1. Opinion

Great American eclipse

FILE -- Eclipse-watchers on Nye Beach in Newport, Ore., Aug. 21, 2017. On Aug. 21,  the country came to a pause as millions of Americans â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0094 even the president â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0094 put on eclipse glasses and stopped to take in the first eclipse to cross the United States since 1918. (Toni Greaves/The New York Times)
FILE -- Eclipse-watchers on Nye Beach in Newport, Ore., Aug. 21, 2017. On Aug. 21, the country came to a pause as millions of Americans â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0094 even the president â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0094 put on eclipse glasses and stopped to take in the first eclipse to cross the United States since 1918. (Toni Greaves/The New York Times)
Published Dec. 28, 2017

Editor's note: It's impossible to say that any particular scientific development was the most important in a given year. But if forced to choose some highlights, New York Times science writers would opt for some of these unforgettable events and findings.

Nothing brings people together like the sun hiding behind the moon. On Aug. 21, the country came to a pause as millions of Americans — even the president — put on eclipse glasses and stopped to take in the first eclipse to cross the U.S. since 1918.

A study by the University of Michigan estimated that 88 percent of American adults — about 215 million people — watched the solar eclipse, either in person or electronically.

Its path across the United States was a scientific bonanza for astronomers who were able to more easily point advanced equipment at the sun.

It's not too soon to start making your plans for the 2024 solar eclipse. On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will enter North America around Mazatlán, Mexico, and leave it just north of St. John's, Newfoundland. In between, it will traverse the United States from Texas to Maine.

New York Times

NICOLET, Quebec — I'm sitting in an outdoor pen with four puppies chewing my fingers, biting my hat and hair, peeing all over me in their excitement. At 8 weeks old, they are 2 feet from nose to tail and must weigh 7 or 8 pounds. They growl and snap over possession of a much-chewed piece of deer skin. They lick my face like I'm a long-lost friend, or a newfound toy. They are just like dogs, but not quite. They are wolves.

When they are full-grown at around 100 pounds, their jaws will be strong enough to crack moose bones. But because these wolves have been around humans since they were blind, deaf and unable to stand, they will still allow people to be near them, to do veterinary exams, to scratch them behind the ears — if all goes well.

Yet even the humans who raised them must take precautions. If one of the people who has bottle-fed and mothered the wolves practically since birth is injured or feels sick, she won't enter their pen to prevent a predatory reaction. No one will run to make one of these wolves chase him for fun. No one will pretend to chase the wolf. Every experienced wolf caretaker will stay alert. Because if there's one thing all wolf and dog specialists I've talked to over the years agree on, it is this: No matter how you raise a wolf, you can't turn it into a dog.

The scientific consensus is that dogs evolved from some kind of extinct wolf 15,000 or more years ago. Most researchers now think it was a case of some wolves spending more time around people to feed on the hunters' leftovers.

People must spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks on end with wolf puppies just to assure them that humans are tolerable. Dog puppies will quickly attach to any human within reach. Even street dogs that have had some contact with people at the right time may still be friendly.

Despite all the similarities, something is deeply different in dog genes, or in how and when those genes become active, and scientists are trying to determine exactly what it is.

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James Gorman, New York Times

RICHMOND, Ky. — From 2003-2012, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of babies born dependent on drugs grew nearly fivefold in the United States. Opioids are the main culprit, and states like Kentucky are particularly hard-hit: 15 of every 1,000 infants here are born dependent on opioids.

Babies with the worst withdrawal symptoms are routinely separated from their mothers and whisked by ambulance, at great expense, to hospitals hours away.

Urban medical centers nationwide are scrambling to expand neonatal intensive care units or to build separate facilities to accommodate a tide of opioid-exposed babies arriving from rural communities. The result, many experts say, is an exercise in good intentions gone awry. After their babies are moved, many new mothers, poor and still struggling with addiction, cannot find transportation or the resources to visit.

Moreover, a growing body of evidence suggests that what these babies need is what has been taken away: a mother. Separating newborns in withdrawal can slow the infants' recovery, studies show, and undermine a fragile parenting relationship. When mothers are close at hand, infants in withdrawal require less medication and fewer costly days in intensive care.

"Mom is a powerful treatment," said Dr. Matthew Grossman, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital who has studied the care of opioid-dependent babies.

The standard treatment is to drip tiny doses of morphine into the mouth with a syringe to make the newborn comfortable enough to eat and sleep. Then, over two to 12 weeks, the infant is weaned off morphine.

But community hospitals in rural areas rarely have neonatal intensive care units in which staff can administer morphine. So infants in withdrawal are transferred to more sophisticated facilities.

Increasingly, experts fear that babies are being removed from mothers they need so they can get morphine they do not need. Now some researchers are urging hospitals to pursue a new strategy.

The strategy is called "rooming-in." In an experiment at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon, N.H., for example, mothers and opioid-dependent newborns stayed together in the hospital, but outside the bustling NICU.

Rooming-in reduced the length of stay for morphine-treated infants to 12 days from nearly 17, and the average hospital costs per infant to $9,000 from roughly $20,000, according to a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics.

Catherine Saint Louis, New York Times

Not just one, but seven Earth-size planets that could potentially harbor life have been identified orbiting a tiny star not too far away, offering the first realistic opportunity to search for signs of alien life outside the solar system.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close in cosmic terms, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

"This is the first time so many planets of this kind are found around the same star," Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of an international team that has been observing Trappist-1, said during a telephone news conference organized by the journal Nature, which published the findings in February.

Scientists could even discover compelling evidence of aliens.

"I think that we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there," said Amaury H.M.J. Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England and another member of the research team. "Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to that we have on Earth, then we will know."

Kenneth Chang, New York Times

Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise. "Why is there so much beauty?" he asked.

Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all?

Richard O. Prum, a Yale ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, offers a partial answer in a new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us. He writes about one kind of beauty — the oh-is-he/she-hot variety — and mostly as it concerns birds, not people. And his answer is, in short: That's what female birds like.

This won't help with understanding the appeal of fluid dynamics or the night sky, but Prum is attempting to revive and expand on a view that Charles Darwin held, one that sounds revolutionary even now.

The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it's mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Prum defines it as "co-evolved attraction." They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution.

All biologists recognize that birds choose mates, but the mainstream view now is that the mate chosen is the fittest in terms of health and good genes. Any ornaments or patterns simply reflect signs of fitness. Such utility is objective. Prum's — and Darwin's — notion of beauty is something more subjective, with no other meaning than its aesthetic appeal.

Prum wants to push evolutionary biologists to re-examine their assumptions about utility and beauty, objectivity and subjectivity. But he also wants to reach the public with a message that is clear whether or not you dip into the technical aspects of evolution. The yearning to pick your own mate is not something that began with humans, he says. It can be found in ducks, pheasants and other creatures.

For Prum, at least, there is a partial answer to the question posed by Prakash. Why are birds beautiful?

"Birds are beautiful because they're beautiful to themselves."

James Gorman, New York Times


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