Beijing time on December 19th, science is good at measuring progress, but also let us understand their own shortcomings. This duality is reflected in science News’s top 10 science news stories of 2019. We should both congratulate scientists on their breakthrough achievements and hope to avoid some difficult problems.
During the year, hundreds of scientists around the world observed what had previously been impossible through a global-scale telescope. The Event Horizon telescope captured the first image of the black hole. This iconic image confirms the basic theory of how the universe works (Einstein is still right) and ushers in a whole new era of exploration, making it the most important scientific news of 2019.
This is not the only major milestone this year. Just seven years after the development of the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, it entered the human clinical trial phase in the United States. Researchers want to know if this method can be used to treat cancer, blood disease and hereditary blindness. Google has achieved quantum supremacy, claiming that it has created a quantum bit-based computer that can quickly solve problems that classic supercomputers take thousands of years to solve. The announcement drew immediate opposition, but it also suggested that quantum computing could be the next big leap forward.
However, every progress comes with setbacks. In 2019, some countries have officially lost their hard-won public health achievement, “elimination of measles”, where there is no sustained spread of infection in a year. Measles cases in the United States have reached the highest level this year since the elimination of measles in 2000, but have barely sustained the state: an active public health campaign stopped the outbreak by the end of the year cycle.
2019 also set records that we never thought we would expect, such as temperatures soaring to record highs in hundreds of regions of the northern hemisphere, leading to deadly heatwaves, fires and droughts. For years, scientists have warned that the disaster caused by climate change is looming. Perhaps 2019 will be remembered, because the warning finally caught the public’s attention in the year. Climate change-related protests have taken place in many places, many led by youth activists, with millions of participants worldwide. Only time will tell whether the wave of action to address climate change will be a turning point that we can remember in the years ahead.
Here’s a look at the top 10 most-watched science news of 2019.
Portrait of a Black Hole
More than two hundred years ago, scientists imagined that there was a celestial body in the universe that had a great mass and was so strong that light could not escape. Einstein’s general theory of relativity could be used to calculate some of the properties of such objects. In the 1960s, American astrophysicist John Wheeler first coined the term “black hole”. After more than a decade of effort, the observations of the 2019 Event Horizon telescope have shocked the world. This is the first time that humans have directly photographed the event horizon of a black hole.
To photograph distant black holes, scientists used a telescope the size of the entire Earth, the Event Vision Telescope, which assembled eight radio telescopes from around the world to capture the first black hole in human history. The study was the result of a collaboration of more than 200 researchers from around the world, with astronomers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences also involved. In April 2020, the Event Horizon telescope will be launched again, bringing together 11 observatories. Scientists involved in the project are also considering launching a telescope into space to extend the Event Horizon telescope into Earth orbit, reducing the impact of ground weather on observations and helping to capture more, clearer images of black holes.
In 2019, the number of measles cases in the United States exceeded that of any other year since 1992. As of December 5, 1,276 people had been reported in 31 U.S. states, more than 75 percent of them from two outbreaks in New York.
The duration of the measles outbreak in New York, which began in the fall of 2018, has almost cost the United States the “measles elimination” that it received in 2000. To be recognized by the World Health Organization, a country must have a year to prevent the disease from spreading within its territory. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced in an October 4 statement that the U.S. has retained its status as a measles-free. He also pointed out that the best way to stop vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles is to get vaccinated.
In 2019, many other countries are also battling measles outbreaks. As of 17 November, the largest measles outbreak in the Congo had infected an estimated 250,000 people and killed more than 5,000 people, most of them children under the age of five. The immunization rate in Samoa, as low as 31 per cent, was severely hit by more than 3,700 cases and dozens of deaths by the end of 2019.
This year, summer temperatures have broken hundreds of records, bringing unprecedented melting to Greenland and fuelling wildfires ravaging the entire Arctic. A grim report warns of a bleak future for the planet’s oceans and frozen regions. But climate scientists say this isn’t the only gain in 2019: there’s been a record wave of climate protests this year.
During the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York in September, a global climate march culminated in a climate strike. Many of the strikes were led by students, notably 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Tomberg. Her “Friday for the Future” campaign began in August 2018 with a personal commitment to protest every Friday until the Swedish government accelerates its plan to achieve full carbon neutrality by 2045. She said she would continue to protest until the Swedish government agreed to cut carbon emissions by 15 per cent a year and achieve carbon neutrality in about 10 years.
News of the Tonberg protest spread on social media, bringing the climate protest movement global. It is estimated that 1.6 million students from more than 120 countries took part in a coordinated climate strike on 15 March. The second wave of student-led protests coincided with the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, with a record 7.6 million people taking part in the global climate strike.
The dangers of e-cigarettes
E-cigarettes have a relatively harmless reputation among the public, but that began to change in 2019, with the first reported link to lung damage and death this year. As of December 10, 2,409 people in the U.S. were hospitalized for e-cigarette use, many of them young and healthy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of them, 52 people died, including a 17-year-old. Federal health officials have announced a potential culprit: vitamin E acetate, which is mainly added as a thickener to steam products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). E-cigarette users should avoid inhaling tetrahydrocannabinol, but investigations are ongoing and their diseases may be caused by a variety of vapor components.
