From the discovery of gravitational waves to a promising male contraceptive, it was a groundbreaking year for science
It came from beyond the Large Magellanic Cloud. The signal, a mere 20 milliseconds long, captured the moment when two black holes slammed together a cataclysm that sent ripples through spacetime and onwards to Earth, where they made instruments chirp and scientists cheer. We have detected gravitational waves, said David Reitze of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo). We did it.
The announcement ranked as the physics discovery of the year, confirming Einsteins century-old theory of gravity and putting the Ligo team on course for a Nobel. But the real excitement is yet to come. For the first quarter of a million years, the cosmos was hidden from astronomers. Now scientists can build gravitational wave observatories and, with them, look back to the birth of the universe. We can study the moment of creation.
It wasnt the only time astronomers celebrated in 2016. In August, the European Southern Observatory in the Chilean desert saw changes in the light coming from Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to the sun. An Earth-sized planet was pulling the red dwarf around. What thrilled astronomers was that the newly discovered world lay in the stars habitable zone, that Goldilocks region of space where the temperature is right for liquid water, and along with water, perhaps life. The discovery brought the question, Are we alone? to our cosmic doorstep and with it the realisation that such planets are not rare.
Stephen Hawking is convinced that aliens are out there, but hes wary of inviting them over. In his 2016 film, Stephen Hawkings Favourite Places, he warned that meeting up with a technologically advanced bunch of cosmic hooligans might do for humanity what Christopher Columbus did for the Native Americans.
Hawking is equally suspicious of artificial intelligence. Yes, superintelligent machines might solve our greatest challenges, but not if they wipe us out instead. Fortunately, that threat remains a distant one.