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Whoa, science: Our favorite stories of 2016

The collision of two black holes — a tremendously powerful event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO — is shown in this still image from a computer simulation. (SXS Project via Reuters)

After reading last week's story about the supervolcano below Italy that might be close to waking up, a co-worker joked that Speaking of Science should start a spinoff blog titled, “Whoa, science is scary.”

But that's basically what Speaking of Science is, I replied. Almost everything we publish could run under a headline that starts “Whoa, science..." — as in, “Whoa, science is beautiful,” “Whoa, science makes my head hurt,” etc. This classification applies to the deep mysteries, strange discoveries and pioneering experiments that Speaking of Science typically reports on.

Then there's the news that makes you think “Hmm” — as in, “Hmm, I guess that makes sense,” “Hmm, that's weird” or “Hmm, I'm not sure what to think.” Stories in this category make fewer headlines, but they are the bulk of the research that goes on every day. These are tales of incremental progress, arcane disagreements about obscure areas of study and successful follow-up studies that confirm what researchers already believed to be true. It takes both kinds of research to make great science happen, and both kinds of posts to keep this blog going. Here are a few of our favorite 2016 examples.

Whoa, science made our heads hurt when researchers announced they'd detected gravitational waves (ripples in the pond of space time) heralding a new era in which astronomers can listen for some of the most mysterious and elusive phenomena in the universe. But that discovery came only after a century of unproven theorizing, bitter disappointment, tiny improvements and heroic teamwork — a reminder that all breakthroughs are the product of countless “Hmm” moments. And last summer, the scientists announced they'd made a second detection, a seemingly lesser moment that nonetheless was essential to moving gravitational-wave research forward.

We thought, “Whoa, science is scary” quite often while writing about efforts to engineer the human genome. This year saw the first birth of a “three-parent baby,” the announcement of a new project to “write” a synthetic human genome and the pondering of “what it means to be human” in the midst of a bitter fight over the ethics and ownership of CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that could one day be used to erase harmful mutations from our DNA. But make sure you remember the “Hmm” stories, too: A federal panel approved the use of CRISPR in humans, and scientists considered whether to use gene-editing tools on insects to fight diseases like malaria and Zika. (A bonus “Ha-ha” story: Jennifer Lopez will be starring in a new TV series in which she must save the planet from a mad CRISPR-wielding scientist.)

Few things are as “whoa"-inducing as the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, which harbors meteorites older than anything on Earth and a taxidermy lion collected by Theodore Roosevelt. Our favorite Tale From the Vault was probably the story of the skeleton of Robert Kennicott — a collector for the Smithsonian who, a century after his death, became part of the collection himself. The collection also gave us plenty of reasons to say, “Hmm,” like when researchers discovered a new species of dolphin just sitting on a shelf. It makes you wonder what else might be hiding in those halls.

Whoa, science is wild” could easily be the headline for several stories about space. Researchers found evidence that a massive ninth planet might be lurking at the edge of our solar system and detected a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, our sun's closest neighbor. But discoveries like that take a lot of work, and you can read about the methods used to find exoplanets and why you wouldn't want to move to Proxima b just yet. Likewise, entrepreneur Elon Musk's announcement of plans to deliver humans to Mars may have made your head spin. Ground yourself by reading about the difficulty of sending people to another planet, the debate over an “impossible” fuel-less space engine and how 50 percent of all Mars missions fail, including the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander. Hmm, space travel is hard.

This year also reminded us that, whoa, science can tell us a lot about our past. We learned that our Pliocene-era cousin, Lucy, may have died in a tragic fall from a tree, that evidence for a Chinese legend about an ancient flood was hiding in the ground beneath geologists' feet and that Neanderthals may have built sophisticated stone structures, suggesting that they were far smarter than scientists once believed. But for every startling new discovery, there were also findings that confirmed what we already thought to be true: This year we wrote about three distinct lines of evidence that, hmm, humans arrived in the Americas thousands of years earlier than some originally thought. The only thing missing is actual remains from those early human settlers. Perhaps that discovery will give us a reason to say, “whoa, science” in 2017.