Revisit 2017's most important stories | Science News for Students

Revisit 2017's most important stories

Here’s the year in review, focusing on the top 10 major stories
Dec 22, 2017 — 6:45 am EST
2017 editors' picks
What were our editors' top stories of 2017? Read on to find out.
Nancy Moulding/SNS

Science is not just the static set of facts you might find in a textbook. It’s an endeavor to understand the world — and universe — around us. New discoveries are being made all the time. Some add small pieces of information to what is already known. Others fundamentally alter our thinking.

This year was full of major scientific events and discoveries. Don’t feel bad if you missed them. You were probably reading stories about bits of science that affect your everyday lives.But here’s your chance to catch up on what you may have overlooked.

10. A new continent

Every U.S. schoolkid learns that there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America. Scientists usually combine two of those into the larger Eurasia, but they largely have recognized the same land masses. Now a group of geologists has proposed adding a new continent to the list: Zealandia. Most of the continent is submerged beneath the ocean’s surface. But some of it — mostly the nation of New Zealand — peeks above the waves. There’s no official way to add a continent to the world’s master list. But if enough people start referring to Zealandia as a continent, a continent it will become.

“This story had to make the top 10 list,” says Science News for Students (SNS) staff writer Bethany Brookshire. “We can’t be old and crusty about how our world is built. New discoveries are at the core of what science is about.”

9. The death of Cassini

Saturn Cassini
Cassini took this last portrait of Saturn just before the little spacecraft plunged to its death in the planet's atmosphere.

The Cassini mission blasted off from Earth back in 1997, then spent nearly seven years traveling to Saturn. There, the spacecraft was supposed to spend three years studying the ringed planet. In fact, it extended that visit — by a lot. It spent 13 years and 76 days orbiting Saturn, before intentionally making a deathly dive into the planet on September 15. Why? NASA did not want to risk contaminating Saturn’s moons. Over the years, the Cassini mission made an amazing number of discoveries, from finding ingredients for life on the moons of Titan and Enceladus to revealing massive storms that have raged for decades. SNS contributing editor Elizabeth Preston says: “An intrepid robot crosses the solar system, sends back beautiful photos of Saturn, carries out a daring final mission inside the planet's rings, then plunges to its death to protect (possible) alien life — what's not to love about this story?”

8. Our bones produce an array of hidden hormones

Your skeleton provides the internal structure for your body, helping to hold you up and to protect soft tissues. Those bones are constantly changing, with cells turning over all the time. This keeps everything strong and healthy. But studies in mice are showing that our bones are more active than you would ever think. They produce hormones. These are natural chemicals that act as messengers within the body. Bone hormones, studies have found, chat with organs like the brain, kidneys and pancreas. “We often see bones as just a kind of a dead scaffold that supports our meaty selves,” says Brookshire. “But this story showed just how alive they are, and how much they might do for us every day.”

7. New evidence about what killed the dinosaurs

Dinosaurs ruled Earth until 66 million years ago. Then they disappeared in a mass extinction that wiped out most of the planet’s species..

An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Well, maybe that’s true, but it might not be. Scientists have been digging up new evidence that shows the tale of the dinos’ demise is more complex that what had been thought. There was a devastating asteroid impact off the coast of what is now Mexico. It may have thrown so much debris into the sky that the sun was blocked out for years. But life on this planet may have already been in trouble from supervolcanoes that erupted for 750,000 years in what is now India, studies have shown. “This is a classic scientific whodunnit. Like detectives at a crime scene, scientists are studying the clues to try to find the killer: A giant asteroid? Volcanoes? Both? Surprisingly, they still can't agree on the answer,” notes Preston.

6. Implicit biases — we’ve all got them

Though we might not like to admit it, everyone harbors beliefs and feelings about other people based on stereotypes. These are views on gender, race, religion or other traits that are not founded in fact. The ones that we’re not aware of have a name: implicit biases. But scientists can help us to identify them in ourselves, SNS revealed, so we can do something about them.

“Even though we’re often not aware of these implicit biases, they can lead us to treat other people unfairly,” says SNS contributing editor Siri Carpenter. “This story helps young people understand how these biases creep into our minds so they can recognize and combat them — and help shape a fairer society.”

5. Gravitational waves solve cosmic mysteries

The existence of gravitational waves was confirmed only just last year. That’s when scientists detected these faint waves from a collision of black holes. (The discovery garnered a Nobel prize in physics for three scientists in October.) Now researchers are using these waves to make fundamental discoveries about the universe. Two months ago, scientists announced that they had detected gravity waves from a smashup of two neutron stars. Such collisions, they say, are responsible for all the gold, silver and platinum found in the universe.

