Here’s the annual On Science Blogs look back at some of last year’s doings in science and medicine. At least some were encouraging. Still, many believe that 2016 has concluded not a moment too soon, and are finding it hard to summon optimism about what lies ahead in 2017.
NOTEWORTHY SCIENCE EVENTS IN 2016
Cosmos magazine’s science Top Ten is heavy on astronomy and space exploration: gravitational waves, Space X, Planet Nine and more. But its first item is about gaming: how Google’s AI program, AlphaGo, beat a top human player at the very complex Chinese game Go.
New Scientist upped its list of 2016’s noteworthy science to Top Twelve. Its staff liked gravitational waves, Planet Nine, and AlphaGo’s feat too. But it spared some notice for women’s reproductive system as well, with an item on rejuvenation of post-menopausal ovaries. This might make babies possible late in life for anyone nuts enough to think that’s a good idea. But it also might be used to postpone detrimental effects of post-menopausal aging, and who could oppose that?
If, like Cosmos and New Scientist, you can’t get enough of the Universe in 2016, the place for you is Space.com, which has put together a mess of lists. A couple of the illustrations accompanying this post are from its list of 100 best space photos. (Click on them to get a decent size.) The other Space.com lists include amazing space discoveries, 10 biggest spaceflight stories, wildest alien planet stories, and NASA’s biggest space feats. NASA’s biggest space feat in 2017 may be to try to persuade the TrumPets that it merits generosity.
LiveScience produced a number of lists too, including its own list of 100 top science photos. See also strangest science stories, strangest medical cases, and 9 biggest archaeology finds. Also, sigh, most depressing climate stories.
The New York Times’s list of top science stories is subjective accounts by its science reporters and therefore a bit idiosyncratic. It includes a 20-year follow-up on efforts in the UK to clone sheep, which originated in 1996 with the late Dolly. Cloning works fine when it works, producing perfectly normal sheep. But it often doesn’t work, and researchers still don’t know why.
Unless you have a subscription to Wired or tolerate ads, you’ll have to turn off your ad blocker and reload the page to get access to Wired’s list of top biology stories. Several have a medical slant, such as items on Zika and the HIV vaccine.
But count on Wired to focus on the odd media-related detail. Such as noting, in an item on the CRISPR gene-editing technique, that the method will serve as a plot device in a TV series being developed by Jennifer Lopez.
Or that in a neuroscience experiment, mice watched the famous 3-minute opening tracking shot in the classic Orson Welles movie Touch of Evil. You’ll have to click on the original piece about the research to find out why the scientists picked that particular film–aside from its obvious utility in attracting attention from journalists (and On Science Blogs.) Alas, the piece does not tell me what I want to know, which is how on Earth do you get mice to watch a movie? Even one as terrific as Touch of Evil? Lab rats, maybe; they’re smart and fascinated by the world around them. But lab mice?
And then there’s science’s dark side. The folks at Retraction Watch did their annual Top Ten list for The Scientist. They noted that 2016 was not a year where one particular retraction attracted a lot of press attention. But 2016 made up for that in volume. It was the second consecutive year with more than 650 retractions.
The retraction number wouldn’t be anything like that high if Retraction Watch itself didn’t exist, so bless their hearts. And I continue to be impressed by how this bad behavior often gets disclosed simply because it was an easily discoverable act of stupidity. Case in point: the peer reviewer whose negative comments helped get a paper rejected by the Annals of Internal Medicine–and who then stole the paper and did get it published in the Annals. (It’s since been retracted.)
NOTEWORTHY MEDICAL SCIENCE EVENTS IN 2016
For comprehensiveness in picking the top medical news of the year, it’s hard to beat the year-end lists of most-important medical news from the New England Journal of Medicine’s Journal Watch. And impossible to beat the price; JWatch appears to be have made not just the lists but the linked JWatch briefs about each item available free. Not usually the case.
Find posts on pediatrics (e-cigarettes, meditation and yoga), women’s health (HPV vaccine, hormones), psychiatry (light treatment, suicide), infectious disease (Zika, of course), cardiology (emphasis on prevention), gastroenterology (H. pylori, fecal transplants make the C. diff cure rate 91%!!!), hospital medicine.
JWatch would also like you to read the blogs, which I believe are always free. One is a revolution of sorts and a window on the future of medical care: “In Practice” is written by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, not often so welcome in the sacred precincts. See Emily Moore’s post on why she won’t treat anti-vaxxers.
The New York Times list of memorable medical stories is an impressionistic one by individual reporters. It mostly covers what you’d expect–Zika, penis transplants, obesity, opioids–but also some novelties. For example, attention to the lack of toilet plumbing in poor parts of the country. A reminder that sanitation (along with clean water) is the greatest public health advance in history.
Let’s end with two discouraging medical roundups. At The Intercept, Jordan Smith wrote about the 60 new restrictions on abortion passed in 19 states during 2016. Despite those legislative moves, data from 2015 show that US life expectancy dropped for the first time since the 1990s. Deaths increased pretty much across the board, in 8 of the 10 leading causes of death and in all population subgroups. Julia Belluz and Sarah Frostenson tell the unhappy tale at Vox.
Pfui on 2016.