Yes, 2016 was a terrible year for many reasons. Even in its last moments, it seems to want to cause us a heck of a lot of grief.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of good things happened this year too. Science, in particular, has decrypted the universe rather splendidly, and we are wiser and smarter than we were back in 2015.
So, to send off 2016, here are 16 of the coolest new things we now know about the universe thanks to science.
1 – There is a massive metal dragon inside Earth’s core
This enigmatic, serpent-shaped, liquid iron beast is traveling around Earth’s molten outer core. Currently under Alaska, it encircles about half of the entire planet’s circumference, and it’s the fastest moving thing beneath our feet.
It’s also messing with Earth’s magnetic field, and it appears to be accelerating.
There’s actually a lot we don’t know about this metallic jet stream, but this daisy-chain of doom is ludicrously fascinating, and perhaps a little frightening.
2 – We know the secret to Pluto’s heart
New Horizons zipped by the dwarf planet Pluto back in 2015, and some of the most remarkable images it sent back were of a basin that strongly resembled a cartoon heart. Ever since, scientists have been trying to work out what may have formed this spectacular feature, and there are plenty of theories flying around.
The most compelling, however, appears to be that the smooth basin is a radioactive sea of nitrogen icebergs. And if you have liquid features at the surface of a mainly solid ice world, then you must still have a source of heat.
Pluto is too small to have retained any of its primordial (formation) heat, so the sea must be sustained by the decay of radioactive elements from within. And, at just 1 million years of age, Pluto’s cardiovascular-like sea is one of the youngest features in the Solar System.
3 – An entire continent was destroyed by the Himalayas
Mount Everest. Nikita Serdechyy/Shutterstock
The collision of India with Eurasia about 40 to 60 million years ago actually forced down an entire continent’s worth of rock into the fiery, partly molten mantle. Seeing as the buoyancy of continents means that they normally “float” on the mantle below, this is quite an impressive feat.
4 – Greenland sharks can live for up to 400 years
By carefully analyzing the development of the lenses in the eyes of sharks, scientists discovered that a female Greenland shark might have been born as far back as the reign of James I.
This would make her the oldest living vertebrate animal, and it’s likely she’s not alone in her old age – plenty of other Greenland sharks are likely to be just as elderly. For comparison, the longest living human was 122 years old.
The Greenland shark is, however, not the oldest living life form on the planet. A deep-sea clam named Ming – named after the Chinese dynasty during which it was born – died in 2006 at the ripe old age of 507, for example.
5 – A second Earth may exist in the star system nearest our own
An artist's impression of Proxima b. ESO/M. Kornmesser
Back in August, astronomers announced that a terrestrial planet, one that has similar base temperatures to our own world, was detected orbiting the star nearest our own. Named Proxima b, it is more likely than most exoplanets to contain liquid water and perhaps even an atmosphere.
This means that a second home could be waiting for us in our very own cosmic backyard. At just over 4 light-years away, it’s as close as any extrasolar planet is going to get to Earth – and maybe, just maybe, there’s already alien life on its surface or beneath its waves.
6 – Dinosaurs may have been cooing to each other
A curious analysis of the vocal chords of various living dinosaurs – the birds – suggested that their ability to “coo”, or make noises without opening their mouths, might have evolved millions of years earlier than previously thought. In fact, this ability evolved at least 16 times independently in the group that contained birds, crocodiles, and long-dead dinosaurs.
This means that the ferocious T. rex or perhaps a terrifying megaraptor may have been able to coo at each other, as well as roar.
7 – The Great Pyramid of Giza has an ancient defense mechanism
It’s not quite up to Indiana Jones standard, but the most famous ancient structure in the world had a secret defense against tomb raiders. Apart from decoy burial chambers to trick sneaky thieves, the Great Pyramid also contained a series of grooves that were thought to hold giant granite blocks.
These chunks of solid rock could be slid into place by defenders of the tomb, either stopping robbers accessing the gravesites or trapping them inside forever.
8 – Volcanoes will one day be born in New England
For some time, geophysicists have known that there is an anomalous heat signature beneath the northeastern US. It was thought to be the embers of a inactive volcanic hotspot, but a new study has revealed that at least part of it is a separate rising plume of superheated material – one that’s indubitably alive and kicking.
This young fiery fountain means that it’s highly likely that, in a few million years or so, there will be a range of baby volcanoes born in New England.
9 – There may be a ninth planet at the edge of our Solar System
The demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet back in 2006 ruined the childhoods of millions. However, at the start of this year, the very same research team responsible for the grim change announced what amounted to a celestial plot twist.
As it turns out, there’s fairly strong indirect evidence that a Neptune-sized planet may exist at the far end of our Solar System. If spotted and confirmed, this would mean that, once again, we have nine planets orbiting the Sun.
10 – The Moon might be triggering earthquakes
You betrayed us! Triff/Shutterstock
It makes sense when you think about it: the Moon’s gravitational pull is causing earthquakes. Most research is pointing towards them triggering only very little tremors – those barely detectable by humans – but some studies suggest that some of the largest earthquakes of the 21st century may have been kickstarted by the dance of our lunar companion.
11 – Antarctica is hiding thousands of meteorites beneath its ice
Not only is the world’s largest canyon concealed beneath the white surface of the Southern Continent, but it appears that a treasure trove of iron meteorites are also stuck just below the ice.
A recent modeling study revealed that these metallic visitors to Earth, having been heated up by sunlight, may have slipped into the ice before being reburied, hiding them from view for millennia.
12 – We’re pretty sure we know why women have orgasms
The male orgasm has a clear reproductive function, but the female equivalent has been the source of some mystery for a considerable length of time. After all, it’s not needed for fertilization to occur in humans, no matter how awesome it may feel.
However, a new study suggested that the female orgasm used to trigger the start of ovulation, as it does in many comparable mammals today. Over time, this function became unnecessary, and the female orgasm stuck around for pair-bonding reasons instead.
13 – China’s founding myth was true all along
Legends say that the very first unbroken line of Chinese monarchs, the Xia, coincided with a great flood that destroyed much of civilization at the time. Remarkably, archaeological and geological evidence suggests that this legend was in fact true, right down to the date it was said to have happened.
14 – King Tut’s dagger is literally out of this world
The iron meteorite used to form a regal blade. TheLearningPhotographer/Shutterstock
King Tutankhamen was buried with an ornate dagger with an unusual chemical composition. It turns out that this decorative blade was forged from a meteorite that crashed down to Earth thousands of years ago. Not only that, but the iron space rock itself was identified as the Kharga meteorite, one found back in the year 2000 near Alexandria in Egypt.
15 – Io’s atmosphere collapses at night
The innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter is a glorious volcanic hellscape, one that’s shrouded by a sulfurous atmosphere. Not only is this blanket of gas fueled by the eruptions of the very same volcanoes that dot its surface, but a new study found that the atmosphere collapses every single time the moon enters Jupiter’s shadow.
16 – Cats understand the laws of physics
We all know that cats are vengeance-driven, death-dealing, furious, furry felines, but it appears that they may be smarter than we’ve given them credit for. A rather bizarre study involving noisy boxes and suspicious stares concluded that our peculiar pets must have a basic grasp of the laws of physics to go about their daily lives.
We were a little skeptical of this study’s methodology, but it did grant us an opportunity to use ridiculous images of cats in science laboratories.