Covid-19 has dominated science news. But other stories mattered too
December 31, 2020
ON JANUARY 19, 2019, The Economist published an article on plans that were being developed for a rapid response to ‘Disease X’. The idea was to develop a technological platform that could be quickly adapted to the specifics of any pathogen still unknown, in order to create a new vaccine against it in a few months. One of the main approaches used genetic messenger molecules called mRNAs.
A year after the week, disease X appeared. Chinese officials have admitted to the world that the previous month doctors in Wuhan noticed illnesses caused by a new coronavirus. The preeminent science and technology story of 2020 has therefore been that of medical researchers struggling, first, to figure out how best to treat those who have contracted this virus and how to slow its spread, and then how to develop a vaccine against it. This led to the announcement of three successful vaccine candidates – manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech; Moderna, AstraZeneca and University of Oxford. The first two are, in effect, mRNA vaccines.
While covid-19 is preeminent in the stories we reported in 2020, it was by no means the only one of scientific and technological interest. And, in the long run, some of the others can be just as important, if not more.
The development of new energy technologies that could help curb global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, for example, continues at a rapid pace. Batteries good enough to relegate the internal combustion engine to the history books by demand rather than regulation are within reach (here, and also here). And the use of hydrogen as a means of storing and transporting energy, alongside electricity, is also supported (here, and also here).
The world of artificial intelligence is also changing rapidly. The first trading robots with legs appeared. Military planes may have AI pilots in the not too distant future. And the capabilities of machines to handle human languages are improving by leaps and bounds. The last year also saw the AI solution to a crucial problem in biology – how to predict how proteins fold into the correct shapes to do their jobs. This can be of great importance in the drug discovery process. In addition, quantum computing, still largely an experimental technology, has made tentative steps toward commercialization.
More speculatively, the search for extraterrestrial life continued in 2020 in ways that were both anticipated and unexpected. The long-planned path, which will materialize in February 2021, was to send a flotilla of spacecraft to Mars in July. One of them, an American rover called Perseverance, is designed to look for fossil signs of microbial activity. The unexpected way was the announcement in September of the discovery of a gas called phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. On Earth, the only known sources of phosphine are living organisms (some of which, admittedly, are industrial chemists), so this discovery has aroused enthusiasm among astrobiologists, although subsequent investigations have cast some skepticism on it. .
A little closer to home, but still in space, the Moon has been found to contain a lot more water (in the form of ice) than previously suspected. This makes the idea of installing bases there more plausible. And even closer to Earth, Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, launched its first manned mission, transporting two astronauts to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA, the US space agency.
Back on earth (or, …
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