Studies have shown that chemicals inhaled from steam can affect the brain, heart and lungs. Nicotine affects adolescent brain development and increases the risk of addiction to other drugs. Chemicals in e-cigarettes impair the function of blood vessel cells, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Teenagers who smoke e-cigarettes are at higher risk of chronic respiratory disease than their peers who do not smoke e-cigarettes. It will take time to discover how e-cigarettes affect long-term health, and e-cigarettes have only been on the U.S. market for about a decade, and their technology is changing rapidly.
The Discovery of the Denisovas
A number of developments in 2019 have brought ancient humans, named denisova, into the public eye, but have also left a lot of puzzles. More than a decade ago, scientists discovered a small piece of the girl’s little finger bone in the Danisova cave in Siberia, whose DNA does not match the DNA of any known primitive human. The discovery of several other fossils – three teeth and a piece of limb fragments -, coupled with genetic analysis, suggests that the Denisovas were close relatives of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens tens of thousands of years ago, and occasionally their mates. But there is little evidence of what the Denisovans look like or how they behaved.
As the fossils accumulate, researchers will learn how the anatomy of the Denisovans affected the composition of the bones of their human mating partners. Through the Discovery of the Denisovans, “We can now see that hybridization contributes to our own origins”. Ancient DNA evidence published this year suggests that the Denisovans are genetically dispersed into three separate branches that mate with different groups of humans in Asia. A new view holds that human evolution is like an interwoven stream, with closely related species constantly communicating genes.
CRISPR in Clinical Trials
When CRISPR/Cas9 was introduced in 2012, there were high hopes that it would cure and even cure hundreds of genetic diseases. This year, U.S. researchers began testing the gene-editing technique in humans, a crucial first step in determining whether it can deliver on its medical future.
These first clinical trials are testing the safety and efficacy of CRISPR/Cas9 for cancer, blood diseases and a hereditary blindness. Unlike the controversial human embryo editing in 2018, genetic changes introduced in these trials will not be inherited by future generations.
CRISPR has emerged as a potential medical tool in a very short period of time, with an explosive increase in related technology patent applications. Many people are investing in the technology and think it has great commercial value. The first human trials to test CRISPR/Cas9 technology are likely to determine the future of the technology, and patients will benefit only if they continue to invest in the technology, an investment that may depend on the success of these early clinical trials.
Like Schrodinger’s cat, the quantum supremacy claimed in 2019 seems to be in a contradictory state of both existence and death.
In October, Google researchers claimed they had reached a milestone known as quantum supremacy. They created the first quantum computer that could perform operations that a typical standard computer could not perform. But IBM researchers counter that Google didn’t do anything special. The conflict highlights a strong commercial interest in quantum computing, where companies are vying for the forefront. IBM, for example, has built 14 quantum computers that can be accessed in the cloud, the largest with 53 qubits. Google’s latest quantum computer, Sycamore, also has 53 qubits.
Biodiversity threatened by fire
In 2019, some shocking figures from Nature made headlines, and people began to talk about the decline in the diversity of plants, animals and other life, and how to respond. The most striking news came from the Amazon rainforest, where satellites captured signs of unusualactivity during the fire season. The record-breaking fire has reignited concerns about this treasure trove of biodiversity on Earth.
In August alone, THE SATELLITE IMAGING DEVICE MODIS RECORDED 11,516 FIRES IN THE AMAZON STATE OF NORTHWEST BRAZIL. Fire detection experts explain that this figure does not refer to a single fire, but rather the number of “pixels”, each pixel measures fire activity within at least one square kilometer. Higher digital records in some news media record signals detected from instruments with smaller pixels.
The fire season draws to a close in late October. While the risk of fires in most parts of South America is “very even” in 2019, Amazon is in disarray. The number of fires detected in August exceeded all records recorded in the month of MODIS in nearly 20 years. The fire season from late June to October 2019 is the second most severe fire season after 2005.
Return to the moon
The lunar landing mission seems to be re-insemiss. The successful landing of the Chang’e-4 became the first human probe to visit the back of the moon. Other tasks, by contrast, have been less than satisfactory. Two probes launched by SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organization, and the Indian Space Research Organization have made emergency landings on the moon and have not been heard since.
The recovery from the moon landing plan has only just begun. The European Space Agency is working with the Russian space agency on a series of monthly missions. NASA hopes to use several lunar trips in the 2020s as a springboard to send astronauts to Mars.
Now, not only are some big countries able to land on the moon, but as navigation and robotics advance and launch costs are lower, some private companies are planning trips to the moon.
New depression drugs
Antidepressants, the first new mechanism in decades, are finally on the market this year. The nasal spray, called Spravato, offers new treatments for people with severe depression. However, the effectiveness and safety of the drug remain satootic.
In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Spravato’s application. The drug contains esketamine, one of two mirror molecules that make up the drug ketamine, also known as ketamine. Ketamine is a powerful anesthetic developed decades ago and a psychedelic agent used by revelers to create the thrill of a vertiginous soul.
Many of the existing antidepressants are targeted at serotonin, a chemical messenger associated with mood in the brain. Scientists believe ketamine and aketamine could affect another chemical messenger glutamate within hours.
Despite much media hype about Spravato’s approval, the ability of ketamine to quickly reverse severe depression in some people has been known for years. Independent clinics and academic medical centers provide intravenous injections of ketamine for patients with severe depression. For some patients, the treatment has changed their lives, but it doesn’t necessarily suit others. (Any day)