In a big year for science, we learnt a lot more about the universe

Topics Universe | space | Science

Three images defined science trends in 2019 and one of those was about the acceptance (or rejection) of science, but not science itself. The first, most awe-inspiring, image was that of a black hole, generated by the Event Horizon Telescope, with data stitched together by a team of 200 people, who used images from eight observatories on four continents. The collective resolution was so high that somebody sitting in Paris could read a newspaper in New York. Seeing is believing. 

The second image: healthcare workers administering the first effective vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus. The civil war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo has suffered over 2,200 deaths in an epidemic. But the vaccine, Ervebo, from Merck, has proved 90 per cent effective. It was backed up by another breakthrough. A new “cocktail” drug based on antibodies cultured from Ebola survivors that works on the infected. Thus, there is now a preventive vaccine, and a cure. 

The third image was that of a tiny teenager standing up at the United Nations General Assembly and shaming world leaders for their lack of enthusiasm in combating climate change. Greta Thunberg’s activism helped spark huge environmental protests led by youngsters. Global warming continues — but this is not, and has never been, a failure of science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been screaming itself hoarse for decades and its models have accurately predicted warming. However, lobbies and vested interests have slowed down (and blocked) efforts to combat this. Thunberg and her generation bring a new energy, and they have already been instrumental in the passage of new zero-emission laws.

The image of a black hole generated by the Event Horizon Telescope
New experiments in Israel suggest that common e-coli bacteria (the villain in many cases of upset stomach) can be redesigned to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Even assuming nations step up, there will still be a horrifying number of extinctions, wild weather and changing coastlines, et cetera, because we’ve left it till so late. Environmental scientists also need to alert policymakers to another looming threat found recently. Researchers in Boston University found micro-plastics in seafood chains in Belize. Subsequently, researchers discovered that micro-plastics contaminate all seafood chains. 

There were other successes and failures and incremental advances across many disciplines. A new method of editing genes, termed Prime Editing, improves on the earlier methods of using CRISPR. Prime editing makes more precise changes to DNA and, in theory, this could be used to correct, or cancel, up to 85 per cent of disease-causing mutations. Sangamo Therapeutics, a California-based company, did the first ever human gene editing therapy to permanently alter DNA in a patient suffering from a genetic condition called Hunter Syndrome. 

Gene-editing could also help make plants and animals more resistant to diseases and better adapted to climate change. In another experiment, scientists reported that some crops may now be engineered with genetic shortcuts that boost growth by up to 40 per cent. 

In space exploration, the Chinese soft-landed on the dark side of the moon with their Chang’e 4 craft. A private group of investors from Israel financed the Beresheet spacecraft, which tried to soft-land on the moon and failed. Beresheet carried a cargo of tardigrades (or water-bears), incredibly hardy little creatures which could possibly have survived the crash. ISRO’s Chandrayaan II also failed to soft-land the Vikram Lander but the orbiter is working fine. 

In the realms of quantum computing technology or applied science, Google made a controversial claim that its Sycamore 54 Qubit computer had achieved “quantum supremacy” by solving a problem that the fastest conventional computer (IBM’s Summit) could not handle within 10,000 years. This problem can be solved conventionally in about 60 hours according to IBM. But Google does have “quantum advantage” because Sycamore takes 200 seconds (a bunch of computer scientists prefer not to use “supremacy” due to racist overtones). Meanwhile, Austrian and Chinese scientists reported the first teleportation of 3D quantum states, or qutrits, and Intel released its first quantum control chip, “Horse Ridge”, for control of multiple quantum bits. 

After Alphazero took on chess and Go, there was another gaming breakthrough. Carnegie Mellon University’s AI program beat professionals in six-player, no-limit Texas Hold’em Poker. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University also demonstrated the first non-invasive, mind-controlled robotic arm, with a cap that interprets brainwaves. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute showed that it was possible to 3D-print living skin, complete with blood vessels, for grafts.

Oh yes! The basis for our system of units also changed in 2019 as kilogram, ampere, et cetera, were redefined in terms of universal constants. The original kilogram, for example, is a metal cylinder sitting in Versailles, France. But the unit of mass is now fixed in terms of the second, the speed of light in vacuum and the relationship between the frequency of a photon and its energy (which is governed by Planck’s Constant “h”).

Many other interesting discoveries and developments happened in 2019. Enough for us to hope that 2020 will bring more in the way of advances in our understanding of the universe around us.

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