Vote for Science’s “Breakthroughs of the Year”

December 3, 2019 • 2:00 pm

I’m not sure what’s gained by having the public vote on what they consider to be the “science breakthrough of the year” except to see what people consider to be important. But the voters in this contest aren’t actually laypeople, because the voting is taking place on a Science magazine website, whose readers must surely be almost all scientists. (Click on the screenshot below to go to the voting site.)

Actually, there will be two selections: one from the editors and writers, and the other by the general public:

Science’s reporters and editors are debating that question as they home in on the 2019 Breakthrough of the Year. Their selection, along with nine runners-up, will be announced when the last issue of the year goes online on 19 December.

You can get in on the action! Pick your favorite breakthrough from the candidates below by Monday, 2 December. Then check back after noon on Tuesday, 3 December, when we will start a second round of voting with your four top picks. We will announce the winner—the People’s Choice—along with Science’s choice on 19 December.

Well, you can vote, but the public has already spoken pretty loudly. Archaic humans are way in the lead, and I grant that the discovery and genetic legacy of the Denisovans (you can read each “breakthrough” by going to the site and clicking “read more”) is interesting. But eight of the twelve candidate breakthroughs—save the imaging of a black hole, the supposed achievement of quantum supremacy,  the discovery of a planetoid that looks like two fused potatoes, and a minute-by-minute reconstruction of what the dinosaur-killing asteroid did—have to do with humans. We are a solipsistic species.

Regardless, clicking on each of the advances does give you a mini-education on what the news was in science this year. What I’m not really keen on is pitting these things against each other, as they compare advances having practical promise for human well being with things that are intellectually astounding but of no consequences for our everyday lives. That’s reflected in the “sciences sections” of papers like the New York Times, which are heavily overloaded with human-related stuff.

It would be a magazine that ran this contest, for scientists themselves know that the way to sort out the important advances are within fields, not across them. Those are called the Nobel Prizes.

If you think they omitted some good candidates, put yours below, or go over and vote for the existing ones. As for me, well, I couldn’t be arsed to vote.

h/t: Bryan

52 thoughts on “Vote for Science’s “Breakthroughs of the Year”

  1. I found it interesting that the headline asks not to vote for “the” breakthrough, but “your” breakthrough. It’s not a bad thing it was human evolution though.

    I voted for the black hole. That was everything you want in a breakthrough — I mean, >> I << want in a breakthrough. Especially when I don’t understand some of the others.

    However, I don’t think “promising” findings count as “breakthrough”.

  2. Black hole image was impressive especially given how much physical information can be derived from it.

    I thought the quantum accomplishments are overrated (and that is close to my field). And I’ve yet to see anything in AI that is a breakthrough yet.

    I’m surprised the malnutrition and gut microbes wasn’t more popular.

      1. Yes, I am vaguely skeptical of it simply because it was the result of so much processing rather than a direct observation. There are just too many opportunities to make the result fit the theory. I’m not suggesting they faked it, just that the decisions they made on the way to obtaining the result went a long way toward fulfilling their wishes. It also didn’t result in anything unexpected. Still, it’s only my gut feel. Who am I to say?

        1. “I am vaguely skeptical of it simply because it was the result of so much processing rather than a direct observation”

          Have you seen the press conference and Veritasium videos – each posted here on WEIT? If so I think either your skepticism has run amok, or something. I don’t see any reason to suspect “ too many opportunities to make the result fit the theory” – or perhaps you can point to some. I’m not an expert but I trust the scientists’ explanations.

          Press conference:



          1. Clearly if I had any real evidence, I would not be presenting it here. I hope their achievement stands the test of time.

            I guess my skepticism mostly stems from the fact that they created a custom process for digitally combining the image data from multiple telescopes. As far as I know, they haven’t used it to image anything else which tells me that they their process is specialized for black hole imaging. The specializations were undoubtedly led by the expected properties of the particular image they wanted to see. I realize this doesn’t mean they made a mistake but it does increase the opportunities for doing so.

            As I said, it is just my wild guess. I certainly don’t intend to push it as some kind of conspiracy theory but I am passing on buying their stock for now.

