The most popular stories of 2016

From zombies to Zika, here’s what you were reading
Dec 23, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
most popular

What were our most popular stories of 2016? Read on to find out!

E. Otwell

This year, scientists detected gravitational waves, a century after Albert Einstein first predicted them. The world’s coral reefs underwent a huge, devastating bleaching event. And we got the first glimmers that the Tasmanian devils of Australia may be evolving resistance to a deadly contagious cancer.

While we at Science News for Students may have found such stories to be important and interesting, our readers, it seems, had some different opinions. What do you like? The grosser the better — and animals and space, too. But you also focus on stories that are relevant to your daily lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Here’s what you were reading in 2016:

10. A hidden planet in our solar system

Since Pluto was demoted from planet status, there have been eight planets in our solar system. But maybe there really are nine, planetary scientists proposed in January. Some icy bodies found far beyond Neptune are moving in odd ways. The scientists calculated that those oddities can be explained by the gravitational pull of a planet orbiting on the outskirts of the solar system. If the planet exists, it would be roughly 10 times as massive as Earth and travel in an elongated orbit.

9. Schools start too early

It’s the rare student who bounces out of bed eager to go to school. One reason, it seems, is that most school schedules are not in tune with the body clocks of tweens and teens. Adolescents find it difficult to fall asleep before 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. Getting to school on time, though, often means sacrificing some of the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep their bodies require. That means that many students spend their days as “walking zombies,” Janet Croft of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in our 2015 story.

moss forest
Moss covers a dead tree in Pennsylvania’s Weiser State Forest. The decomposition that follows the dead of every organism sets the stage for new life. It’s nature’s way of recycling.
Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

8. How nature recycles its dead

That old apple rotting beneath a tree in the backyard sure is disgusting. But decomposition is an important part of life. “This is how nature recycles,” our story on rot noted. When something dies, a host of fungi and bacteria start to break it down, making its parts available for other living things to use. Scientists are finding the science of decay to be useful, too. They’re using it to aid farmers, make biofuels and preserve the health of the world’s forests.

7. Meet the (new) elements

There’s a good chance that the periodic table hanging in your classroom is wrong. That’s because scientists added four new elements to it this year. And in June, those elements finally got names. Element 113, discovered by scientists in Japan, got a name inspired by their homeland. Nihonium comes from the Japanese word Nihon, which means “land of the rising sun.” Element 115 is now moscovium, referring to the city of Moscow, Russia, where some of its discoverers are from. Element 117 was named tennessine, after the state of Tennessee, home of the three institutions responsible for its discovery. And element 118 becomes oganesson. That name was derived from one of its discoverers, Russian physicist Yuri Oganessian.

Here’s an artist’s view of the surface of the planet Proxima b, with its red dwarf star just over the horizon. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the center of the image, just to the upper-right of the red star.

6. An Earth-like planet discovered nearby

In August, astronomers announced that they had found a planet somewhat like Earth. And it was close. Well, sort of. Proxima b lies just 4.2 light-years away, orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star lying closest to our sun. Scientists think that Proxima b might be Earth-like. But life on that planet would be far different. Because it lies much closer to its star than Earth to the sun, Proxima b whips around at such a fast pace that a year lasts a mere 11.2 Earth days.

5. Wolf identity crisis

There are a lot of wild canines roaming North America. But a genetic study found that two species — red wolves and eastern wolves — may not be true “species.” Instead, they appear to be mixes of two actual species of canines, gray wolves and coyotes. Scientists think that red wolves and eastern wolves appeared after Europeans settled in eastern North America. The settlers started hunting gray wolves. That made room for coyotes from the west. The two species interbred, producing the two other kinds of wolves.

coyote wolf
Eastern wolves (second from left) and red wolves (second from right) might not be distinct species. A new genetic analysis suggests they’re mixtures of gray wolves (far left) and coyotes (far right).

