The top 10 science stories of 2018

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images The NASA InSight spacecraft launches.
  • 2018 was a big year for science.
  • Among the stories was the world’s first GM baby and the death of Stephen Hawking.
  • The Australian Science Media Centre has picked its top 10 science stories.

2018 was a big year for science.

Among the news was the creation of the world’s first genetically modified babies, a setback for driverless cars, a farewell to Stephen Hawking, and the creation of Australia’s own space agency

The Australian Science Media Centre has picked its top 10 science stories:

The death of Stephen Hawking

The British cosmologist died at the age of 76. Hawking, who suffered from motor neurone disease, shot to popular fame with his 1988 book A Brief History of Time which sold 10 million copies in 20 years. His life was immortalised in the film The Theory of Everything, based on a book by his ex-wife Jane, in 2014.

The world’s first GM baby?

He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, announced in November the creation of the world’s first gene-edited humans. He says he used a technique called CRISPR to edit genes in two embryos, twin girls Lulu and Nanah. He hoped the gene editing would make the babies immune to HIV. The news sparked outrage among the scientific community, which railed against his “irresponsible”, “unethical” and “monstrous” work. His claims could not be verified.

Australia’s own space agency

The Federal Government earmarked $50 million in seed funding. The Australian Space Agency was officially launched in July this year. Former CSIRO boss Megan Clark, who led the government’s initial investigation into the creation of the agency, is the Chief Executive, and it has been temporarily headquartered in Canberra until a permanent base can be found.

Time is running out to limit global warming to 1.5°C

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in October warning that greenhouse gas emissions must drop to zero by 2050 if we are to limit global average temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels –- the more ambitious target agreed as part of the Paris Climate Agreement. Exceeding the 1.5°C threshold would likely kill off coral reefs, end summer Arctic sea ice, and expose hundreds of millions of us to deadly heat waves, food and water shortages, and extreme weather, warned the experts.

NASA’s InSight landed on Mars

NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander successfully touched down on the red planet in November. InSight’s mission is to study the deep interior of the planet, measuring seismic activity and heat flows, with the aim of building an accurate 3D model of Mars. In December, relayed its first audio recording — the first time a human has listened to the Martian wind.

An aspirin a day won’t keep the doctor away

Researchers in September published the results of the largest clinical trial conducted in Australia, finding that taking a daily dose of aspirin doesn’t lower the risk of death or disability in elderly people without a history of heart disease, but it does increase the risk of major bleeding problems. Many older people without a history of heart disease have been advised that a daily dose of aspirin is a sensible preventative measure. The study, known as the Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly (ASPREE) trial followed more than 19,000 healthy people aged 70 and over for five years.

Great Barrier Reef

In April, Australian and US scientists warned that the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) may never fully recover from damage caused by the marine heatwave of 2016. The heat caused a catastrophic coral die-off, transforming the ecology of around a third of the reef, they said.

Killed by a self-driving car

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bicycle outside a pedestrian crossing on a four-lane road in Tempe, Phoenix, when she was hit by an Uber vehicle travelling at about 65km/h. She later died in hospital. The car had been in self-driving mode but with an operator behind the wheel. An investigation found the vehicle’s perception system had classified Herzberg as an unknown object until six seconds before the crash.

Long live the kilogram

Scientists around the world decided to ditch Le Grand K — the solid cylinder of platinum and iridium housed in Paris and used since 1889 to define the kilogram. The kilogram was the last remaining unit of measurement defined by a physical object. The new kilo is based on a universal natural constant called the Planck constant — the amount of energy released in light when electrons in atoms jump around from one energy level to another.

An Australian wins the world’s most prestigious maths prize

Australian mathematician Akshay Venkatesh won the Fields Medal, sometimes described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Venkatesh, from Perth, received the award for his work on the maths of whole numbers and of dynamic systems. Venkatesh was a child prodigy, completing high school and enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of WA at age 13, and graduating with an honours degree in pure mathematics aged just 16. Venkatesh is now 36 and teaches mathematics in the US. He wast at Stanford University and is currently a professor at Institute for Advanced Study.

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