            1. “they haven’t used it to image anything else which tells me that they their process is specialized for black hole imaging. “

              I don’t I understand – not every method is required to produce every result.

              “The specializations were undoubtedly led by the expected properties of the particular image they wanted to see. ”

              They collected an enormous amount of observed data, so I’d expect they employed a sort of likelihood or Bayesian analysis, perhaps by cross-validating the fit of their model to a small set of randomly selected observations that were excluded from the analysis. I never checked though.

              In other words, they are using data – it’s not just a picture from a computer simulation.

              Not that I understand how it all works.

              1. No, you didn’t. I did. I didn’t say you did. Didn’t mean to suggest you used words you didn’t.

                What I mean is, it is not merely the printout of a simulation- but there is a simulation being compared to observation. I’m not sure what would be going on if there wasn’t a computer simulation. So I thought it was a fair assumption.

        2. They just modeled the influence of the accretion disk and found that the result is robust; the effect of a thick accretion disk would mostly be to diminish the contrast of the relativistic shadow.

          I don’t grok the bit about “deception”, it is the actual optics. The complications arise in interpretation.

          This is no different from other complex optics, and far less problematic in interpretation (less ‘deceptive’) than the visual phenomena that regularly are showcased on WEIT. Maybe it is the click bait nature – ‘see the invisible’* – of the thing that upset people?

          *) I note that the frequency of “no black hole”- believers had dropped dramatically even before the image. Likely because the new thing is to not believe in dark matter …

          1. Just to set the record straight, I never said “deception” and I was not accusing anyone of that. I also believe that black holes exist.

            I’m not so confident in dark matter and energy. As you say, there are some who doubt they exist. Lacking a strong theory as to what they are, it is reasonable for scientists to take a closer look at the evidence for their existence. I await the results.

  3. All that stuff is just small fry ,the biggest breakthrough in science this year is a non stick coating for toilet bowls ,bog brushes are a thing of the past .

    1. (Putting on my usual serious engineer hat): This has been easily doable for at least 40 years.

      PTFE is used as coatings (and structural elements) on an amazing variety of things, including human medical implants (all over the place).

      And, it’s Goretex as well (Goretex is PTFE processed in specific ways).

  4. I was surprised about how the breakthroughs that can have the biggest human impact are lagging behind. I voted for the Ebola one, or at least I clicked on it. It did not say that I did anything.

  5. If you visit the Science site I recommend scrolling down to the Sifter article: How good are you at reading your cat’s facial expressions?

    There you will find a quiz–actually two–with which to test your skill. I scored 7/8 on the easy one and 6/8 on the harder.

    Since I am currently cat-unemployed I expect others can do better.

  6. Christ, I wish I knew enough to cast an informed vote … not that I ordinarily let a little thing like arrant ignorance get in the way of expressing an opinion. 🙂

  7. What I enjoy about these end of the year rituals is that they lay out succinctly the candidates for review. I’m simply in awe of scientific discovery in any field. It makes me feel optimistic that mankind, now free of the constraints of myth and superstition, can progress toward an exciting and ever improving future – even if I won’t actually be there to see it unfold.

  8. I may have said this before. I think the whole thing about Denisovans has been blown way out of proportion. Coalescent theory says that if we look far enough back in time and consider any modest stretch of DNA, we will find that all modern humans share a common ancestor. Now look not quite so far back. Some of the other variants present in the ancestral population will still be hanging around. Denisovans could simply be one such lineage, lost by now but still present some millions of years ago. Nothing special, just the statistics of random loss. All one widespread and diverse species since at least the Neanderthals.

    1. I’m not technically savvy enough to know if you’re right about that. I do know, however, that the discovery of a somewhat distinct branch or our recent lineage gives us a great new insight into our history. It’s something we can use to help fill the gaps in our history. Looks like they contributed some useful genes to our current makeup. Let’s appreciate rather than denigrate these finding.