4. Real, live zombies!

The human-size zombies stumbling about your neighborhood on Halloween definitely aren’t real. But there are real zombies out in the world. They’re just a lot smaller than us. And they have one thing in common: parasites. Scientists have found lots of examples of parasites that invade a host and take over. The parasites might make an ant die in a specific place. Or they can prompt a rodent to get eaten by a cat. Researchers are starting to figure out how this mind control works. Don’t worry, though. The scientists’ work won’t make human zombies. But it might lead to new human medicines.

3. A new superfood — from roaches?

Depending on where you live in the world, you might consume milk from cows, goats, sheep or buffaloes. Some scientists have proposed a new, super-nutritious milk. It’s cockroach milk. The Pacific beetle cockroach produces a milk-like liquid for its young. And it turns out that the liquid is what is known as a “complete food.” It has fat, sugar and protein, as well as essential amino acids. Those are ones that our bodies can’t make, so we have to get them from food. Milking roaches on a large scale isn’t practical. But researchers might be able to produce it in vats with yeast. If they do, though, they probably shouldn’t let anyone know where it originated.

2. Zika arrives in the Americas

Early in 2016 we published our first story about a worrying disease, Zika, that was spreading in Brazil. The mosquito-borne disease usually doesn’t kill people. But scientists suspected that the virus was behind many cases of microcephaly, when a baby is born with an abnormally small head. Science News for Students continued to follow the spread of the disease and scientists’ research into it. Two stories proved particularly popular among our readership: In May, scientists reported that an extract of the leaves of a Californian plant could kill the Zika mosquitoes’ larvae. And August saw discovery that the Zika virus could cause brain damage in adult humans.

1. Vaping vapors can be toxic

When electronic cigarettes were first introduced, more than a decade ago, they were promoted as a way for adults to wean themselves off deadly tobacco products. But the evidence has been mounting that e-cigs can be dangerous for kids and teens. Our #1 story of the year, on how vaping can damage the lungs, dates to 2015. But the data on vaping’s dangers continues to mount. Keep an eye on our collection of vaping stories; in the new year, we’ll have more articles explaining why adolescents and e-cigarettes shouldn’t mix.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

amino acids     Simple molecules that occur naturally in plant and animal tissues and that are the basic constituents of proteins.

biofuels     Energy sources derived from carbon stored in living organisms. Although wood is a biofuel, most people who support “green” sources of energy consider biofuels to be liquids that can substitute for gasoline. Examples include bioethanol, an alcohol derived from crops such as corn or sugarcane. Engineers are also developing ways to make biofuels from nonfood crops, such as trees and shrubs. Renewable biofuels are an alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels.

body clock     (also known as biological clock ) A mechanism present in all life forms that controls when various functions such as metabolic signals, sleep cycles or photosynthesis should occur.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

canine     Members of the biological family of canids. These are carnivores and omnivores. The family includes dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals and coyotes. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC    An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC is charged with protecting public health and safety by working to control and prevent disease, injury and disabilities. It does this by investigating disease outbreaks, tracking exposures by Americans to infections and toxic chemicals, and regularly surveying diet and other habits among a representative cross-section of all Americans.

contagious     An adjective for some disease that can be spread by direct contact with an infected individual or the germs that they shed into the air, their clothes or their environment. Such diseases are referred to as contagious.

coral     Marine animals that often produce a hard and stony exoskeleton and tend to live on the exoskeletons of dead corals, called reefs.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

decay     The process (also called “rotting”) by which a dead plant or animal gradually breaks down as it is consumed by bacteria and other microbes. (for radioactive materials) The process whereby a radioactive isotope — which means a physically unstable form of some element — sheds energy and subatomic particles. In time, this shedding will transform the unstable element into a slightly different but stable element. For instance, uranium-238 (which is a radioactive, or unstable, isotope) decays to radium-222 (also a radioactive isotope), which decays to radon-222 (also radioactive), which decays to polonium-210 (also radioactive), which decays to lead-206 — which is stable. No further decay occurs. The rates of decay from one isotope to another can range from timeframes of less than a second to billions of years.

