Another year is now dwindling down to a close, and it makes one want to take a few moments and reflect on everything that has happened. In the scientific community, while not a year of amazing surprises and breakthroughs, it has been a year of consistent advancement for research and knowledge.

We started off the year with a long anticipated fly-by of a comet, and the uncertainty of the future of a little space probe called Philae. And then June brought the unexpected and much appreciated resurrection of the lander, which after a rough landing and a failure to anchor properly was thought to be dead on arrival. Instead it managed to provide a decent amount of data while riding its comet towards the center of our solar system.

In February we witnessed the Dawn probe sending back some fascinating photographs of the dwarf-planet / big asteroid known as Ceres, before entering orbit around Ceres in March and eventually making a landing in July.

And where landing on Ceres would have been a major astronomical event in any other year, this year it was overshadowed by the end of the near decade long journey of the New Horizons space probe which flew by the (former) planet Pluto and gave us the best images yet of the most distant of the traditional planets. In fact it took so many photos during its brief visit to Pluto that the team providing support to the mission expect to be downloading photos well into the next year. I have posted several of their photos and videos to this blog in the past, and I must say they always amaze me with the complexity that the surface of Pluto has shown us. It is a most unusual planet.

This year also saw the usual advances in exoplanet exploration, as the Kepler mission unveiled planet Kepler-452b, which at present is the most Earth-like planet to be known. And furthering the popularization of astronomy and exoplanet exploration, the International Astronomical Union completed their name-an-exoplanet contest this year and in December announced popular (and more memorable) names for several well known exoplanets. Most of the names had good justifications, with only one being excluded for reasons the IAU has so far refused to reveal.

And of course many astronomers were celebrating an important birthday in April, as the Hubble Telescope reached 25 years of continuous service, not only to the professional astronomy community but also to the popularization of science with its steady stream of awe inspiring images of distant galaxies and nebulae.

It was also a most fascinating year for those who dream of one day finding life in space. In March the Hubble Telescope released data that shows the Jovian Moon known as Ganymede has oceans on its surface, and of course where there are oceans there is often marine life. Of course we are still a long way away from sending a robotic explorer to visit those oceans, but there mere existence gives us hope. And then a little further away from our home planet (or a lot further away depending on one's sense of galactic scales) the ALMA team reported finding a cloud of organic chemicals surrounding a distant star, leading many to imagine they were looking at the first sparks that would someday in the distant future lead to a new and unimaginable form of alien life.

And where the ALMA team reported hints of the most basic building blocks of life, a group of citizen scientists working with professional astronomers brought us hints of very advanced life forms and civilizations in October. In their search for signals of planets orbiting distant stars, one faint star was seen to be orbited by perhaps thousands of objects, leading many to speculate on the existence of an artificial Dyson sphere, which if correct would require a civilization centuries or millenia more advanced than humanity. And while this discovery is still very preliminary, and most responsible science journalists have been issuing repeated warnings not to assume too much, there are few natural explanations for this odd phenomena. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile the particle physics community was a little more subdued in their research accomplishments this year, but still managed a wide variety of interesting results. In April the AMS experiment reported a higher than expected fraction of anti-protons in cosmic rays, and with no explanations in the Standard Model of particle physics this has lead many to believe that this could be a signal from the decay of the mysterious dark matter. The results do fit with several models, but more data is needed to refine which models provide the best fit. 

At the Large Hadron Collider, July was a busy month with two interesting if technical preliminary announcements. The first was a signal that would seem to indicate a different type of fermion, known as a Weyl fermion. (The details of the difference between a normal fermion, a Weyl fermion, and a Majorana fermion are too technical for this review, but I have reviewed them in previous articles). A short time later the LHCb experiment had an announcement of their own, with a signal that appears to have been caused by a bound state of four quarks and an anti-quark, called a pentaquark. Most matter has either three quarks, or a single quark and a single antiquark, and so this bound state - if it holds up under further scrutiny - would indeed be a new form of admittedly unstable matter.

And then over at the Fermilab, a team of experimenters build an ingenious machine that searches for signals of a discrete universe or of what is called a holographic universe. Both would radically change our views of nature. Unfortunately the first data released from the experiment has already excluded several basic models of a discrete spacetime, and several more theories have proven to be outside of the range that this experiment can test. However the new year promises to bring more data and further probes of the shortest scales in the Universe.

The biggest mystery of the year though came from the LHC right at the end of the year, with a December announcement of an excess of two-photon signals at 750GeV. As some of you know, this is a very high energy and would seem to indicate a new particle that is at least four times heavier than previously discovered particles. And as usual, the theoretical physics community has already provided a few hundred explanations covering theories from dark matter to to supersymmetry to hidden dimensions. Or maybe it is something entirely new that no one has even considered before. And as with so many of these discoveries, all we can do is wait for more data to determine which explanation - if any - is correct. 

And perhaps the biggest event of all this year is not a discovery at all, but a celebration. This November marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of the General Theory of Relativity. And regardless of who published it first, it has become one of the most successful theories of all time and is now used in every modern car and ever modern cell phone. Without it we would not have been able to travel to the Moon or to the other planets. Along with quantum mechanics, general relativity holds the honour of being the most accurate, most precise theories every created by mankind. It is a monument worth celebrating.

And that is the year the was. A year filled with great discoveries and fueling greater dreams of the future. And without a doubt, 2016 is going to bring even more untold wonders and brilliant discoveries from the scientific community!

Happy New Year!!