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Scientific discoveries inspire amid a turbulent 2016

by Rowan Hooper

Special To The Japan Times

A number of the notable science stories of the past year are, quite literally, out of this world.

For me, the story of the year has to be the August discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting the closest star to our own. The star, Proxima Centauri, is just 4.2 light-years from Earth. The planet circling that star has been named Proxima Centauri b. Proxima Centauri b was discovered by astronomers working on a project called Pale Red Dot, who reported that the planet lies in the star’s habitable zone, meaning that it could possess water and, maybe, life.

It’s very exciting but it will be a while before we can confirm any of this. The planet can’t be directly observed with current telescope technology and, indeed, it was only first discovered by inference through the gravitational wobble a planet generates on a star.

In November, by the way, astronomers confirmed another peculiar fact about Proxima Centauri. It is located near two other stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, and for a century scientists have wondered whether the stars orbit around each other.

The relationship of these three stars was in fact the inspiration for the most extraordinary novel I read this year. “Death’s End,” the final installment of Chinese science-fiction writer Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, was published in English this year and it completely blew my mind. Liu knows a lot about cutting-edge science, and the relationship between the Alpha Centauri stars provided him with the name for the first book in the series: “The Three-Body Problem.” All three installments, though, are highly recommended.

Fake news has been in the headlines this year but scientists at the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities in Tokorozawa took this a step further in October with mice.

Backing up a little, you might have heard of the “rubber hand illusion.” To produce the illusion, a subject sits next to a rubber hand with their own hand hidden. A scientist then strokes the subject’s hand and the rubber hand at the same time, and the subject’s brain is tricked into thinking the rubber hand is actually their own hand.

Kenji Kansaku and his team found that mice can be tricked in the same way, except the researchers used a rubber tail instead of a rubber hand in their tests. Kansaku hopes the discovery might help develop new kinds of prosthetic limbs.

In February, meanwhile, scientists confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space and time that are created when massive objects move. Sceintists have suspected that gravitational waves exist ever since Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity, but this is the first time they have been directly detected. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected the waves with sensors that can measure the expansion of space and time over the distance of a thousandth of the size of a proton.

Let’s not also forget that it was a fantastic year for Yoshinori Ohsumi at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of how autophagy works. This is a fundamental cellular process that allows cells to degrade, recycle and repair themselves.

In June, forensic scientists discovered that some genes switch on only after we die, including genes that are involved in cardiac muscle and healing as well as genes linked to cancer. Scientists suspect the genes are activated as part of a last-gasp attempt to survive, despite the fact that the body has already mostly died. It’s sometimes hard to say when death occurs. There is brain death, for example, but this can happen when the body is still technically alive. However, I think it’s extraordinary that there is such a blurring of the lines between life and death.

Staying with something almost otherworldly, I was amazed by reports in March from biologists in the Republic of Guinea that they had found evidence for what seemed to be a shrine in the forest — built and used by chimpanzees. Camera traps set up near trees marked with strange scratches revealed that chimps were laying stones in the hollow of certain trees. What’s more, the cameras showed that the chimps would strike the trees with rocks. Biologists suggested that such behavior demonstrated a ritualistic side of chimpanzees, something that could even point to the origins of human religious belief.

And there we have it. While 2016 may have been blighted by some miserable news in the fields of politics, economics and entertainment, scientific discoveries have continued to inspire.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”).