In a couple weeks, 2017 will start fading into history. But before we start to imagine the many possibilities of a brand-new year, here’s a look back at some of the biggest events, developments, and discoveries of 2017.
1. The total package
On August 21, millions of people across the United States viewed the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in ninety-nine years. According to NASA, over 3.6 billion people checked on its progress via social media.
In fourteen states from Oregon to South Carolina, as the moon traveled west to east, its shadow covered the sun, with the dramatic effect of turning day to night. Along the “path of totality,” a phrase that became part of our everyday vocabulary in the days leading up to the event, observers witnessed the sun disappear beneath the moon’s shadow―for two minutes and forty seconds at most, and for only a few seconds at the eastern edge of the path, outside of Charleston, South Carolina. In cities and towns including Carbondale, Illinois—dubbed an eclipse hub—and Cherokee, North Carolina, thousands gathered to take in this uncommon and unforgettable experience.
If you missed it this year, you won’t have to wait decades for a chance to catch the next total solar eclipse―just seven years. On April 7, 2024, the moon’s shadow is expected to sail across Mexico and North America. The 2024 path of totality should stretch from Mexico to Maine, and pass through Texas, upstate New York, New England, and Carbondale (again!) just to name a few locations.
According to space and astronomy website space.com, NASA officials have said it usually takes 375 years for a total solar eclipse to pass over the same area on Earth twice. Guess there’s just something special—or maybe cosmic—about Carbondale.
2. Hurricanes wreak havoc
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season hammered the United States and the Caribbean with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But those devastating storms were just the three most infamous of ten named Atlantic hurricanes recorded between September and mid-October of this year. According to the Weather Channel, that extraordinary storm activity helped to make September “the most active month of any Atlantic hurricane season on record in terms of Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE).” (ACE measures both the strength and duration of tropical storms and hurricanes.)
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Hurricane Center (NHC) offers perspective on 2017’s Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ended November 30, that is both valuable and, well, a little wonky. In its Atlantic tropical weather summary issued November 1, the NHC matter-of-factly states that “from a seasonal perspective, activity in the Atlantic basin so far in 2017 is well above average.” The summary goes on to rank the 2017 season as the basin’s fifth most active on record, surpassed only by 1893, 1926, 1933, and 2005.
The toll of this year’s hurricanes―in human lives and in damage to property and landscapes―has been enormous. In locations including Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas; Key West, Florida; Puerto Rico; and the US Virgin Islands, people are still recovering from the damage and loss wrought by Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And many are still dealing with a lack of resources and conveniences that most of us take for granted. As NBC News reported on November 20, power had been restored to less than half of Puerto Rico by mid-November, and one in ten Puerto Ricans still were without safe drinking water.
3. Lost languages found
Medieval emperor Charlemagne once said: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Just imagine, then, how it feels to be among international researchers whose findings recently uncovered ancient languages thought to have been erased by time and circumstance.
Researchers from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) near Los Angeles have discovered several new texts that were hidden under many layers of writing in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, near Mount Sinai in Egypt. The monastery, considered a sacred site in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, also houses one of the world’s oldest libraries in continuous use (if not the oldest.
According to multiple sources, technology is responsible for bringing these previously secret texts to light—literally. The manuscripts are palimpsests—which means they contain multiple layers of writing. As the Atlantic detailed, “to reveal the erased words on the palimpsests, the researchers photograph each page 12 times while it is illuminated with different-colored visible light, ultraviolet light, and infrared light. Other images are taken with light shining from behind the page or off to one side at an oblique angle . . . . Together, these photographs help reveal the minute traces of ink left on the pages after they were erased or the scratches left by a scribe’s quill. Computer algorithms then analyze and combine the images so the text on top can be separated from the words below.”
In addition to unearthing the little-known Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic languages from the palimpsests at Saint Catherine’s, researchers have discovered previously unheard-of Greek poetry and medical writings. One such treatise includes the “oldest-known recipe” of Hippocrates, the Greek physician sometimes called the father of medicine.
