Laughing parrots, backflipping robots and saviour viruses: science stories of 2017

Leading scientists pick the dozen most significant discoveries and developments of 2017 – from a steep decline in flying insects to a virus that can kill bacteria

Viruses save a man from antibiotic-resistant bacteria

In April, it was reported that 69-year‑old Tom Patterson, an American who fell gravely ill with an antibiotic-resistant acinetobacter infection, had been brought out of a two-month coma by an injected cocktail of bacteriophages, tiny viruses that specifically attack and kill bacteria.

The story is a testament to Patterson’s wife (Steffanie Strathdee, a scientist), who searched for alternative therapies when conventional treatments failed, to his physician, Robert Schooley, who used an untested treatment, and to a large band of phage scientists, led by Ryland Young of Texas A&M University and Theron Hamilton of the US Naval Academy. Their long-term, and sometimes unfashionable, research work meant that phages were available in their labs for the rescue attempt. Because a mixed-phage cocktail was used, no one is sure what tipped the balance, but, importantly, it worked. The Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia has dispensed phage therapy for years, but it was little tried in the west until recently. This new case encourages physicians to try such microbial treatments for infected patients worldwide, when antibiotics fail. It should also encourage governments to fund more research into natural bacteria-killing microbes, because these may be medicines of the third millennium.

Liz Sockett, professor of bacterial genetics, University of Nottingham

Parrots are found to lark about

Playful kea in Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand.
Playful kea in Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand. Photograph: Andrew Walmsley/Kea Conservation Trust

It’s a common misconception that only humans laugh: in fact a variety of mammals, from gorillas to rats, have been shown to laugh, and as in humans, animal laughter is a social behaviour, associated with tickling and play. I have long suspected that there is more mammal laughter out there, not least because so many mammals are social and all mammals play. My favourite paper of 2017 revealed solid evidence that in fact a laughter-like play vocalisation – a warble call – has been discovered in keas, a highly social and intelligent parrot from New Zealand. These parrots play a lot – on their own with objects, and with others in rough-and-tumble play (a bit like cats), or in aerial acrobatics. Strikingly, the study found that when these play vocalisations are played back to wild kea, both juveniles and adults will start to play with the other kea around them. This suggests that kea are showing a contagious response to the play sounds. Much as humans will join in with laughter even if they don’t know why people are laughing, kea will spontaneously start to engage in play just from hearing the sounds of other kea playing.

This is a dramatic demonstration both of play and play vocalisations in a non-mammal, and also of the contagious effect of these positive emotional sounds in a non-mammal. I’d love to know if this really is an avian form of laughter, and after this year I feel like we need to know there is more laughter out there!

Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience, University College London

Date of the earliest Homo sapiens is pushed back to 300,000 years ago

A replica of a Homo naledi skull
A replica of a Homo naledi skull – dating of fossils established this year that they may have lived at the same time as Homo sapiens. Photograph: Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

No other science has enjoyed such a perpetual revolution in recent years as human evolution. In 2017, the pace of change accelerated, with dozens of studies again rewriting our own story. In autumn, exploration of the genes of living people in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Botswana painted a newly complex picture of pigmentation, and revealed both light and dark skin colours in our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before our species existed.

Though much of the fuel for this revolution is the addition of DNA – from the living and the dead – to the toolbox of the palaeoanthropologist, there is still plenty to be learned from old bones. In June, the latest scrutiny of fossils old and new pushed back the date of the earliest members of Homo sapiens to more than 300,000 years ago, and moved their location from east Africa to Morocco.

A few weeks before that, the 2013 discovery in South Africa of a primitive human called Homo naledi was finally dated: a jaw-droppingly recent 300,000 years ago too – those humans were contemporaries of our own species in time, if not in space. We have barely scratched the surface of human origins from DNA and bones, and our nursery, the vast African continent, remains largely unexplored. Seek and ye shall find: our story will get richer and deeper in 2018.

Adam Rutherford, author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2016, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Chinese satellite beams entangled particles of light to Earth

The quantum satellite link established by Chinese physicists.
The quantum satellite link established by Chinese physicists. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

Of all the big science breakthroughs of 2017, I have gone with the one that is probably the hardest to explain: quantum entangled particles of light beamed down from a satellite. This was an impressive new world record: less than a year after they launched the world’s only quantum communications satellite, Chinese physicists have for the first time ever sent entangled photons from space. The pair of particles were produced on the satellite, which then sent them down to ground stations in China 750 miles (1,200km) apart, where they remained quantum entangled. The researcher had to overcome many technical challenges and it is remarkable what they have achieved.

Quantum entanglement is the most counterintuitive phenomenon in the often baffling subatomic world. The idea that a pair of particles can be widely separated and yet still be able to instantaneously influence each other is so weird that even Einstein hated it, famously calling it “spooky action at a distance”. And yet, it has been shown, time and again in laboratory experiments, to be a real effect. Indeed, it provides us with a radical system for secure quantum communications. China is now leading the world with this fast-developing technology.

Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics, professor of public engagement in science, University of Surrey


Extent of large carnivore decline revealed

A lion in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa.
A lion in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa. Photograph: Hannes Lochner/Barcroft Media

Large carnivores, such as lions, tigers and bears, are some of the world’s most important species. They are apex predators with vital ecological roles, and have immense economic value in the (often developing) countries where they remain. They also have great existence value, having lived alongside humans for millennia, and have become cultural symbols of strength and beauty. Given their charisma and allure, a 2017 study documenting the extent of their global decline was particularly shocking. Lions, African wild dogs and cheetahs have disappeared from at least 90% of their range, tigers from 95%, and Ethiopian wolves and red wolves from over 99%. However, the situation is not hopeless: carnivores can successfully rebound in areas where threats are reduced, and can even coexist with humans under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, if we want our grandchildren to live in a world with these incredible species, we need to act fast – securing and funding protected areas, and investing in communities that still maintain these amazing species. This is a clarion call for action, which must be heeded if we are not, within a generation, to lose species that have been revered for thousands of years.

Amy Dickman, conservation biologist, department of zoology, the University of Oxford

What the world’s first flower may have looked like

A three-dimensional reconstruction of the world’s first flower.
A three-dimensional reconstruction of the world’s first flower. Photograph: Hervé Sauquet & Jürg Schönenberger

The science stories that make the headlines are usually the ones bringing bad news – like the recent report that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has added wild relatives of wheat, rice and yams to its threatened list this year. This matters enormously, because to feed an ever-expanding human population we will need to learn from the genetic tricks that those wild species use to tolerate drought and disease. But a much more cheerful news story this year was the report of an in-depth statistical analysis of what the world’s first flower might have looked like. The study used the features of nearly 800 flowers across the flowering plant family tree to produce a most likely image of the first flower. This was very exciting for evolutionary biologists, because the interactions between flowers and animal pollinators have driven great species radiations of both. Being able to picture the first flower gives us the opportunity to explore how those relationships first evolved, and then how they changed over time to generate the enormous diversity of flower forms we enjoy today – including seasonal favourites like the Christmas rose (which is really a buttercup).

Beverley Glover, director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden

A sea horse clasping a cotton bud highlights plastic pollution

A sea horse holding a cotton bud
This image of a sea horse holding a cotton bud was a finalist in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Photograph: Justin Hofman

This year we discovered that no corner of the ocean is untouched by plastic pollution. Microplastic particles – pieces of broken-down plastic smaller than a few millimetres in diameter – were found in almost every animal sampled from 10km down in the deepest part of the sea, the Mariana trench. They were also discovered at densities of 100,000 pieces per sq km in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, one of the remotest seas on Earth. The beaches of Henderson Island in the eastern Pacific, one of the most isolated in the world, were found to be covered by tonnes upon tonnes of plastic rubbish. But as we wallow deeper in the filth of generations of plastic litter, there is a movement for change, building like a steepening wave. This may come to be viewed as the year we said: enough! Individuals, communities, cities and countries are beginning to call time on plastic waste, banning single‑use bags, straws, and introducing deposit schemes for plastic bottles. Politicians declared war on plastic pollution at a high-level international meeting on the oceans held in Malta this year. Change is under way and although there will be setbacks, the momentum appears unstoppable.

Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York, and scientific adviser to Blue Planet II

Number of flying insects plunges by three-quarters

Fireflies in a forest.
Insects such as fireflies are vital to the earth’s biosphere. Photograph: Monodon/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The demonstration that flying insect populations have declined by some 75% over the last quarter-century was for me the most beautiful, disquieting and thought-provoking piece of research of the past year. Beautiful, because it was a marvellously solid and lucid study, based on systematic, patient collection of unfashionable “background” data. Disquieting, because of the vital importance that flying insects have to the terrestrial biosphere – and hence to our own life-support systems. And thought-provoking, because it is only a tantalising fragment of some larger global process of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch proposed to reflect human impact on our planet.

How large is the true insect decline? The study started in 1989 – by which time the transformation of global agriculture by massive fertiliser and pesticide applications had already been under way for several decades: the residues of these chemical innovations are widely detected in soils and sediments from the mid-20th century onwards. Insects, though, do not fossilise easily, and so it is hard to show precisely how far populations have departed from their natural baseline levels. Working out such deep-time comparisons – a challenge to the ingenuity of palaeontologists – would show the scale of this new phenomenon, and of the task ahead: to restore healthy insect populations.

Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology, University of Leicester

Google’s AlphaGo ditches the human tutors

Lee Sedol’s 2016 match against AlphaGo.
Lee Sedol’s 2016 match against AlphaGo. Photograph: Yonhap/Reuters

We humans are great at solving a wide variety of challenging problems, from low-level motor control through to high-level cognitive tasks. Google’s artificial intelligence group DeepMind aims to produce incredibly intelligent machines that can perform the way we can. Its AlphaGo became the first computer program to defeat the best player of all time, Lee Sedol, at the ancient and complex Chinese game of Go, in March 2016. Previous versions of AlphaGo trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. What I find absolutely incredible is that AlphaGo Zero, a new version announced in October, skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. It created knowledge from first principles, from a blank slate and learned how to play the game to an expert level in just three days! By not using human expertise in any fashion, the creators have actually removed the constraints of human knowledge.

AlphaGo’s historic victory against one of the best Go players of all time was a landmark for the field of artificial intelligence, and especially for the technique known as deep reinforcement learning. If this technique can be applied to other problems, such as reducing energy consumption or searching for revolutionary new materials, then AI will truly have a huge positive impact on society and pave the way for artificial general intelligence – imagine a species of machines that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can.

Danielle George, professor in microwave communication engineering at the University of Manchester

Robots start doing backflips

Watch a video of Atlas, Boston Dynamics’ backflipping robot.

Observers of the robotics industries have been saying for a quite while now that robots are coming to take our jobs. But in 2017, these claims reached a crescendo with engineers, economists, and politicians all agreeing that it will happen soon. This unusual alignment of opinion gave everyone pause for thought, since these professions almost never agree. Then the robotics firm Boston Dynamics released a video of its latest creation, named Handle. It is a hybrid robot that has both wheels and legs. The wheels allow it to take advantage of the fact that the urban landscape is wheel-friendly, so the robot can easily zip around. Its legs and joints give it stability and balance. In other words, Handle combines the speed of a vehicle with the versatility of a biped. Reactions to Handle were mixed; some praised the innovation that made it possible, while others described it as “nightmare-inducing”. At the end of the year, Boston Dynamics released a new video of Atlas, a robot that can do backflips. This one video seemed to end all argument about when the robots are coming. They are here. The question is which jobs they will replace first: shelf stackers or gymnasts.

Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society, University College London

Tesla opens the world’s largest battery farm in Australia

Tesla’s Mira Loma substation in southern California.
Tesla’s Mira Loma substation in southern California. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

For me, the most significant story of the year isn’t one of those that announces its arrival with a brass band, a firework display and headlines the size of hippos. My pick is an accelerating flow of smaller stories that together tell an enormous tale: a massive revolution in battery technology. We all know the problem: in the rush for cheaper, lighter, more flexible everything, the battery is still the ball and chain around an inventor’s ankle. They’re heavy, they run down quickly, and occasionally they burst into flames. But 2017 marks a sharp uptick in innovation success. Apart from Tesla’s loud trumpeting about its bigger, better Li-ion batteries, we’ve seen developments in sodium battery technology, the use of organic components and polymers, and an enormous exploration of better materials and control systems. We’ve also seen the falling prices of high-capacity Li-ion systems, and the installation, completed in November, of Tesla’s system big enough to store energy for an electrical grid.

These new batteries won’t just revolutionise our personal electronics; they will change our energy generation and our transport. This is not a battle for the one “winning” technology, but the development of an ecosystem of possibility. The new technologies themselves may be this year’s star, but I can’t wait for the inventions that use them.

Helen Czerski, research fellow in the department of mechanical engineering at UCL

Voyager 1 keeps on trucking

Voyager 1
A Nasa image of Voyager 1, currently traversing interstellar space. Photograph: AP

In November, a team of engineers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory signalled the ancient Voyager 1 space probe, asking it to fire a set of thrusters that haven’t been activated for 37 years. It is more than 13bn miles away now and has been exploring since its launch in 1977. No object made by humankind has ever journeyed so far; signals take over 19 hours travelling at the speed of light to reach it.

Nevertheless Voyager dutifully complied with the command, puffing hydrazine in precise millisecond bursts, gently rotating and successfully realigning its antenna, allowing it to be audible across the void for a few more years to come. That pirouette became my favourite science moment of the year.

Voyager 1 is out there in the darkness, coasting in the frictionless ocean of space, so distant from Earth now that it is nearly meaningless to describe the span in any conventional unit of measurement. It has left behind the indefinite edge of our solar system and begun its long journey into interstellar space, but continues to gather and transmit information about the alien environment that surrounds it.

That after all this time, and across all that space, engineers can still find ways to make Voyager 1 do cartwheels, allowing that huge triumph of science, engineering, technology and mathematics to share its odyssey with us just a little while longer is, I think, something worth celebrating.

Kevin Fong is co-director of the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine and a lecturer in physiology at University College London


Liz Sockett, Sophie Scott, Adam Rutherford, Jim Al-Khalili, Amy Dickman, Beverley Glover, Callum Roberts, Jan Zalasiewicz, Danielle George, Mark Miodownik, Helen Czerski and Kevin Fong

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