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The science that shaped 2016

December 28, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
What did 2016 mean for science? Science correspondent Miles O’Brien sits down with William Brangham to discuss some of the more remarkable discoveries, innovations and setbacks this year, including the confirmation of one of Einstein's major predictions, the global outbreak of Zika, a breakthrough in gene editing, self-driving cars and more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: 2016 has been a wild ride, one that we’re not likely to forget anytime soon, much of it focused on politics, but many things happened in the world of science and technology as well.

William Brangham starts our review for our weekly segment, the Leading Edge.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Indeed, we wanted to look at some of the more remarkable discoveries and innovations, and setbacks that we saw in the scientific world this year.

And so we welcome back our very own science correspondent, Miles O’Brien.


MILES O’BRIEN: Good to be here, William.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, everyone is doing their year-end best-of list for 2016. Let’s do ours.

Scientifically, what’s top of your list?

MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s start with basic research, shall we, the real hard-core science.

The biggest one by far was a historic find announced in February, the detection of gravity waves. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, confirmed one of Einstein’s major predictions about the nature of gravity, namely, that the merging of two black holes should send subtle gravity waves rippling across space.

DAVID REITZE, Executive Director, LIGO: Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it.


MILES O’BRIEN: Excited scientists there.


MILES O’BRIEN: LIGO scientists managed to find those waves measuring tiny contractions and expansions of space itself.

They did this with two massive laser facilities, one in Louisiana, one in Washington state, a pair of the most precise rulers ever built, if you will.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So why is this scientific discovery, why is this so high on everyone’s list?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it’s as the scientists discovered a new language and then learned it. And they can now directly observe much more precise, much more fundamental forces of nature, which opens up a whole new realm of experiments in precision.

It’s like they used to be able to see the puddles, and now they can see the whole rainstorm. So, it adds fidelity to their quest.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, let’s stay in space. What other big discoveries, innovations, what else did we see out there?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, I’m always watching for the possibility that there might be life out there. I assume you are too.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope added over 1,500 new exoplanets to the registry in 2016, the most…


MILES O’BRIEN: Exoplanets, these are planets that would be around another solar system.

And right around a dozen of them are in a so-called habitable zone, the Goldilocks site, where there might in fact potentially be the conditions for life.

The total catalog now is 3,500 planets, a smaller handful in the habitable zone. No one has checked in yet, no aliens so far.

A little closer to home, NASA’s Juno spacecraft also entered orbit around Jupiter. Juno sensors will collect data on the gas giant up close in hopes of understanding how Jupiter formed and evolved.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, these are all unmanned missions that you have been describing.

I know there has been a lot of effort in putting us humans out into space. How has that been going?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, the road to Mars is long and winding, to say the least, William.

Private companies are running resupply missions to the space station while testing technology. The results have been mixed, frankly. Among the thrill of victory highlights, in April, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster landed upright on a remote barge at sea. It was a spectacular picture, and they stuck it.

But there were some agony in defeat moments as well. SpaceX, most notably in September, an explosion occurred during an engine test on the launchpad. It destroyed the rocket, its satellite payload, and a lot of launch facilities.

It was the second Falcon 9 failure in 15 months. So, whether SpaceX can deliver on its promise of providing cheaper access to space without compromising safety, that remains an open question at the end of this year.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s talk a little bit about human health. And we have seen this year scientists talking ever so cautiously about ending epidemics like the HIV epidemic.

But insect-born diseases certainly came roaring back with a vengeance this year.

MILES O’BRIEN: They certainly became in the realm of household lexicons, when you start talking about things like Zika. It actually became a household term because of the global outbreak that occurred.

And scientists in Brazil linked this mosquito-borne virus to a rise in microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. More than 90,000 Zika infections reported in Brazil in the first few months of 2016. The U.S. has seen relatively fewer cases, about 5,000 known infections.

The numbers on birth defects are still rolling in, but so far in the U.S., 11 percent of the Zika cases during pregnancy have resulted in birth defects, while Brazil’s rate is closer to 40 percent. Now, scientists are trying to find some solutions to all this.

A vaccine, of course, would be great, but they’re also in Brazil using genetically modified mosquitoes, deploying these insects that are tweaked in such a way that they have a fatal gene that would spread in the wild, sort of a suicide gene. We will see if that works.

KARLA TEPEDINO, Zika Researcher: The beauty about this technique is that it can reach the mosquitoes, where no other technique can find it. We’re using mosquitoes to fight themselves.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On the subject of genetic modification, where are we with the technique known as CRISPR? This has been heralded for a year or so as one of the greatest potential discoveries.

MILES O’BRIEN: As you know, William, CRISPR a breakthrough gene editing technique using proteins extracted from a type of bacteria.

Researchers are able to easily target specific DNA sequences, snip them and replace them with whatever they want. This year, scientists in China used CRISPR for the first time to modify a human cell. They moved immune cells from a cancer patient, disabled the gene which makes them less effective against cancer and then reinjected them back into the patient.

Now, that’s an exciting prospect, to have these kind of super-duper immune cells going after cancer. We don’t know yet if it’s working, though. The results aren’t in. So we will watch that in 2017.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s talk a little bit about technology.

Computers are getting faster. They’re getting smarter. There’s a lot of talk about A.I. and artificial intelligence. If anywhere, are we seeing this play out in the world today?

MILES O’BRIEN: Right in front of us on the road, William.

We’re seeing self-driving cars appear much faster than I think we are probably ready for. In parts of Pittsburgh now, you can order up a self-driving Uber. The human being is there to grab the wheel just in case, but, basically, we are well on our way to a world where we’re not necessarily driving our cars anymore.

This past year, though, we did have the first death of a person using a self-driving component of the Tesla Models. So, that’s a little piece of history and a reminder. What Tesla will tell you is, it’s still, on a per-mile basis, much safer than human beings driving.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Miles, before you go, the world of astronomy this week lost one of its luminaries, Vera Rubin. Can you tell us a little bit about her?

MILES O’BRIEN: You know, William, Vera Rubin was an astronomer who changed the way we think about the universe and forced the scientific community to change the way it treated women.

In the 1970s, she realized that galaxies are spinning too fast, that they would really fly apart if they relied simply on the gravity of the things we can see around them. She knew there had to be something else there, a lot of something.

And this is what led to the discovery of what we now call dark matter. We don’t know exactly what it is yet. There is a lot of ideas about it, but we haven’t seen it just yet.

But Vera Rubin was right there at the beginning, among the first female astronomers, blazed a trail for many others. And many great astronomers today really just stand on her shoulders.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Miles O’Brien, thanks so much for being here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Pleasure, William.