    2. “.. all modern humans share a common ancestor..”
      ALL LIVING modern humans share a common single individual ancestor (and lots of them) who lived well under 4,000 years ago. That was deduced by pure mathematical statistics more than 20 years ago:
      Joseph Chang: “Recent Common Ancestors of all Present-Day Individuals” Advances in Applied Probability 31(1999)1002-26.
      More simply, see
      Adam Rutherford “A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived” (2016) pp.160-4.
      This very surprising scientific fact, the time being surprising when we naively consider the possible ancestors of supposedly completely isolated Amazonians versus Greenland Inuit versus Tibetan highlanders versus mid-Congolese villagers etc., has subsequently been backed up by DNA studies.

      But I assume you are not wishing the “living” in there, but rather are referring somehow to all anatomically modern humans from the last 200 or 300 thousand years–and also that you mean common hominin or hominid and a SPECIES ancestor, and not an individual ancestor, such as the purported origin of life itself. In that case, does not every species have a single species as its ancestor, modulo the difficulties of even defining what the word ‘species’ should mean over long stretches of time?

      But maybe my assumption is incorrect, and if so, it would be interesting to know what you had in mind.

      In any case, I do not share the lack of enthusiasm in your penultimate sentence. It’s one thing to have deduced an expected dying off, quite another to discover specific details in fossil finds.
      And I cannot figure out what you mean by the sentence right after that, the last one.

      1. Sorry, I was not clear. I was not thinking of actual human ancestors and descendants but rather of ancestral and modern segments of DNA. I do not see what is unclear about the last sentence. I’m simply saying that I don’t think it is useful to name a new species every time we find ancient DNA that does not match modern samples. As far as I can tell, all the evidence suggests that if they met they mated. Ergo, by the biological species concept, they all (since at least Neanderthals) belong to a single species.

        1. Thanks for the clarification. The problem then is to figure out which would be the best time to consider a new species to have come into existence. For homo sapiens, experts seem now to mostly say about 300,000 years ago. I assume you would place the time at least twice as far back. I imagine that homo sapiens skulls from that far back (600,000) are sufficiently different from ours that this date would be objected to by many experts. Presumably Neanderthal skulls between then and 40,000 years ago differed less. And the whole business is pretty arbitrary. But I understand better your point of view now.

          But why not rewrite your last sentence as ‘All one widespread and diverse species since forever’? One reason is that there would then be only a single species of everything, and the concept (or just word) would be worse than useless.

          I suppose humans want at least to somehow fine-tune as much as possible what we regard to be our own species. But if one knew exactly what all the changes were between a Neanderthal from 600,000 years ago versus one from 60,000, and similar for humans (except it would have a different name (be a different species??), the amount of difference between those changes, comparing the two cases, might not be all that much. The newer ones could successfully mate. Surely it follows that the older ones (600,000 years ago) could also, not doing so (?) only because of geographical separation. In any case, I assume the Neanderthal brain size increased about the same amount as the human one over that period.

          But I’m contradicting myself in a space of three paragraphs!–“differed lass” versus “same amount”.

          I do however think that DNA must make this easier. The degree of difference possible for individual humans within the so-called human genome seems to be greater than the same for Neanderthals, to the extent we have reliable info about the latter. But the percentage difference between those two genomes is presumably at least an order of magnitude greater than those two percentages for individuals within those genomes. I’d be grateful for a DNA expert to correct me on this if I am misunderstanding. If not, and as with much else, ancient DNA will be a great help in regards to the best definition of the word ‘species’

          1. “But why not rewrite your last sentence as ‘All one widespread and diverse species since forever’? One reason is that there would then be only a single species of everything, and the concept (or just word) would be worse than useless.”

            Please note my last two sentences above. I am simply applying the generally accepted definition of species. If individuals are, in principle, capable of mating and producing fertile offspring they belong to the same species. We probably also need to add the provision that they must recognize each other as potential sexual partners. So, willing and able to mate and produce healthy, fertile offspring means they belong to the same species. Geographical isolation has no direct bearing on “in principle willing and able”. The “in principle” stipulation allows us to consider what would happen if we brought them together.

            1. And I should add that separation in time should be treated in the same way as geographic isolation. If we judge on the best available evidence that populations living at different times could have, in principle, freely exchanged genes had they lived at the same time, they belong to a single species. We can’t always resolve these issues in practice, but I think it still is useful to have a clear definition and to know what evidence we would want to collect if we could.