“It’s rare that a scientific discovery can truly be called ‘explosive’ and ‘Earth-shattering,’” says Carpenter. “Astrophysicists working at some 70 sites around the world used this new tool to point their telescopes at the right spot in the sky. And when they did, they witnessed a cosmic crash of two neutron stars, something no one had seen before. Now that’s explosive!”

4. The Internet of Things might be a problem

More and more “smart” items are now being sold. These are everything from basketballs that give tips for better play to refrigerators that keep track of what’s inside to toilets that automatically flush and text you when there’s a leak. Collectively, they’re known as the Internet of Things. These objects promise to make life better. But there are downsides, like the potential for data to be stolen or for the items to be hacked and turned into spies.

“Who among us wouldn’t like electronics to make our lives easier and anticipate our every want? With such systems on the horizon, I wanted to let teens know what to expect,” says SNS editor Janet Raloff. “This series shows what good such systems could bring — and also what hidden risks they might pose to our security.”

3. The Larsen C iceberg breaks off Antarctica

Larsen C’s outer ice shelf
In the days before it broke off, Larsen C’s outer ice shelf gained momentum. Satellite images show the ice’s movement tripled in speed to 10 meters (nearly 33 feet) per day at the end of June. That’s the fastest it had ever been recorded.
A. Luckman/Project Midas/Swansea Univ

At the beginning of the year came word that a massive crack in an Antarctic ice shelf named Larsen C had abruptly grown by 18 kilometers (11 miles). Scientists warned that soon a new massive iceberg could break off the continent. And that finally happened in July. Nearly a million metric tons of ice broke off in an iceberg the size of Delaware. The ice will eventually break apart and melt. It won’t have any effect on sea level, since it was already sitting on water. But it could herald problems for the future.

“The Larsen C ice shelf is, of course, just one small part of Antarctica,” Adam Booth told Science News. He’s a geophysicist at the University of Leeds in England. “What is worrying is that we're seeing trends in several ice shelves that tend towards decreasing stability. Should they continue along these trends, we could be seeing the start of increased mass loss from the Antarctic continent.” And that ice, once it ends up in the ocean, could raise sea levels around the world.

2. Hurricanes wreak havoc in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season was particularly destructive. It also ranks as the most expensive in U.S. history. That’s because of three storms: Harvey, Irma and Maria. Harvey struck Houston, Texas, in late August, sitting over the city for days. Then Irma wreaked havoc across several Caribbean islands before traveling up through Florida. Finally, hurricane Maria blew through Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. More than two months later, people are still cleaning up. And on Puerto Rico, many neighborhoods still are without power or water.

“As these record-breaking storms were barreling down on a host of communities, there was no shortage of news coverage on the threats they posed,” notes Raloff. “I wanted our magazine to focus instead on the science that explained why these late summer cyclones had evolved into particularly dramatic or unusual events.” The series of stories that came from that covered Harvey’s record rains — including how many bathtubs those rains would fill — and dangerous tornadoes. We delved into Irma’s missing coastal water and incredible power. And we discovered why we may never know just how bad the rains were during Maria.

1. A solar eclipse grabs America’s attention

Science News staff witnessed the solar eclipse from locations across the country.
Science News/YouTube

On August 21, a total solar eclipse traveled across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina. Eclipses aren’t rare, but this one was special because it was accessible to so many people. In fact, some 215 million U.S. adults witnessed the eclipse either in person or electronically. (Sorry, but there’s no count for U.S. kids.) “I will always remember how the sky went black, and all the kids I was watching with started screaming with excitement. We all got to experience the joy of science together,” recalls Brookshire.

Scientists not only watched the eclipse, but many also used it as an opportunity for scientific study. They asked questions including: Where does the solar wind come from? Why is the corona so hot? And what do animals do in an eclipse? The answers from this research are still to come. But people in the United States will soon get another chance to experience a solar eclipse: One will travel from Texas to Maine in 2024.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the 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.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

astrophysics     An area of astronomy that deals with understanding the physical nature of stars and other objects in space. People who work in this field are known as astrophysicists.

black hole     A region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation (including light) can escape.

Caribbean     The name of a sea that runs from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to Mexico and Central American nations in the West, and from the southern coasts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico down to the northern coasts of Venezuela and Brazil. The term is also used to refer to the culture of nations that border on or are islands in the sea.