The Atlantic also notes that St. Catherine’s, with its ties to the autonomous Church of Sinai and Eastern Orthodox Church, has been threatened by attacks in its proximity instigated by ISIS-affiliated groups. Under those conditions, it’s even more notable that the researchers are making their discoveries accessible online for study by scholars worldwide.
Indeed, the parchments that researchers have pored for clues to past languages and cultures “are delicate gold mines of historical importance.”
4. In your face
As the MIT Technology Review stated in September, “facial recognition technology has been around for years.” But what puts facial recognition technology in the breakthrough category for 2017 is the fact that it’s moving into the mainstream. According to the same website’s list of ten breakthrough technologies, China is leading the way in “face recognition technology that is finally accurate enough to be widely used in financial transactions and other everyday applications.”
For instance, Alipay, a mobile payment app with more than 120 million users in China, allows people to transfer money “using only your face as credentials.” Baidu, a company that operates a popular search engine in China, is becoming another major player in the country’s growing facial recognition business. The company now is at work on a system that will allow customers to pick up rail tickets by simply “showing their faces.”
One reason facial recognition technology is working well is that it is now using “deep learning, an artificial-intelligence technique that is especially effective for image recognition because it makes a computer zero in on the facial features that will most reliably identify a person.”
And that brings us to the new iPhone X, which uses a version of facial recognition called Face ID. As described at Apple’s website, Face ID “projects and analyzes more than 30,000 invisible dots to create a precise depth map of your face.”
But skepticism about the security and usefulness of facial recognition technology on one’s cell phone remain. In the words of one Forbes writer: “from a technical point of view, Face ID on the new iPhone X is marvellous. Meanwhile in the real word the practicality of facial recognition remains to be seen.”
Debate to be continued…
5. Toss-up: New planets and interstellar intrigue
Question: What’s the bigger deal? The discovery of seven Earth-size planets about forty light years away from our solar system, or the first known interstellar asteroid—a cigar-shaped object spotted while speeding through our solar system.
Answer: It depends on who you ask.
According to TRAPPIST-1, the TRAPPIST-1 system, made up of at least seven planets in orbit, was discovered earlier this year by the TRAnsiting Planets and Planeteslmals Small Telescope, (hence the acronym TRAPPIST). The planets, which orbit a tiny star about half the temperature of the sun’s surface, are similar to Earth and Venus in size and mass. And to add to the excitement about their discovery, according to NASA, three of the planets were found to exist in a “habitable zone, the orbital distance where a rocky planet with an atmosphere could have liquid water on its surface
As for the TRAPPIST-1 system’s star, scientists have estimated its age at between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years. That’s about twice the age of our solar system, which has been around for about 4.5 billion years.
But astronomers also have been intrigued this fall by the interstellar asteroid detected in our solar system on October 19. This asteroid was no run-of-the-mill object speeding through space. With its distinctive shape and fluctuating levels of brightness, this celestial body was nicknamed ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word for messenger or scout. And University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech describes it as “an oddball.”
Meech, who led an international team studying the asteroid, went on to say researchers found ‘Oumuamua to be “a rapidly rotating object, at least the size of a football field, that changed in brightness quite dramatically. This change in brightness hints that ‘Oumuamua could be more than 10 times longer than it is wide—something which has never been seen in our own solar system.”
Whether this interstellar wonder has been traveling through space for millions or even billions of years is something we don’t know, said Paul Chodas of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies in Pasadena, California. So, given the knowns and the unknowns about this mysterious object, it’s hard to argue with the words of science writer and editor Corey S. Powell: “’Oumuamua is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning.”
Here’s to a quiet end to 2017 as it slips away, and to all the new developments and discoveries to come in 2018!
Tracie Fellers is a writer, editor, and educator who started her career writing for daily newspapers in North Carolina and Virginia. She has published fiction and nonfiction in anthologies and literary journals, including Long Story Short: Flash Fiction by Sixty-Five of North Carolina’s Finest Writers, 27 Views of Raleigh, and Obsidian. She lives and works in Durham, North Carolina.