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Science Magazine's Breakthrough of the Year 2017


Each December, Science considers which scientific discoveries, achievements, or innovations of the past year were most significant. At the end of the month, they select the Breakthrough of the Year and nine runners-up of note. In 2017, those runners-up included FDA approval of a drug to fight solid tumors, based on mutations, rather than origin; the invention of a small neutrino detector; and gene therapy success at crossing the blood-brain barrier, which was the people's choice winner.

Science has chosen the observation of the collision of two neutron stars on August 17, 2017, as its Breakthrough of the Year.

On that August day, physicists at the United States' Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Italy's Virgo interferometer picked up massive gravitational wave fluctuations. While black holes colliding had previously been observed, scientists realized these higher-frequency readings suggested that these were two neutron stars—the cores that are left behind when smaller stars explode in supernovae—130 million light-years away about to spiral into one other. The network of scientists then went to work, triangulating their results to pinpoint the location of the stars and alerting observatories across the globe to aim their equipment at the 30-square-degree area of sky to pick up readings from the explosion.

In its wake, 3,674 researchers from 953 institutions collaborated on a single paper in Physical Review Letters summarizing the event. Findings will be studied for years to come, but they have implications on subjects as diverse as gamma rays and the theory of relativity.

When announcing last year the 2016 Breakthrough of the Year was the confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves, Science Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg wrote, "Although this discovery is a singular event, its importance lies in the observations yet to come." His words could not have been more prescient. Without knowing how to detect gravitational waves (which precede the collision of two neutron stars), scientists at more than 70 observatories around the world would not have been able to act on equipment readings that suggested such an event was about to occur in order to witness the event in real time.

In speaking of the top ten breakthroughs from this past year, Berg wrote eloquently about the types of discoveries that made the year-end list and how it is important to pursue both small and big investigations:  "Science moves forward best with a combination of small and big projects. Small science projects can expose clues about important mysteries and can build on one another to lay the groundwork for coordinated efforts. Well-conceived and -managed big science projects can pay huge dividends that could not have been achieved through other means."

Check out the October 16 news story and its accompanying video from Science announcing the neutron stars' collision and listen to Science editors and writers discuss this year's breakthrough in a podcast.

Educators may find useful background information in these lessons: Sky Watching; Looking into Space; Star Light, Star Bright; Making Light of Science; Transforming Energy; Star Power! Discovering the Power of Sunlight; and How Old Are the Stars? The lesson series on static electricity and the history of the atom may also give relevant information on neutrons, should teachers want to review that topic.

Students may want to watch the Gravitational Waves Finally Detected and Stargazing Basics 2: Understanding Magnitudes videos. They may also find the Amazing Space, the NASA Visualization Explorer App, Atom Builder, and National Optical Astronomy Observatory tools interesting.

In addition to the highlights of the year, Science also named three lows, or Breakdowns of the Year: First on that list is the high level of mistrust between scientists and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which spawned the March for Science last spring and which continues to resonate throughout many interactions betweeen science and politics. Next on the list of lowlights is a growing and severe threat to a number of cetaceans (including vaquitas, narwhals, and finless porpoises). Rounding out the list is the growing list of reports by women scientists who have experienced sexual harrassment and discrimination in the workplace, the laboratory, and the classroom, which has at least had the satisfactory result of causing a number of top-level science organizations to address the subject in substantive ways.

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