      2. I find that very hard to believe, since there have been populations which have not even been contacted except within the past 50 or so years.

        Also, “statistics only” sounds dubious- any formal tools used need factual premises, so this is at best misleading.

        1. Populations that do not mate because of geographical isolation are not generally regarded as separate species if we believe they could mate and produce fertile offspring if contact were established.

        2. I think, Keith, that the phrase “have not been contacted” must be taken very much as an approximation (even maybe a lie if very occasional sexual relations is to be regarded as contact!)
          Rutherford says a number of things about the Yale mathematician Chang’s work which are worth quoting here:
          1/ “But no one is isolated indefinitely and it only takes a very small number of people to breed out with people from beyond their direct gene pool for that DNA to rapidly descend through the generations.”
          2/ “When Chang factored in new, highly conservative variables, such as reducing the number of migrants across the Bering Straits to one person every ten generations, the age of the most recent ancestor of everyone alive went up to 3,600 years ago.”
          He’d earlier estimated 3,400; and that’s why I roughed it as 4,000.
          3/ “The number may not feel right, and when I talk about it in lectures, it often results in a frown of disbelief. We’re not very good at imagining generational time.”

          I might have added a couple of things earlier: firstly included Australian aborigines in my list of far flung seldom contacted groups; and secondly mentioning the obvious fact that this stuff surely does not please the racists much. And Europeans often would write the word ‘contact’ when they meant the phrase ‘contact with Europeans’!!

          1. I’m thinking of groups like in New Guinea, which has (for example) incredible language diversity and much geographic isolation, parts of Brazil which at best had sporadic contact, etc.

            1. My list of examples had been meant to illustrate why many knowledgable people would find this scientific result hard to believe at first. I’d even used the phrase “isolated Amazonians” thinking of your “parts of Brazil”.

              I have to admit to not scouring the literature, that journal in particular, to see if there were rebuttals of Chang’s result. If not, you maybe should have a go. I don’t know how strong the Stats/Probability group at Yale is, but surely very good.

              Now think about those New Guineans. Surely some coastal people there have initiated the spread of their DNA towards the uplands. etc… And surely some DNA, or at least ancestry, has come to coastal New Guinea from sailors countless times. Rutherford entitles his Chap. 1 : “Horny and Mobile”!

              One (likely accidental, at least he survived the storm at sea, but ended up on the wrong side) ‘immigrant’ to Alaska from Northeastern Siberia for every 10 generations surely is a very conservative postulate!

              Missionaries even get pretty horny sometimes surely.

              Still, that an uplands New Guinean is genealogically related to all of a Yanomani(sp.?,) to an Inuit in Northern Greenland, and to a ‘backwoods’ Congolese, all within the last 4,000 years, came to me as a surprise.

      3. “ALL LIVING modern humans share a common single individual ancestor (and lots of them) who lived well under 4,000 years ago.”

        You seem to be mistaking the results of an idealized mathematical model with an actual fact. The model which derived that number assumed random mating in a homogeneous (undivided) population. It’s a nice model but is very far from reality. An Australian Bushman and an Amazonian tribesman are very unlikely to share a common ancestor in the last 4000 years.

        1. I looked further into this, and I see that there was more recent modeling study that did include subdivided populations, and that still gave very recent dates for the most recent genealogical common ancestor. Maybe it is close to reality after all….

        1. Right.
          I used “purported” (misused??) only because details about that may still be a long time coming. Let’s hope Drumpf doesn’t exterminate us all with a thermonuclear war before we learn the answer to that and much else.

          It is impossible to disbelieve that twice or more by accident there arose exactly the same random surjective function from a 64-element set to a 22 (or so) element set–that is, the genetic code, from the set of triples of bases (4 cubed is 64) to the set containing all the amino acids plus STOP).
          EXERCISE: Calculate the order of magnitude as a power of 10 for that number from which that code just appeared randomly, or at least a convincing bound (say, off the top of my head, one in a hundred million chance??) This is not an exercise to torture most high school teachers of permutations and combinations mathematics with, or even a textbook writer in most instances.

