1. Gravitational Waves: Hundred years ago, in 1915, Albert Einstein drafted his paper on the General theory of relativity. With continuum of four dimensional space-time in which gravity is geometric distortion, it also predicted gravitational waves moving through the space-time fabric.
On 11 February 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first direct detection of a gravitational wave predicted by the general relativity theory of Albert Einstein.
The gravitational wave itself had originated from a mega-celestial event of two black holes merging. That event has been named as GW150914 and happened at a distance of 1.4±0.6 billion light years from earth. In other words, even as a very young planet, when the Earth was tentatively forming some gelly like phenomenon called life in its primordial oceans, the gravitational wave started leaving its place of origin.
As the waves took 1.4 billion years to reach and then carry on its travel, that slimy phenomenon has branched into the vast tree of life in which the humans would develop the awareness, intelligence and technology to wait for the signal that the gravitational wave would produce. Surely that is one monumental event for science and humanity at large to celebrate.
2.Chimpanzees’ Sense of Wonder?: In March 2016 Nature magazine published a paper reporting ‘newly discovered stone tool-use behaviour and stone accumulation sites in wild chimpanzees reminiscent of human cairns‘. This is the ‘first record of repeated observations of individual chimpanzees exhibiting stone tool use for a purpose other than extractive foraging at what appear to be targeted trees‘.
Laura Kehoe, one of the discoverers of this phenomenon, had earlier pointed out that we cannot claim that chimpanzees have developed a ‘religion’ at this stage. In a cautious statement she stated that ‘we simply don’t know yet since we have not settled on one theory of what the chimps are doing’.
Kehoe pointed out that the many traits ‘we arrogantly assumed were uniquely human have been found in other species.’ Kehoe explained: “We are not alone in our ability to feel joy or sorrow, mourn the loss of a loved one, act in altruistic ways, solve complex problems or hold unique personalities. But are we the only species with a sense of the sacred? The spiritual?“
She further recalled that Jane Goodall had in 2005 speculated in the so-called ‘waterfall’ dance of Chimpanzee, which she discovered in 1960s, there might be an inner state of ‘related awe and wonder‘. Surely the discovery can be considered a giant leap in understanding our own closest evolutionary cousin.
3.Of New Satellites and Hammers of Gods: ‘Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth‘, with these words Paul Chodas of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, announced a minor second satellite for planet Earth.
While an addition of a minor moon to Earth may look even romantic, we were all reminded how dangerously close we are always to the hammers of Gods in August. That month an asteroid was discovered in the night of August 27-28.
Named 2016 QA2, this asteroid was twice the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor, that entered the atmosphere over Russia in 2013. What makes this very common space rocks discovery and naming sensationally interesting is that this reached its closest approach to Earth on August 28 itself, just hours after its discovery. Even more disturbing is the fact that it passed over Earth at distance closer than the moon, which is just 84,619 km. This is almost a hairline distance in terms of celestial dimensions.
4. Science breaks human-non-human barriers in acts of cognition: This year, the scientific journal Current Biology published a paper by plant researchers from Israel and England who detected similar context-sensitive “risk-taking” abilities in pea plants.
In the experiment, pea plants had their root systems split and put in two pots. The soil in one pot supplied the plants with the necessary amount of nutrients constantly. In the other pot, the nutrient supply was inconsistent. It was observed that the plants developed more roots in the pot with the regular supply of nutrients.
Then, in a variation of this test, the scientists decreased the nutrient availability in the nutrient-rich pot to levels lower than the quantity necessary for plant growth. The nutrient supply was then consistent in the pot but lesser than the minimum required quantity for plant life processes. The other pot was still inconsistent; the nutrient levels fluctuated, so there was no guarantee that the nutrient levels would always be sufficient, but there was a possibility. In this case, it was seen that plants started developing roots in the pot with fluctuating nutrient availability. In other words, plants seem to exhibit the same “risk-taking ability” which has been hitherto explained only in “higher animals.”
This year, another paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that a study by biologist Andrew B Barron and philosopher Colin Klein of Macquarie University, Australia, declared that insects have “a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience”.
In yet another paper published this year by psychologists from New Zealand and Germany, the authors discovered that pigeons have the ability to process the relationship between letters in allowable or unallowable sequences. The study concluded saying, “findings demonstrate that visual systems neither genetically nor organizationally similar to humans can be recycled to represent the orthographic code that defines words.”
5. The year witnessed new climate change records: The year 2016 saw the ascendancy of a soon-to-be United States administration which seems determined to wage a war on the science of climate change. The year also saw the world pass in an irreversible manner the 400 parts per million threshold of carbon dioxide (CO2) emission. According to scientists, it is unlikely that the CO2 levels would dip from the current level in the time frame of our generation.
Additionally, August 2016 got the reputation of being the hottest month in the last 136 years. Solar energy technology is growing fast. The new Adani Group-funded solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, which has a capacity of 648MW and covers an area of 10 sq km, has become the “largest solar power plant at a single location taking the title from the Topaz Solar Farm in California, which has a capacity of 550 MW”, according to a report. The future is certainly looking upwards.