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A year of discoveries gives scientists something to aim for in 2018

by Rowan Hooper

Contributing Writer

In my round up of this year’s science stories I’m going to choose some big ones as well as some stories that made less of an impact but still resonated with me.

Let’s start with one of these smaller stories. The poet Fujiwara no Teika, who died in Kyoto in 1241, is well-known for compiling and editing such classics as the “Tale of Genji,” and for his influence on Japanese poetry for hundreds of years. This year, however, Ryuho Kataoka of the National Institute of Polar Research in Tachikawa found that Fujiwara also recorded astronomical events.

In “Meigetsuki” (“The Record of the Clear Moon”), Fujiwara noted the phenomenon of prolonged auroras — that is, auroras that persist for two or more nights. In 1204, Fujiwara wrote about an aurora that took place from Feb. 21 to 23. By cross-checking with a Chinese text from the same time, Kataoka has shown that the account relates to a large sunspot, indicating a period of intense solar magnetic activity.

Fujiwara’s observations of the sky were regarded in the context of his fiction, says Tsuneyo Terashima of the National Institute of Japanese Literature, and not really valued for their scientific specificity. “We now realize that “Meigetsuki” in fact provides a lucid and accurate account of celestial conditions of the period.” I like that, in the past, educated people were not pigeon-holed into either the arts or the sciences. Both realms of endeavor can benefit from cross-fertilization.

And now for something a bit more startling. In April, scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania revealed that they had developed an artificial uterus. They had kept fetal lambs alive in the uterus, which is essentially a sealed, high-tech plastic bag, for four weeks, feeding them and supplying oxygen through tubes mimicking a placenta.

Some of the lambs were “born” — the bags were cut open — and the lambs weaned and grew as normal. The pictures of the fetal lambs sealed in their transparent plastic wombs has stayed with me. The Philadelphia team plan to try gestating human babies artificially in three to five years. That time frame might be ambitious, and the device used for humans won’t be as graphic or as startling but, still, the idea that we can grow human babies outside of a woman is genuinely the stuff of the future.

As is the discovery of some intriguing new exoplanets. For a long time when astronomers reported discovering planets in distant solar systems, I couldn’t get excited. They were just too far away. But following 2016’s discovery of exoplanets only four light-years away, this year we found several more exoplanets in orbit around stars that might be more favorable to harboring life. In particular, planets around the stars Tau Ceti and Ross 128 — 11 and 12 light-years away, respectively — look very promising. Of course, it will still take a huge effort to get there, but we have something to aim for.

Closer to home, another discovery: this time of a new lifeform. In the forests of Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University Graduate School of Science and his team discovered a new species of parasitic plant.

Some plants have abandoned photosynthesis and instead tap into the resources held in fungal growths underground. The plants live most of their lives underground — they don’t need to see the sun to grow, after all — and only emerge to flower. This is when Suetsugu’s team found it.

What I like about this discovery — apart from the fact that the new species is beautiful and purple — is that it shows that even in the extensively studied ecosystems of Japan, there are still new things to find. It also reinforces that there is an entire, vital ecosystem underground, supported and enabled by fungal threads that extend across huge areas and connect with many thousands of plants.

On this environmental note, a warning. In 2017, there was a Group of 20 summit on climate change, which ended with 19 of the attending world leaders signing a declaration (the United States, under President Donald Trump, did not sign). The dangers of climate change are many, but one that is of particular concern to Japan is sea-level rise. It needn’t be said how vital the coasts are to Japan, with its mountainous and unfarmable inlands.

However, a paper published this year by Keiko Udo and Yuriko Takeda at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University took data on future projected sea-level rise and showed how it would affect the coast of Japan. The paper, published in “Coastal Engineering Journal,” predicted the loss of beaches in 77 coastal zones throughout Japan, which the authors warn would impact coastal protection and the beach environment, as well as beach utilization.

There are many things to develop and discover, but much that needs protecting. It’s a fitting note on which to end our review of the year.

Rowan Hooper is managing editor of New Scientist magazine. He tweets at @rowhoop and his new book, “Superhuman,” is out next year.