Cassini     A space probe sent by NASA to explore the planet Saturn. Cassini was launched from Earth in 1997. It reached Saturn in late 2004. The craft included a variety of instruments meant to study Saturn’s moons, rings, magnetic field and atmosphere.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

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.

continent     (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six established geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. In 2017, scientists also made the case for yet another: Zealandia.

core     Something — usually round-shaped — in the center of an object. (in geology) Earth’s innermost layer. Or, a long, tube-like sample drilled down into ice, soil or rock. Cores allow scientists to examine layers of sediment, dissolved chemicals, rock and fossils to see how the environment at one location changed through hundreds to thousands of years or more.

corona     The envelope of the sun (and other stars). The sun’s corona is normally visible only during a total solar eclipse, when it is seen as an irregularly shaped, pearly glow surrounding the darkened disk of the moon.

cosmic     An adjective that refers to the cosmos — the universe and everything within it.

cyclone     A strong, rotating vortex, usually made of wind. Notable examples include a tornado or hurricane.

debris     Scattered fragments, typically of trash or of something that has been destroyed. Space debris, for instance, includes the wreckage of defunct satellites and spacecraft.

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. 

eclipse     This occurs when two celestial bodies line up in space so that one totally or partially obscures the other. In a solar eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth line up in that order. The moon casts its shadow on the Earth. From Earth, it looks like the moon is blocking out the sun. In a lunar eclipse, the three bodies line up in a different order — sun, Earth, moon — and the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, turning the moon a deep red.

electronics     Devices that are powered by electricity but whose properties are controlled by the semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.

Enceladus     The sixth largest of Saturn’s more than 50 moons. Enceladus is bright white and covered with a thick shell of ice. Deep beneath that ice sits what appears to be a global ocean of salty liquid water. Enceladus is a round sphere, 500 kilometers (310 miles) across. It is a little less than one-third the width of Earth's moon.

Eurasia     That part of the globe covered by Europe and Asia.

gender     The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as being the norm. Behaviors that are incompatible with these expectations are described as non-conforming.

gravity     The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

hormone     (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body. 

hurricane     A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.

Internet of Things     The network of physical objects that have been equipped with electronic devices to let them gather and share information. This allows these objects to observe and interact with their environment.

kidney     Each in a pair of organs in mammals that filters blood and produces urine.

mass     A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from.

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

NASA     Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

neutron star     The very dense corpse of what had once been a star with a mass four to eight times that of our sun. As the star died in a supernova explosion, its outer layers shot out into space. Its core then collapsed under its intense gravity, causing protons and electrons in its atoms to fuse into neutrons (hence the star’s name). Astronomers believe neutron stars form when large stars undergo a supernova but aren’t massive enough to form a black hole. A single teaspoonful of a neutron star, on Earth, would weigh a billion tons.

New Zealand     An island nation in the southwest Pacific Ocean, roughly 1,500 kilometers (some 900 miles) east of Australia. Its “mainland” — consisting of a North and South Island — is quite volcanically active. In addition, the country includes many far smaller offshore islands.

Nobel prize     A prestigious award named after Alfred Nobel. Best known as the inventor of dynamite, Nobel was a wealthy man when he died on December 10, 1896. In his will, Nobel left much of his fortune to create prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Winners receive a medal and large cash award.

organ     (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that makes sense of nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

pancreas     A gland found in animals with backbones that secretes the hormone insulin and enzymes that help break down foods in the gut.

physics     The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study that emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in such areas is known as a physicist.

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. 

platinum     A naturally occurring silver-white metallic element that remains stable (does not corrode) in air. It is used in jewelry, electronics, chemical processing and some dental crowns.

Saturn     The sixth planet out from the sun in our solar system. One of the four gas giants, this planet takes 10.7 hours to rotate (completing a day) and 29 Earth years to complete one orbit of the sun. It has at least 53 known moons and 9 more candidates awaiting confirmation. But what most distinguishes this planet is the broad and flat plane of seven rings that orbit it.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

sea level     The overall level of the ocean over the entire globe when all tides and other short-term changes are averaged out.

SETI     An abbreviation for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, meaning life on other worlds.

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 wind     A flow of charged particles (including atomic nuclei) that have been ejected from the surface of the star, such as our sun. It can permeate the solar system. This is called a stellar wind, when from a star other than the sun.

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.

stereotype     A widely held view or explanation for something, which often may be wrong because it has been overly simplified.

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.

telescope     Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

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.

titan     The term for any gigantic being. The term comes from Greek mythology. The six sons and six daughters of the Greek gods Uranus and Gaea were known as titans. Capitalized Titan is a moon of Saturn.

trait     A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.

universe     The entire cosmos: All things that exist throughout space and time. It has been expanding since its formation during an event known as the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years).

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

Zealandia     The name for a proposed new continent that sits largely submerged beneath the ocean. If confirmed, it would be the smallest continent. The only easily visible parts of it are New Zealand and New Caledonia. These islands rise east of Australia in the Southern Hemisphere.