A scientist-eye view of the best discoveries of 2017

  Last updated February 7, 2018 at 4:28 pm


Every year, 2.5 million scientific papers are published, each one incrementally adding to the pool of human knowledge. Good luck wrapping your head around that.

What captured the imagination of the brightest minds in 2017? Credit: iStock

For scientists, even keeping up to date with the most important findings in their field is a massive pain in the neck. So we can hardly blame non-scientists for getting a little bit confused when this mountain of data is cherry-picked, misrepresented, or drips intermittently across their newsfeed.

Science has the potential to provide solutions to the world’s most pressing problems – will the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 cure or kill us? Why should I care about dark matter? Is global warming inevitable?

The truth is out there but sometimes the facts can get lost in this tsunami of science.

To ease your existential worry that you’ll never be the “suppository of all wisdom”, we have collated the thoughts of some of the world’s greatest minds on the year’s most important discoveries in their fields, so you don’t have to.

It’s OK, you can thank me later.

A climatologist – Dr Linden Ashcroft

Earlier this year, Australia’s premier science agency, the CSIRO, sacked 350 climate scientists in a move that was described as “political vandalism” by scientists.

Nonetheless, science stops for no man, including Malcolm Turnbull, and according to Dr Linden Ashcroft, from Australia’s own Bureau of Meteorology, there’s one publication that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

“One publication that has really stuck with me this year is a study by Hawkins et al. from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society about defining the ‘pre-industrial’ period,” said Ashcroft.

“This paper is significant in my opinion because it uses a range of sources and methods to come to a conclusion that is useful scientifically, and also relevant for global climate change decision-making.”

Policy targets and changes in the climate are often measured in relation to a ‘pre-climate change’ time. That is, when the climate is thought to only be influenced by natural factors.

‘There’s still so much we don’t know about how and when Antarctica will respond to a warming climate.’ Credit: iStock/Ray Hems

The problem is that there is no clear definition on what ‘pre-industrial’ means – different periods are used in different studies. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses 1850-1900 as its preindustrial climate date range. This new study concludes that the best time span to use is 1720 – 1800.

It may seem like semantics, especially when you consider that there are very few instrumental weather records (particularly in the Southern Hemisphere), but it means that there are lots of sources of uncertainty when comparing today’s climate with this new pre-industrial time.

Having a new definition of the pre-industrial period has implications for climate policies, for the timing of different temperature thresholds, and for our understanding of global climate sensitivity.

Given that climate science moves so quickly how can you be assured that all your climate science information is up to date? Dr Ashcroft has the secret:

“…a good source of accurate climate information is Climate Feedback. Climate Feedback has been developed by the University of California Merced’s Centre for Climate Communication, and is a platform where climate scientists from across the globe can review news stories about climate”.

“The scientists use an annotation plug-in on their browser to comment on various sections of a climate-related news article, and the article is given a credibility score from -2 (very low) to +2 (very high). As a reader, you can see all of that, which adds a new critical layer to your climate change news.”

And what does Dr Ashcroft want to see in the coming year?

“One area where we really need more information is the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in the high latitudes around Antarctica.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about how and when Antarctica will respond to a warming climate. I hope that in the next 12 months more historical records from ships and expeditions can be found for the high southern latitudes, to shed some more light on what’s going on down there.”

An infectious disease scientist – Allison Terbush

Allison Terbush is a fifth year PhD student at Coscoy Lab at University of California, Berkeley.

The Coscoy Lab investigates the interactions between herpes viruses and the immune response of their host and allows them to gain insights into the molecular mechanisms of viral pathogenesis immunology as well as cell biology and cancer.

Allison was taken aback by one paper in particular.

“One of the most significant papers of the year so far is certainly In Vivo Excision of HIV-1 Provirus by saCas9 and Multiplex Single-Guide RNAs in Animal Models.”

‘Research published last year found that HIV could outmanoeuvre certain CRISPR-Cas9 techniques. Credit:iStock/CIPhotos’

In this research, a team of scientists used gene-editing to eliminate HIV DNA from the genomes of three different animal models to ensure that replication of the virus was completely shut down.

The technique was demonstrated in animals with both acute and latent HIV, and was successful in human immune cells transplanted into mice. It was described as a “significant step” towards human clinical trials.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing technology and, since it’s invention in 2012, it has been put to good use by scientists combating HIV infection. The paper builds on previous work from the research team and improves the efficiency of cleaving HIV proviruses to mitigate the risk of viral escape by targeting several sites at once.

What did Allison think of how well media teams covered the science?

“In my opinion, the coverage was more sensational from bigger, broader news outlets. Many of the stories misreported that mice had been ‘cured’, or that the virus had been ‘completely obliterated’ from the animals.

