Which scientific breakthrough of 2017 made the biggest waves?

22 Dec 2017

Image: nikolay100/Shutterstock

The biggest scientific breakthrough of 2017 has been named by Science, and it might not come as a surprise.

It was a massive year for astronomy, with just some of the announcements including the discovery of seven Earth-like planets in the star system TRAPPIST-1, and the discovery of another star system that, for all intents and purposes, could be considered the solar system’s ‘twin’.

But, according to the journal Science, the biggest breakthrough of the year was the discovery of the collision of two massive neutron stars 130m light years away, which, until August this year, had never been seen before by astronomers.

LIGO and the European Southern Observatory revealed the news in October that they had detected both gravitational waves and a light source for the first time ever.

The cosmic event was marked on 17 August and was evidence of space time rippling, resulting from the merging of two of these extremely dense, compact objects.

The cataclysmic aftermaths of this kind of merger – long-predicted events called kilonovae – disperse heavy elements such as gold and platinum throughout the universe.

The fact that it was only 27 months after gravitational waves were first confirmed made the breakthrough all the more remarkable, according to Science, and follows on from what was named as 2016’s breakthrough of the year.

“It’s been super exciting to see something that was just an idea come to life,” said Daniel Kasen of the University of California, Berkeley, who has modelled kilonovae. “All this stuff was done basically with eyes-closed theory.”

For 2018, astronomers are now hoping to see new types of events, such as mergers of a neutron star and a black hole.


There were a number of runners-up also announced, including the topic for this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, cryo-electron microscopy.

The technique allows scientists to create freeze-frame images of complex molecules as they interact with each other. This year, it gave researchers a new look at how spliceosomes – key machines for processing RNA – function.

There was also a runner-up prize for the discovery of an ancient ice sample in Antarctica, which is 2.7m years old – 1.7m years older than any previous ice sample.

This discovery pushes back the direct atmospheric record to a pivotal time in the planet’s climate history.

A full list of the runners-up can be found at Science.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic