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Discoveries with Ties to UT Austin Rank Among Top Scientific Findings of the Year

Discoveries with Ties to UT Austin Rank Among Top Scientific Findings of the Year
Simulation of black holes colliding. Credit: SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes

Two amazing scientific discoveries, both with ties to the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, were named the top 2 science stories of 2016 by Discover Magazine. Other major media outlets also included them in their year-end "best of" lists, including National Geographic, Science News, Science and the New York Times. A third story from the College of Liberal Arts and Jackson School of Geosciences, which solved the mystery of how the most famous human ancestor died, appears in Discover's top ten as well.

Gravitational waves

The first of these discoveries was announced on the morning of February 11 of this year when David Reitze revealed the discovery of gravitational waves, caused by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away and predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity. Reitze, who graduated from UT Austin in 1990 with a PhD in physics, is the executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the team behind the incredible discovery.

Artist's impression of Proxima b. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Proxima b

The second discovery was published in August, when an international team of astronomers including Michael Endl of the McDonald Observatory revealed clear evidence of an earth-sized planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, our nearby neighboring star. This new world, dubbed Proxima b, is the closest known exoplanet to us and orbits in the habitable zone of its star — meaning it may be the nearest possible abode for life outside our solar system.

Both discoveries have been ranked among the top scientific discoveries of the year by many scientific and popular publications.

​Other discoveries

It wasn't just these two discoveries and the Lucy research that caught the media's attention for "best of 2016" science lists. Also in the top 50 discoveries from Discover was fertility research that UT Austin chemist Emily Que contributed to as a first author when she was a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University. Que and the team captured how, at the moment of fertilization between an egg and sperm, a distinctive set of sparks caused by zinc can be seen, a phenomenon linked to the egg's ability to produce a healthy embryo.

Also, industry publication iTech Post ranked the discovery of an only-11-million-year-old planet, by Andrew Mann, a postdoctoral researcher with the McDonald Observatory, among its "Most Unbelievable Alien Planet Findings of 2016."

Updated 1/13/17 to include additional rankings.

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