Scientific achievements are usually years in making. Nevertheless, here’s a round-up of a number of the exciting science news reported in 2020. Just to recall that it wasn’t all terrible.
First known extraterrestrial protein in a meteorite found
Could life-emerge elsewhere in the Solar System? As curious & intelligent beings, humans are naturally curious about finding out if living creatures thrive beyond the confines of our little blue space rock. Only method to discover this need turning to meteorites.
Earlier this year, scientists revealed that they had found the first extraterrestrial protein tucked inside a meteorite that fell to Earth 30 years ago.
“We are pretty sure that proteins are likely to exist in space,” said astronomer Chenoa Tremblay. “But if we will actually start finding evidence of their existence, and what a number of the structures & the common structures could be, I think that’s really interesting & exciting.”
Avoided some troubling changes in the atmosphere
A new study revealed that the famed Montreal Protocol, the 1987 agreement to prevent producing ozone depleting substances might be liable for pausing or maybe reversing, some troubling changes in air currents around our planet’s Southern Hemisphere.
Healing the protective ozone layer surrounding the Earth seems to have paused the migration of an air current referred to as the southern jet stream, a phenomenon that ended-up pushing parts of Australia into prolonged drought.
“If the ozone layer is recovering and the circulation is moving north, that’s excellent news on 2 fronts,” explained chemist Ian Rae from University of Melbourne.
An AI solved a 50 years old biology challenge, decades before expected
Scientists at the UK-based AI company DeepMind announced that a new AI system had effectively solved a long standing & incredibly complex scientific problem concerning the structure & behavior of proteins.
For about 50 years, researchers have strived to predict how proteins achieve their 3D structure. The astronomical number of potential configurations has made this task referred to as the protein-folding problem is incredibly difficult.
DeepMind’s success means an enormous breakthrough in a range of research endeavours from disease modelling & drug discovery, to applications far beyond health research.
Scientists used fast radio bursts to seek out the Universe missing matter
In a mesmerising tale of mystery within a mystery, a very clever application of Fast Radio Burst (FRB) tracing gave astronomers a solution to a perplexing question, just where is the missing matter in the Universe?
We’re not talking about dark matter but the baryonic (normal) matter that ought to be there on account of all our calculations, but simply couldn’t be detected until now. The Universe is vast and the stretches between galaxies enormous. Yet therein seemingly empty space, lone atoms are still kicking around.
While trying to find the source of the powerful interstellar signals referred to as FRBs, researchers found out that extremely diffuse gas can account for all the missing ‘normal’ matter in the Universe. Phew.
Confirmation of the first ever detection of an FRB in our own galaxy
On 28 April 2020, a Milky Way magnetar called SGR 1935+2154 flared-up in a single, millisecond long burst so incredibly bright, it might be detectable from another galaxy.
This landmark detection made a huge & immediate impact on the study of mysterious FRBs, that so far had only been detected coming from outside our galaxy, making their precise source difficult to pin down.
Astronomers had a whale of a time doing follow up work on this detection and by November we also had confirmation that this intragalactic FRB is a repeater. We will expect even more excitement around this year 2021, for sure.
SpaceX & NASA made history with the first crewed launch
Space enthusiasts truly had many causes for excitement this year, as various launches & space missions soldiered on despite the global pandemic. On 30 May 2020, SpaceX became the first private space company to deliver NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Not only they safely bring them home several months later, another crewed launch went-off without a hitch in November, delivering 4 astronauts to the space station, the first in what is going to likely be many routine missions in 2021 & beyond.
NASA touched an asteroid & JAXA brought back a sample
After a long-trip of more than 320 million kilometres (200 million miles), NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft finally touched down on asteroid Bennu in October, collecting sample of its surface rubble, its efforts captured for posterity in magnificent footage delivered by the space agency. We expect the probe to return with its precious cargo in 2023.
Last year, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) achieved a similar feat with the Hayabusa 2 probe, collecting a sample from asteroid Ryugu. In December this year, we witnessed the safe return of that sample and have already been treated to a first glimpse of some of the black dust the team retrieved. We cannot wait to learn more about what these asteroid missions will discover.
Scientists found the first animal that does not need oxygen to survive
Back here on our own world, biologists were certain a surprise once they found the first multicellular organism without a mitochondrial genome, which means an organism that does not breathe. In fact, it lives without any need for oxygen.
While some single celled organisms are known to thrive perfectly well in anaerobic conditions, the very fact this common salmon parasite, a jellyfish-like creature Henneguya salminicola, doesn’t require oxygen to survive is a sort of remarkable and has left researchers with many new problems to answer.
Spectacular footage of “long stringy stingy thingy” off the coast of Australia
Back in April, a trailing-ribbon of conjoined tentacled clones caused quite stir amongst a bunch of biologists exploring a little studied part of the ocean-off the coast of Western Australia. This strange entity was a very long siphonophore, a floating string of thousands of individual zooids. In fact, it might be one among the longest such strings ever observed.
“Everyone was blown away when it came into view,” said biologists Nerida Wilson & Lisa Kirkendale from the Western Australian Museum.
“There was a lot of excitement. People came pouring into the control room from everywhere the ship. Siphonophores are commonly seen but this one was both large & unusual looking.”
A physicist came up with the mathematics that makes paradox free time travel plausible
Wouldn’t it’s great to pop into a time machine and fix-up some mishap you’ve done in your past, all without accidentally killing your grandfather in the process?
Well, 2020 also became the year when we learned of a mathematically sound solution to time travel that does not muck everything-up. Physics student Germain Tobar from the University of Queensland in Australia figured-out how to “square the numbers” to make time travel viable without the paradoxes.
While it hasn’t gotten-us immediately closer to having a working time machine, his calculations show that space-time can potentially adapt itself to avoid paradoxes. And, consistent with Tobar’s supervisor, the mathematics checks-out. Fabulous.
The first COVID-19 vaccines are already being administered outside of clinical trials
The single-biggest challenge the world faced this year was the global COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare professionals & essential workers have carried much of the burden of keeping society afloat and we can never thank them enough. Meanwhile, researchers from myriad relevant fields, from immunology to genetics have also worked tirelessly all year long to understand the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
That work will continue into the New Year, but in late November we finally got the first taste of what it means to accelerate scientific research project & funding beyond its typical pace. The very first vaccines intended to guard people from COVID-19 have already completed all the required phases of clinical trials and are being unrolled in the UK, US & parts of Europe.
Lots more will need to be done before we can put this devastating pandemic behind-us and protect the most vulnerable communities worldwide, but already having effective vaccines is a truly fantastic achievement and without a doubt the most important cause for celebration of science this year. One to carry-us into 2021 filled with hope.