From discovering cures for life-threatening diseases to exploring outer space, from unearthing new facts about human history to making incredible strides in artificial intelligence, humanity achieved exceptional breakthroughs in the field of science and technology in 2019.
As the year comes to an end, it is time to look back at some of those glorious scientific revolutions that will shape our future. Here are our picks for the most significant scientific advancements of 2019:
5. Hello Sun? Earthlings are going beyond your influence!
Launched in January 2006, the interplanetary space probe New Horizons from the US space agency NASA steered past the Kuiper Belt object 486958 Arrokoth (then nicknamed Ultima Thule) on January 1, 2019. The Kuiper Belt is the region beyond the known planetary system of solar system, and this was the farthest flyby ever conducted by any human-made spacecraft.
Also this year, on November 4, NASA’s Voyager 2 reached the interstellar medium—a space between star systems, well beyond the influence of our solar system. Voyager 1 had earlier achieved this feat in 2012. Voyager 2, its successor, was launched in the year 1977.
Also, China’s moon mission, Chang’e 4, successfully made a soft landing on the far side of the Moon—becoming the first ever mission to do so. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, the mission is attempting to determine the age and composition of the Moon’s unexplored region.
4. Quantum leap in computing
Of all the progress made in computing research in 2019, the biggest breakthrough was perhaps the realisation of quantum computing.
Right in the first month of 2019, technology giant IBM unveiled Q System One—the first quantum computer outside a research lab—bringing a rather abstract concept into the public imagination. Unlike the bits of information in computers we use, a quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, enabling an exponential rise in the amount of data it can process and store.
Further, a team of researchers from Australia and Singapore developed a quantum-powered machine that can accurately simulate future outcomes arising from different set of alternatives. Meanwhile, another study at Yale University showed that we can catch a qubit between the quantum jump and alter its outcomes. This was an exponential jump in fine-tuning the quantum systems as the outcomes need not be completely random and abrupt.
While other research also helped in conceptualising quantum drives with immense storage capacity, the biggest news was from Google. The search giant confirmed in October that it had achieved quantum supremacy. To put things in perspective, researchers at Google claim that the quantum computer solved in three minutes a problem that would have taken 10,000 years even for a supercomputer.
3. Revolutionary research in medical science
Medical researchers are always striving to push the envelope of human resilience and efficiency. The year 2019 saw progress on both these fronts, with the development of potential cures for multiple life-threatening diseases and gene-editing promising to be more effective than ever.
This year, twin drugs were developed for Ebola and were found to be effective in nearly 90% of the cases, making the seemingly incurable condition treatable. Researchers also discovered potential cures for bubble boy disease, a condition where babies are born without disease-fighting immune cells, for cystic fibrosis, a painful, debilitating lung disease, as well as for pancreatic cancer.
Moreover, after decades, HIV research finally yielded some fruitful results this year with patients positively responding to treatments. After a long gap of 12 years from the day the first patient was cured of HIV infection that causes AIDS, another patient was cured in March 2019. Researchers had been relentlessly trying to replicate the treatment that cured the infection for the first time in 2007.
Furthermore, using CRISPR gene-editing technology, scientists have found potential treatments for cancer patients, even those with whom the standard procedure was not successful. In October, researchers produced scientific evidence that new gene-editing technology has the potential to correct up to 89% of genetic defects like sickle cell anaemia.
2. Imaging the faraway invisible wonder
Named the top scientific breakthrough of 2019 by the journal Science, this incredible photograph of a black hole was taken using eight radio telescopes around the world to form a virtual instrument that is said to be the size of the Earth itself.
The first-ever image of a black hole, released on April 10 this year, was taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration team. The gravity of a black hole is so strong that even light cannot escape its pull, and to capture an image of something that does not emit light is no easy task.
EHT imaged the silhouette (or shadow) of a massive black hole called M87 which is located at the centre of a galaxy 55 million light-years from Earth. M87 has enormous mass—whopping 6500 million times the mass of the Sun. The image shows a ring of light coming from the gas falling into the event horizon (the boundary from beyond which nothing can escape) of the black hole.
1. Retracing the origins of humans
Humankind’s fascination with the question ‘Where did we come from?’ has persisted over centuries. Yet, some of the biggest breakthroughs in answering this question were made this year, starting with the discovery of a previously-unknown species of ancient humans. Named Homo luzonensis, this small-bodied bipedal species was discovered in the Philippines and is said to have lived on the island of Luzon 50,000 to 67,000 years ago.
In May, researchers deciphered a four-decade old mystery by identifying a 160,000-year-old human jawbone found in the Tibetian Plateau nearly 40 years ago. The fossil was of Denisovan, an enigmatic ancestor species of humans who ranged across Asia until some 50,000 years ago. The discovery—made despite the absence of DNA in the jaw—helped scientists understand this species better. In September, another group of researchers further refined the picture of Denisovans whose traces still linger in the DNA of a few modern humans.
In August, descriptions of a nearly 38-lakh-year-old remains of a skull belonging to a bipedal ancestor of humans baffled the world. This skull proved that two of our ancestor species—A. anamensis and A. afarensis—may have overlapped for at least 100,000 years. This evidence of the existence of these two of our ancestor species at a similar timescale busts the long-held belief that human evolution follows a single lineage, i.e. one species coming after the other.
In a first-of-its-kind attempt, scientists have generated an accurate facial representation of people from the Indus Valley Civilisation in October. Nnother important study showed that the ancestral homeland of every human alive today traces back to a region south of the Zambezi River in northern Botswana. Building on the previous genetic evolution studies, the researchers used ethnolinguistic and geographic frequency distribution data from the genomes of over 1000 southern Africans to trace back the origin of modern humans.
Exponential growth continues
India has also contributed immensely in all scientific domains over the past few years and is now only behind China and the US in terms of the number of published research studies. Building exponentially on the success of previous decades, scientists around the world have made immense contributions from improving our daily life to understanding the mysteries of the universe.
With so much exciting research pouring in from all corners of the world, it isn’t easy to even keep track of the incredible pace at which science is progressing. While we have tried to cover a few iconic annual scientific highlights in this article, there are thousands of other important discoveries, studies and achievements that shaped science in 2019.
And as yet another potential-filled year dawns on our planet, The Weather Channel India will keep you tuned in about all the exciting news, updates and breakthroughs from the world of science.
So for your daily dose of weather, environment, space and science stories, stay tuned to weather.com and stay curious!
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