Science certainly had its share of newsworthy items in 2017, from the solar eclipse to the first gene editing of a human embryo, to the discovery of Earth-like planets around a nearby star to the expanding powers of artificial intelligence and the success of the first artificial womb.
And Canadian researchers had their say, as well. Yes, there were a few perhaps too on-the-nose Canadian science results in 2017 —researchers at McGill University used maple syrup to boost the power of antibiotics, for instance, while the Royal Astronomical Society officially got an asteroid named “11780 Thunder Bay.”
But how about these science firsts? U of Toronto scientists invented an injectable heart patch made of polymer scaffold to repair damaged hearts without the need for surgery. Researchers at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario, created an accurate test to determine the onset of dementia. While, scientists at the University of Guelph figured out how a gecko grows its tail back and UBC engineers developed a stronger concrete using recycled tires.
Canadians tackled topics of social concern, too. Take the impending legalization of marijuana in Canada. Researchers at the BC Centre on Substance Use concluded that contrary to the prevailing argument, using cannabis is not a likely gateway to stronger drugs — in fact, weed can work as an exit drug. Studies showed, on the one hand, that medical marijuana users are more able to cut out the use of tranquilizers for the treatment of anxiety, but on the other hand, that university students with anxiety issues are more likely to overuse marijuana to address mental health symptoms.
How should the government set up our country’s weed scene once recreational pot is given the OK? UBC Okanagan researchers concluded that the dispensary model has distinct advantages as the neighbourhood pot shop has high customer satisfaction and positive social value.
Another topic in the public eye would be obesity, overweight and nutrition, with Health Canada currently in the midst of a major overhaul of its nutrition guidelines and food product regulations. On that issue, Canadian researchers had a lot to say, as well. To point to just a couple of studies, UNB scientists found that banning junk food at public schools actually leads to fewer overweight and obese children, while the Heart & Stroke Foundation determined that our kids are exposed to a shocking 25 million junk food ads a year.
Finally, on a worldwide scale, surely one of the biggest science stories of 2017 had to be the discovery of gravitational waves by an international team of researchers and based at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States. And Canadian scientists had a role to play in that one, too.
Predicted by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity, it took a century for scientists to actually confirm the presence of gravitational waves — ripples in space-time caused by events like the merging of two neutron stars. While gravitational waves were first observed in 2015, the 2017 confirmation was the scientific evidence needed to prove their existence. Going forward, there will be more experimenting on gravitational waves (including results from the new CHIME telescope established in BC’s Okanagan Valley), but this year’s results were the breakthrough everyone was waiting for — enough to award it the Nobel Prize in physics.
The Canadian input came in two forms: researchers with the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the U of T developed the software that was used to analyze the huge data flow from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States in order to help detect the waves, while astronomers from U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (working at the time at telescopes in Chile) were relied upon to visually confirm the spiralling neutron stars as the source of the waves.
Here’s to another banner year in science for 2018!