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This year in science

Science will suffer a serious blow in 2017 by way of ignorance of the willful and usual varieties. But ultimately, truth cannot be stopped, and that means neither can science, which can be loosely described as the organized search for valid explanations of observed phenomena. Truth by any other name. And there were promising glimmers through 2016 to build on, especially in the grandest of all fields, cosmology. In 2016 astronomers finally detected something Einstein and others predicted a century ago:

Just as sound waves disturb the air to make noise, gravitational waves disturb the fabric of spacetime to push and pull matter as if it existed in a funhouse mirror. If a gravitational wave passed through you, you’d see one of your arms grow longer than the other. If you were wearing a watch on each wrist, you’d see them tick out of sync. … “Right now I’m being bathed in gravitational waves, you’re being bathed in gravitational waves,” Dave Reitze, the executive director of the LIGO Lab, said. “The reason why our interferometers [i.e., detectors] don’t sense it is because the amplitude of those waves — the size of the signal they are creating — is much less than our detectors are capable of detecting.”

Gravity wave astronomy could quickly become the newest and hottest field in all of physics. Think of alien scientists, blind as bats, but with hypersensitive artificial ears tuned to every kind of sound wave. Imagine they were suddenly handed the first crude instruments that can detect an as yet unseen spectrum, and for the first time saw stars and galaxies and nebula in visible and invisible light. Using gravity waves, we might “see” incredible wonders of space-time, from the edge of the universe to nearer by, that were there, all along, right under our noses.

One of the science stories from 2016 will almost certainly be the continuing loss of coral reefs, the back-to-back record monthly highs, and the loss of Arctic ice along with the wobbling polar air mass caused by global warming.

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