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From the year of the cosmos to the year of Mars

On another front, scientists unveiled a novel technique that turns plastic waste into hydrocarbon fuels.
On another front, scientists unveiled a novel technique that turns plastic waste into hydrocarbon fuels.
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28 Dec 2019 05:12:13 GMT9
28 Dec 2019 05:12:13 GMT9

While there have been important developments in medicine and technology this past year, I think it is fair to say that, in science, 2019 was the year of the cosmos. 

Indeed, the year started with China successfully landing a spacecraft — with a rover — on the far side of the moon; an unprecedented and difficult achievement due to the challenges in communicating (via radio) with any probe behind the moon. The spacecraft and its rover have been functioning perfectly well throughout. 

But the most spectacular achievement in space this year was the first ever imaging of a black hole: A super monster with a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun and located 54 million light-years from our galaxy. I then (in April) explained in an Arab News article the multifaceted technical leaps that were needed for this incredible achievement (akin to taking a picture of an apple on the surface of the moon). While the excitement and amazement has now subsided, one must still hail the astounding work that was done by the international team of scientists: Combining signals from dozens of radio telescopes distributed over eight locations around the globe, analyzing 5 million gigabytes of data, requiring special supercomputers, and other such feats.

Staying in space, an unfortunate and sad setback occurred in September, when India’s second lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-2 (Chandrayaan-1 had very successfully operated around the moon from October 2008 to August 2009) crashed while attempting to land on the moon. India promised to redouble its efforts and to come back and succeed next time around.

Finally, in October, and as if to stamp the “year of the cosmos,” the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2019 was awarded to three astronomers “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos.” One (James Peebles) was for his seminal contributions in early-universe cosmology, and two others (Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz) for the first ever discovery (back in 1995) of a planet orbiting a sun-like star 50 light-years from us. Here, too, one must stress the technical difficulty of detecting the presence of a planet around a star: Indeed, stars so far away look like dots even in the largest telescopes, but they have surface areas 100 to 10,000 times larger than the planets that one aims to detect.

Medicine is another field that constantly makes important breakthroughs. One of the most important this year was the development of an effective drug for cystic fibrosis, which will make this hereditary disease a manageable chronic illness for most patients instead of a life-threatening or at least a life-shortening disease. So it was a very welcome development that a drug combination was approved for it in the US this year with successful results.

Similarly, and after a series of disappointments in the quest for an effective treatment of Ebola (the deadly virus), two drugs were tested this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and were found to greatly increase the patients’ chances of survival.

The field of genetics witnessed a number of important developments, some very exciting and others a bit alarming.

Nidhal Guessoum

Still in medicine, the field of genetics witnessed a number of important developments, some very exciting and others a bit alarming. 

In April, researchers reported the first usage of the now-famous CRISPR gene editing technique to correct human genes with the aim of treating some cancers in patients for whom regular treatments had proved unsuccessful.

Similarly, in February, medical scientists announced the first ever “in-body” human gene editing procedure, which modified the DNA of a patient with Hunter syndrome — a rare genetic disorder that affects boys almost exclusively and damages neurons, leading to impairments in the body and often the brain too.

On the alarming side, in January, echoing last year’s scandal of the Chinese doctor who had applied the CRISPR gene editing technique to twin human embryos (in an attempt, the doctor had explained, to protect them from the HIV susceptibility that they carried), scientists in China reported the creation of five identical, cloned, gene-edited monkeys. The expressed purpose was to study several medical diseases. Still, and while the ease and availability of the CRISPR technique was predicted to lead to many such cloning and gene editing works, in both humans and animals, the occurrence of more and more such cases is a worrisome development. 

Another application of genetics is in research on human evolution/history. Indeed, in March, genetic studies gave researchers supportive evidence that modern Homo sapiens first originated in South Africa more than 300,000 years ago, then traveled to East Africa and, from there, about 60,000 years ago, moved out of Africa. In October, similar genetic studies indicated that modern humans had appeared or dwelled in Botswana (also in Southern Africa) about 200,000 years ago.

And finally, in April, NASA released medical results from its “Twins Study” (recall that, from March 2015 to March 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year on the International Space Station while his twin Mark remained on Earth for comparison purposes). The results showed several long-lasting changes, including some alterations in the astronaut’s DNA and cognition capabilities.

On another front, scientists unveiled a novel technique that turns plastic waste into hydrocarbon fuels.

Nidhal Guessoum

In the field of technology, a major breakthrough was announced by Google — and immediately challenged by IBM: Quantum supremacy. This refers to the ability of a quantum computer to solve problems that “classical” computers practically cannot (requiring aeons), regardless of the usefulness of the problem or the solution. Indeed, Google announced that its “Sycamore” processor had performed a particular task in 200 seconds that the world’s best supercomputers would need 10,000 years to complete.

In a similar realm, a new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm named AlphaStar defeated professional players of StarCraft II, a complex real-time strategy game, in 10 rounds out of 11. AI programs have now defeated top human players in chess, go, and StarCraft II — the most complex strategy games out there.

In other areas of technology — and environment — researchers produced superconductivity (electricity flowing with zero resistance) at a temperature of 23 degrees Celsius below zero, a jump of about 50 C compared to the previous confirmed record. This required very high pressure, but it was a hugely impressive feat nonetheless. 

On another front, scientists unveiled a novel technique that turns plastic waste into hydrocarbon fuels — a very welcome and encouraging development, should it prove to be scalable.

And, while we are on environmental topics, we must note that atmospheric carbon dioxide, which causes global warming and climate change, was measured in May at 415 parts per million, the highest level for 2.5 million years. Similarly, in August, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded globally, at 0.95 C above the 20th century average. 

These developments do not bode well for our planet and our future. 

Looking ahead now, and to go back to the field of space exploration and discovery, 2020 will be the year of Mars, with the UAE, US and China each launching a probe to the Red Planet next July (during the optimal launch window). At least in our region, it will be the most exciting endeavor performed in many years, and we look forward to it and to its educational and scientific impact.

But, as always, science has taught us to expect unexpected discoveries and breakthroughs. Let us hope they will all be positive for humanity.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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