“While it might make for more clicks, exaggerating results for the non-technical audience like this is reckless and lazy. Scientific news outlets did a much better job handling this story,” she added.

And what does Alison hope for the coming year?

“For next year, I’d like to see more follow-ups to this research from other groups and in primate models. I’m also keeping an eye out for new research on the Zika-microcephaly connection and multidrug resistant TB.”

Unfortunately, it’s far from plain sailing from here; research published last year found that HIV could outmanoeuvre certain CRISPR-Cas9 techniques – so lots more verification and replication is needed before we know if the strategy can hold up long-term.

“The technology still has a long, long, long way to go but this study is an important proof of principle for this this type of treatment,” said Allison.

An astrophysicist – Prof Geraint Lewis

The “Big Bang” is where it all began 13.8 billion years ago. Credit: iStock/Kyoshino.

At the beginning of time, the Universe was compressed into a single point and, about 13.8 billion years ago, that tiny speck of everything exploded and formed the continually expanding Universe we live in today.

According to Dr Lewis from the University of Sydney, one of the most significant things to happen in 2017 is the unprecedented accuracy that we’ve been able to measure the Hubble constant – a value related to how fast the Universe is expanding.

“We are now in the age of ‘precision cosmology’ and this ‘local’ measure of the expansion of the universe is significantly different to the global measurement by Planck,” Lewis said.

An international team of scientists lead by Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, found that the universe is expanding five to nine times faster than expected and measured it to within a 2.4% accuracy.

The team made its conclusions after measuring about 2,400 Cepheid stars in 19 galaxies and, comparing the observed brightness of both types of stars, they accurately measured their true brightness.

The improved Hubble constant value is 73.2 kilometres per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec equals 3.26 million light-years). The new value means the distance between cosmic objects will double in another 9.8 billion years.

Although this is big news, we need to be careful when reporting the results since the refined calibration does not quite match the expansion rate predicted for the Universe from its trajectory seen shortly after the Big Bang.

“This is quite possibly a mis-calibration somewhere in the analysis – but it could indicate something we don’t understand about cosmology – that we are living in a void, or that dark energy has changed its spots, or possibly any number of speculative ideas,” said Lewis.

Uncertainty is an important concept in cosmology and, according to Lewis “some of the most hacks-of-science stories make me roll my eyes with a misrepresentation of the results etc. Stories like [recent reports on Dark Matter] don’t help as they do not differentiate robust science from rubbery speculation,” says Lewis.

And what does Dr Lewis hope from his cosmic colleagues in the future?

“Continually better accuracy in the observations – I really hope the difference is real as it will point to something interesting, although we will probably have to wade through a mountain of speculative bulldust to get to the answer!”

A bunch of people you’ve never met.

We’ve heard from the experts, but what does the general public have to say on all things science?

I used an online comparison tool to look at all the biggest science stories from 2017 and ranked them in order of shares on social media.

There’s some good news and there’s some bad news…

Ranking at number one, with a total of 925,000 shares across Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, is a study about bald men, conducted by a bald man.

The bald facts about popular science. Credit: iStock/kaelhser

Scientist Albert E. Mannes conducted a study with 59 subjects to find out how people reacted to men with shaved heads.

The study involved showing photos to the participants, once as an image of a man with a full head of hair and once of the same man with his hair shaved off. The subjects reported that they thought the bald men were more dominant, bigger and stronger.

There was an interesting caveat to this conclusion: The men had to be completely bald. Bald patches or pattern baldness was seen as less attractive and weaker.

After a moment of despair upon realising that the top science new item was a study that a bald man conducted to make himself feel better, there was a glimmer of hope – like the sun reflecting of a newly polished scalp – that some important science messages are making it on to people’s devices.

Hidden among the top five stories for the year was one about climate change which highlighted the greatest threats humans could face – unbreathable air, climate plagues, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse, poisoned oceans and heat death.

In other words, all the best speed-dating conversation starters.

As for me, I’m a sucker for weird science that involves bodily fluids and my favourite news story for the year reveals exactly how many people think they can get away with a little pee in the pool – apparently, it’s loads of you.

Researchers created a new method and estimated that swimmers released more than 75 litres of urine in a pool one-third the size of an Olympic-size pool.

Sometimes there are things you really don’t need to find out  – thanks science – I guess.

This article was orginally published in AQ: Australian Quarterly. 


About the Author

Andy Stapleton
Andrew Stapleton is a scientist and science communicator based in Adelaide. He is a presenter and producer of the popular podcast Publish, Perish or Podcast, posts weekly science articles on his website and has written for Australasian Science, Cosmos Magazine and ScienceAlert.