          1. Sorry “disbelieve” should be ‘believe’. And I should write shorter sentences with fewer double and triple implicit negatives!

        2. That much is correct. I only find it unlikely that there is a LUCA for all humans that *post dates* the big disasporas – like the populating of the Americas and Australia.

          1. Is there not a difference between a Latest Common Ancestor for all humans, versus for all present day living humans?

  9. Unless something drastic happens, though, he will be impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate. Even so, his reputation is tarnished and his chances for re-election next year considerably diminished.

    From your lips straight to Hank‘s ear!

  10. Of the two ‘human ancestor’ choices, from a few hundred thousand years ago and 4 million years ago, I’d also go for the former, Denisovan, one. As long as it holds up, that recent indirect deduction of Denisovan DNA, from being able to see the generation of proteins from the fossil which are ‘sequenced’, seems to be a completely new and quite important technique, not requiring the recovery of readable DNA fragments themselves.

    As far as the the other, the Australopithecus skull, goes, that seems very interesting too. But note it was discovery of 4 YEARS ago. Perhaps, as with the Denisovan above, there is some analysis from 2019 involved, not just a reporter happening to talk to one of the scientists this year. The contest seems more about this year’s news announcements, not this year’s discoveries.

    In one of the better articles concerning this Australopithecus, we still have reporters unawarely saying what sounds very much like logical contradictions, if my definition of the word ‘ancestor’, as applied to species, is correct:

    ‘The oldest most complete skull of a human ancestor ever discovered
    palaeoanthropologist Yohannes ….
    “The protruding mid face and the lower face … is a very old adaptation in these early human ancestors” ‘

    ‘Dr Joannes…. (said, but not deliberately in contradiction)
    “…It’s possible that A. anamensis is not directly related to us….” ‘

    No relation between the two scientists with very similar first names.

    But surely reporters have time to write sentences which do not confuse intelligent but perhaps young and inexperienced readers.

    1. “A stunning fossil skull from Ethiopia was identified this year as the oldest and most complete specimen of Australopithecus anamensis …”.

      1. In Nature this year, though how slow they are I don’t know.

        ‘Dr Haile-Selassie, a world authority on ancient human evolution at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was on a dig at Woranso-Mille in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 2016 when he was approached by the local herdsman.

        The man had walked 3 kilometres from where he was camped with his family to show Dr Haile-Selassie a jawbone he’d picked up from the ground while tending to his goats on the harsh, rocky plateau.

        Dr Haile-Selassie returned to the site with the man, who pointed out where the fossil came from.

        “About 3 metres away from where the upper jaw was found the whole cranium was sitting there,” he recalled.’

        But it’s no big deal whether 2016 or 2019.

    1. Nice choice

      It appears that a modified Cas9 is used. It isn’t specified what the modification is – what is it?

      There’s a Wikipedia page but it’s light on details.

      Nitpick of Nature news : I’m not sure what would compel the use of the word “bespoke” when “custom” seems adequate.

  11. Malnutrition and Gut Microbes: research that will help malnourished children recuperate following starvation is a wonderful step forward. Anything that can be learned about the human microbiome and how to work with it to improve health and cure illness can make an actual difference – it is a huge plus. This, I imagine, will be part of medicine in the future. Therefore this is my choice for Breakthrough of the Year.

  12. Off the top of my head I thought of the evidence of the effect that the Chicxulub impact had on a location thousands of miles away (the Tanis site in the Hell Creek formation:, and I was happy to see that among the candidates. I thought it was an amazing illustration of the use of multiple lines of evidence to do historical sleuthing

  13. I was expecting the Cystic Fibrosis and Ebola ones to be some new drug resulting from molecular analysis of 3D structures of key proteins, or something along those lines. Instead, they sound more like incremental advances using combinations of drugs already on the scene. Still both important, and particularly with CF since it’s an inherited and I think fairly widespread disorder that has largely defied earlier attempts, this seems pretty significant altho probably not rising to the level of a stunning scientific breakthrough.

    It would be nice if they’d included more information in their summaries. But culture of that archaeal microbe might get my vote if I could figure out how to vote.

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