decomposition     The process by which compounds in once-living things are broken down and returned to the environment; the process by which something decays or rots.

e-cigarette     (short for electronic cigarette) Battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. These devices heat up a flavored liquid until it evaporates, producing vapors. People use these devices are known as vapers.

element     (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

essential amino acids     A type of important nutrient, used to build proteins, that cannot be made by the body. It must be acquired from an animal’s foods.

extract     (v.) To separate one chemical (or component of something) from a complex mix. (noun) A substance, often in concentrated form, that has been removed from its natural source. Extracts are often taken from plants (such as spearmint or lavender), flowers and buds (such as roses and cloves), fruit (such as lemons and oranges) or seeds and nuts (such as almonds and pistachios). Such extracts, sometimes used in cooking, often have very strong scents or flavors.

fat     A natural oily or greasy substance occurring in animal bodies, especially when deposited as a layer under the skin or around certain organs. Fat’s primary role is as an energy reserve. Fat is also a vital nutrient, though it can be harmful to one’s health if consumed in excess amounts.

forest     An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

host     (in biology and medicine) The organism in which another lives. Humans may be a temporary host for food-poisoning germs or other infective agents.

light-year     The distance light travels in one year, about 9.48 trillion kilometers (almost 6 trillion miles). To get some idea of this length, imagine a rope long enough to wrap around the Earth. It would be a little over 40,000 kilometers (24,900 miles) long. Lay it out straight. Now lay another 236 million more that are the same length, end-to-end, right after the first. The total distance they now span would equal one light-year.

liquid     A material that flows freely but keeps a constant volume, like water or oil.

microcephaly     A condition that leaves babies with abnormally small heads and partially developed brains.

Neptune     The furthest planet from the sun in our solar system. It is the fourth largest planet in the solar system.

orbit     The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.

Pacific     The largest of the world’s five oceans. It separates Asia and Australia to the west from North and South America to the east.

parasite     An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide it any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.

physicist     A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pluto     A dwarf planet that is located in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune. Pluto is the tenth largest object orbiting the sun.

protein     Compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. The hemoglobin in blood and the antibodies that attempt to fight infections are among the better-known, stand-alone proteins. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

recycle     To find new uses for something — or parts of something — that might otherwise be discarded, or treated as waste.

reef     A ridge of rock, coral or sand. It rises up from the seafloor and may come to just above or just under the water’s surface.

resistance     (as in drug resistance) The reduction in the effectiveness of a drug to cure a disease, usually a microbial infection. (as in disease resistance) The ability of an organism to fight off disease. (as in exercise) A type of rather sedentary exercise that relies on the contraction of muscles to build strength in localized tissues. (in physics) Something that keeps a physical material (such as a block of wood, flow of water or air) from moving freely, usually because it provides friction to impede its motion.

rodent     A mammal of the order Rodentia, a group that includes mice, rats, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters and porcupines.

solar system     The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around the sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

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. Or a sunlike star.

tobacco     A plant cultivated for its leaves. Dried tobacco leaves are burned in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves are also sometimes chewed. The main constituent of tobacco leaves is nicotine.

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.

tween     A child just approaching his or her teenage years. Tween is a term usually used for 11- to 12-years olds.

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.

vapors     Fumes released when a liquid transforms to a gas, usually as a result of heating.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

wave     A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.

yeast     One-celled fungi that can ferment carbohydrates (like sugars), producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. They also play a pivotal role in making many baked products rise.

Zika     A viral disease that can be transmitted to humans via mosquitoes. About 20 percent of infected people get sick. Symptoms include a slight fever, rash and pinkeye and usually fade quickly. A growing body of evidence suggests that the virus could also cause a devastating birth defect — microcephaly. Evidence suggests it may also cause neurological conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.