist to record what they saw and heard. Now the data are in, and scientists are reporting which birds flew, which frogs called and which bugs buzzed across the country.
8. No more excuses: Put that screen away before bed
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t use a smartphone, tablet or computer before bed. Scientists have known for a while that the blue light these gadgets emit is bad for our sleep. But just how bad? Our November story showed that students exposed to blue light got 16 fewer minutes of shuteye compared with those who saw red light. The blue light also made the students wake up more often. So maybe try a book before bed instead.
7. Video games help people play nice
Think games are a waste of time? Think again. In a September article, scientists had students play 14 hours of games such as Minecraft and Borderlands 2. While playing, the gamers talked with and helped each other. Another group of students played no games. Afterward, the students who played video games felt that they had better communication and problem-solving skills than the students who did nothing. Game on (just not right before bed)!
6. Why do onions make us cry?
Anyone who’s sliced an onion or two knows to keep a tissue handy. But how does such an innocent vegetable have such a sob-worthy effect? Scientists have been trying to complete the chemical puzzle for more than 40 years. This year, they added another crucial piece to the long, tear-jerking sequence of chemical processes. It’s an enzyme that hustles the reaction along to its weepy conclusion. As to why onions produce such cruel chemistry: It’s to prevent predators from chowing down on them.
5. Fidget spinners: Tools, toys or both?
The biggest toy craze of 2017 has definitely been the fidget spinner. Plenty of adults have gotten into the game, too. These whirring gadgets can be more than just toys, though. For some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fidget spinners can be part of their doctor-prescribed therapy. But they can also distract us from what we should be doing, and they aren’t helpful for everyone.
4. What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a popular word these days. This chemical plays a role in many of our behaviors. It helps us spot rewards and risks. Too little dopamine contributes to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. And addictive drugs (such as cocaine) can hijack the chemical. But dopamine isn’t really a bad guy. It’s a chemical messenger in our nervous system. Dopamine signals help us move and make us work for rewards — whether the reward is a good grade, a slice of pizza or a drug. How does that work? We’ve got an explainer for that.
3. It’s a Trap-pist! Astronomers found seven new planets.
We’ve got new neighbors! In February, scientists discovered a new solar system. It’s got seven planets spinning around a central star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of those planets are in the habitable zone — an area in just the right spot for water to be liquid. That makes those planets a good place to look for alien life.
2. What killed the dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. But what snuffed out the T. rex? Was it a giant rock screaming in from outer space? What about a massive volcanic eruption spewing lava across the land? It could have been a bit of both. Scientists now think volcanic eruptions put the dinosaurs under stress, and an asteroid impact sealed the deal. Maybe. Researchers are still arguing about all of this. No matter how it happened, though, Earth didn’t see the sun for two years afterward. Dinosaurs died in darkness.
1. E-cigs or regular cigs, danger abounds
Electronic cigarettes are devices that dispense nicotine — the drug usually found in cigarettes. When people use e-cigs — called vaping — they can inhale nicotine vapor without the dangers of inhaling the burning tobacco leaves that cigarettes are made of. In theory. But in reality, vaping has its own health hazards. Teens can get lured in by candy flavors. But the liquids in e-cigs have toxic chemicals, and vaping can irritate the lungs and slow down wound healing. For more, keep an eye on our collection of vaping stories.
Updated 2:41pm EST 12/21/17 to remove the reference to Velociraptor. Despite its star turn in Jurassic Park, these dinos died out 71 million years ago — and therefore weren’t around for the big extinction.
ADHD See attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
alien A non-native organism. (in astronomy) Life on or from a distant world.
asteroid A rocky object in orbit around the sun. Most asteroids orbit in a region that falls between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers refer to this region as the asteroid belt.
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) This is a disorder characterized by not being able to focus or pay attention, being physically overactive, not being able to control behavior, or a combination of these.
birds Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
chemistry The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
cloud A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents. (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds.
dinosaur A term that means terrible lizard. These ancient reptiles lived from about 250 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. All descended from egg-laying reptiles known as archosaurs. Their descendants eventually split into two lines.
dopamine A neurotransmitter, this chemical helps transmit signals in the brain.
eruption (in geoscience) The sudden bursting or spraying of hot material from deep inside a planet or moon and out through its surface. Volcanic eruptions on Earth usually send hot lava, hot gases or ash into the air and across surrounding land. In colder parts of the solar system, eruptions often involve liquid water spraying out through cracks in an icy crust. This happens on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is covered in ice.
fossil fuel Any fuel — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that has developed within the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals.
habitable A place suitable for humans or other living things to comfortably dwell.
lava Molten rock that comes up from the mantle, through Earth’s crust, and out of a volcano.
nervous system The network of nerve cells and fibers that transmits signals between parts of the body.
nicotine A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the “buzz” associated with smoking. Highly addictive, nicotine is the substance that makes it hard for smokers to give up their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.
particle A minute amount of something.
planet A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, the object must be big enough to have pulled neighboring objects into the planet itself or to have slung them around the planet and off into outer space.
predator (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.
shuteye Slang for sleep
smartphone A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.
solar eclipse An event in which the moon passes between the Earth and sun and obscures the sun, at least partially. In a total solar eclipse, the moon appears to cover the entire sun, revealing on the outer layer, the corona. If you were to view an eclipse from space, you would see the moon’s shadow traveling in a line across the surface of the Earth.
solar system The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around our sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.
stress (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.
sun The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.
tablets (in computing) A small, hand-held computer that can connect to the Internet and that users can control using a touch screen. An Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy and Amazon Kindle Fire are all examples of tablets.
therapy (adj. therapeutic) Treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.
tissue Made of cells, any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.
tobacco A plant cultivated for its leaves, which many people burn in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves also are sometimes chewed. The main active drug in tobacco leaves is nicotine, a powerful stimulant (and poison).
toxic Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.
vaping (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
Journal: J.B. Brown et al. Title of paper. Journal in italics. Vol. XX, Date (and say if it's an online date). doi: 10.1038:nature1234.
Meeting: C. Kidd et al. So, how much of the Earth's surface is covered by rain gauges? European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2014. April 28, 2014. Vienna, Austria. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 16, EGU2014-10300, 2014.