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Science Magazine's Breakthrough of the Year: 2016


Each December, Science looks back at the past year to determine which scientific achievements, discoveries, or developments were most significant. At the end of the month, they announce the Breakthrough of the Year and nine runners-up of note. In 2016, those runners-up included the invention of pocket-sized DNA (nanopore) sequencers, the discovery of a nearby exoplanet, and a breakthrough in culture techniques that enabled researchers to keep human embryos developing in the lab for almost two weeks, which was the people's choice winner.

"Selection of the Breakthrough of the Year should be viewed not only as a competition for top positions, but as a celebration of the remarkable scientific advances that are published over the course of a year," writes Science journals editor-in-chief Jeremy Berg. And, yet, a winner must be chosen. This year, Science has selected ripples in spacetime as its Breakthrough of the Year 2016.

More than a century ago, Albert Einstein posited that two massive objects in space might, when they spiral close enough to one another, warp space and time (a physics term called spacetime), releasing matter at the speed of light, creating gravitational waves or ripples. However, when Einstein proposed this idea, scientists had not yet created the tools that could prove neutron stars or black holes existed, making even Einstein doubt the existence of gravitational waves.

On September 14, 2015, at 9:50:45 UTC, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)—gigantic twin instruments in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana—captured signals that indicated that 1.3 billion light-years away, two black holes were spiralling into one another. This event caused the two holes to merge into one and release precisely the type of waves Einstein had predicted. They released their findings in an article in the journal Physical Review Letters on February 11, 2016.

"Although this discovery is a singular event," concludes Berg, "its importance lies in the observations yet to come." The exciting field of gravitational wave astronomy awaits. As Science writer Adrian Cho explains, "The discovery of gravitational waves has changed the scientific landscape. A new science beckons."

Watch this video from Science announcing the detection of gravitational waves and listen to Science editors and writers discuss this year's breakthrough in a podcast. You can also test your smarts with this quiz on this year's breakthrough and the runners-up.

Educators may find useful background information in this teaching resource on gravity and black holes and the lessons Exploring Pendulums, Satellite Orbits, Foucault's Pendulum, and Black Holes. Students wanting to learn more about gravity may enjoy our Gravity Launch App, the Gravity Assist Simulator, Newton's Laws: Elephant and Feather -- Free Fall, and the GoSkyWatch Planetarium App.

To learn more about Einstein and his discoveries, check out Science's comic celebrating the 100th anniversary of the theory of general relativity.

You can also find out more about Science's Breakthrough of the Year for the past five years right here on Science NetLinks. The breakthroughs were, in 2015, the gene-splicing tool, CRISPR; for 2014, the Rosetta Mission to land a spacecraft on a comet (listen to the Science Update here); in 2013, cancer immunotherapy; for 2012, confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson particle; and in 2011, anti-HIV drugs.

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